The special needs system is open to abuse

Francis Gilbert's picture
Assessment of educational needs should be overhauled, as parents may be encouraging misdiagnosis to access resources

(This article was first published by The Guardian)

Plans to change the "special needs" system in schools will have a big impact upon teachers like me, as well as millions of pupils and their parents. That said, the system does need an overhaul.

Far too many pupils are judged as having "special educational needs" (SEN). Last year, an Ofsted investigation found that one in five pupils is judged as SEN – a whopping 1.7 million children – and suggested that possibly 450,000 had been misdiagnosed. The latest policy initiative is based on this report.

It's important to appreciate how the current system works. One of the problems is that SEN has become such an all-encompassing term that it's difficult to distinguish from "deserving" and "undeserving" cases. Under the 2001 Special Needs Code of Practice there are three main stages for a child who is suspected of having a "learning difficulty" that makes it difficult to keep up with peers. The first is called School Action; this is when the school or parents flag up a problem – whether it's problems with literacy, organisation or behaviour, etc. The school can then give the child more help such as in-class support or a laptop. If, after some time, this intervention isn't working, the pupil may move on to School Action Plus; typically outside agencies get involved then and the child might get more intensive assistance. However, if the parent/school may feel that a child has extreme special needs, such as a mental disability, they may opt to have a "statutory assessment" which is the first stage in having a Statement of Special Educational Needs. A statement is a serious matter and I don't think anyone is suggesting doing away with them; they are needed to help our most vulnerable children. In January 2011, some 224,000 (or 2.8%) pupils across all schools in England had statements of SEN, while there were more than 1.4 million pupils with SEN without statements, or about 18% of pupils across all schools.

The increasing numbers of pupils on School Action and School Action Plus do seem "dodgy"; in the past seven years, the numbers have increased by 4%. I suspect this is because many more teachers and parents, desperate to do their best for their charges, have got "wise" to the system. They realise there are extra resources, attention and privileges for SEN children, and so have pushed more strongly for an SEN diagnosis. Unfortunately, as Ofsted has noted, this has created inequalities and unfairness because children with clued-up parents have often been judged to have conditions like "dyslexia" when it's debatable whether they are sufferers.

Quackery, misdiagnosis and dissembling have crept in. For example, dyslexia has become a catch-all word in SEN diagnosis: it can mean a difficulty with spelling, or with reading; but some claim a child's entire perception of the world can be shaped by dyslexia. Such confusion has meant that profiteers have cashed in on school and parents' uncertainties, with a growing number of doctors prescribing drugs to "cure" pupils' lack of concentration, after following the advice of schools and parents. A 2010 Guardian investigation has found that the taxpayer is forking out £31m to pay for these drugs, while the root causes of the problem aren't being addressed.

So, yes, the SEN system does need an overhaul and, yes, hundreds of thousands of children do need to come off the register; however, this should mean a reallocation of cash rather than cutbacks. What is needed is more accurate assessment of our children so that if a child is poorly behaved, that's all they're treated for. At the moment, children who muck around are often judged as SEN but this doesn't improve their attitude, rather it gives them an excuse for staying as they are. The SEN label can be demotivating and demoralising for some children, encouraging a "victim" mentality.

Ultimately, our whole system needs an overhaul. Behind so many problems in our schools is the fact that school league tables and our obsession with exams mean that the child gets forgotten in the hunt for good results.
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Alan's picture
Wed, 16/05/2012 - 12:25

I'm not going to enter into an argument on whether dyslexia exists. There's some pretty strong evidence to suggest that it does and that some teachers aren't trained to identify it soon enough. There should be more focus on EYFS, preparing children for school, working with parents to break cycles of underattainment rather than passing the buck. I don't think it's fair to say parents are seeking out labels for privileges. There are conditions that teachers aren't familiar with e.g. those surrounding premature and a large gap in collaboration between health and education.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 16/05/2012 - 16:02

The TES cover story (4 May 2012, not available on line) highlighted the following problems with the present SEN system:

1 Misdiagnosis and overdiagnosis
2 Low expectations of pupils labelled SEN
3 In affluent areas the SEN label was used for specific difficulties while in less affluent schools "more children are diagnosed with behavioural, social and emotional difficulties, and moderate learning difficulties."
4 The SEN label was supposed to be a "temporary signal" which brought extra support. However, it could "stick for life".
5 League tables created "perverse incentives to over-identify children as having SEN" (this quote was from the SEN and Disability Green Paper).

The article asked whether the reforms would prevent the inappropriate labelling of disadvantaged children as SEN. It concluded that the real challenge lay outside the classroom - dealing with "improverished or troubled" home environments.

eJD8owE1's picture
Thu, 17/05/2012 - 06:45

" In affluent areas the SEN label was used for specific difficulties while in less affluent schools “more children are diagnosed with behavioural, social and emotional difficulties, and moderate learning difficulties.”"

Bang on. And there's a consequence to that: middle-class parents whose children are having difficulties at school are very keen to get involved in the assessment system, because they realise that diagnosis leads to resources. That may lead to some over-diagnosis, but that's inevitable. But parents with less knowledge of the system, and parents whose experiences of education haven't been positive, and parents who have had dealings with the social services system, tend to assume that the diagnosis is a judgement on them, and to be avoided. So affluent parents engage with the assessment system, even if their children don't ultimately need it; less affluent parents dis-engage from the assessment system, even if their children are in desperate need.

Guest's picture
Wed, 16/05/2012 - 16:35

Teachers in Finland are all trained to postgraduate level and have a better understanding of child development. In other countries schools employ educational psychologists to monitor children's progress instead of waiting to shut the door after the horse has bolted.

sarah.j.wall's picture
Wed, 16/05/2012 - 20:48

Why the surprise that 1 in 5 have SEN attribution? Why assume that an increase means over-diagnosis? Schools are factories, yet children are all different. Perhaps the professionals are simply getting better at diagnosing.

This article seems to suggest that there are deserving SEN children and undeserving SEN children. Do you have dyslexia or are you merely a fake, too lazy to learn your spellings?

Just because there might be one or two cases of abuse of the system, doesn't mean this is endemic. School is hard and for those in a compromised position (through dyslexia or auditory processing disorders or moderate deafness or anxiety issues or anger issues or for whatever reason) need extra help. Let's not begrudge it.

Guest's picture
Wed, 16/05/2012 - 21:25

Would have thought so long as children are making good progress that's all that matters. Shame SEN has become another political football.

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