Leading Article: A statement of the obvious

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CALL IT progress: nowadays, if a child spits at a teacher, tortures other pupils or cannot add, he or she will not be beaten but "statemented". Beating children is, of course, a terrible thing. But, as is so often the case, when a noun is turned into a verb there is a loss of intellectual rigour in the process. Statements of special educational need have become an industry in their own right. The Audit Commission reports today that 260,000 children have been drawn into its maw.

There are two perverse incentives at work here. One is financial: schools get more money for statemented pupils and so have an incentive to classify difficult ones in this way. The other is emotional, in that parents want something to blame if their child is not doing well or behaving badly. Thus a child who pulls pigtails is diagnosed as suffering Attention Deficit Disorder, and one who has trouble with maths is said to be dyspraxic.

In some cases, of course, the statementing process is necessary, but it is far too bureaucratic. It seems to be run entirely for the convenience of the officials and professionals who operate it, rather than in the interests of children. It is not the best way to assess the "needs" of individual children.

That said, however, the system cannot be junked. It is one of the few defences against the centrifugal tendencies of creeping selection in schools. All the other incentives are for schools to exclude less able and disruptive children - either at the admissions stage, or by disciplinary action, or by tolerating truancy. At least statementing encourages schools to hold on to these pupils, and to focus on their needs. But the process urgently needs to be reformed, not least because, as the Audit Commission points out, a finite amount of money is being spread increasingly thinly across a growing number of children with wildly varying degrees of need.