Is this really a growing problem in our schools? For and against

Kate Fallon and Julia Douetil discuss the claim that SEN classification has expanded unneccessarily

Kate Fallon: Yes

When Mary Warnock produced her seminal report in 1978, focusing on children with special educational needs, she had no idea how phenomenal the consequences would be for children, parents and local authorities.

Warnock posited that children should have their difficulties assessed and described by all those who knew them best (initially teachers and parents), translated into "needs", with recommendations of appropriate strategies to help them to make progress.

Even the term "special educational needs" has its derivation with Warnock; previously children with a range of difficulties had been labelled according to a range of medical diagnoses which included the term "Educationally subnormal-moderate (ESN-M)" and "Educationally subnormal-severe (ESN-S)".

Unfortunately, descriptions of need have become hijacked as routes to additional resources, a far cry from what Warnock originally intended. The recent Ofsted report applauds the fact that the most vulnerable children are now identified at a very early age and receive appropriate provision relatively quickly. However, it expresses concern that the present system focuses too much upon how to access additional resources for children with statements and possibly over identifies children, maintaining that schools should be focusing more upon improving teaching and learning for all.

These comments will not surprise all those who work within the SEN field but the reasons for this are more complex than at first appears. First, the explosion of information, and access to that information, afforded to parents around particular developmental conditions, such as autism, dyslexia, ADHD, dyspraxia etc, has led to many teachers feeling overwhelmed by information on the children they are teaching and perceive that additional resources are required. Second, most local authorities operate some form of funding system whereby a school will receive more money if they have greater number of children with SEN.

Third, Ofsted itself will now not award the highest grades to a school during inspections unless the school can show that its children with SEN are making good progress. So the more children who are identified as having SEN in a school, the more likely a school to be able to access money and good ratings!

Ofsted's conclusions are correct in recommending that more focus should be placed upon improving teaching and learning for all, with teaching based upon sound assessment and a good knowledge of a range of teaching strategies within each classroom. However, the comments that the current system focuses too much on statements and how to get extra resources is somewhat disingenuous without a radical overhaul of how all resources are allocated to schools and how to help parents to have more confidence in all schools'abilities to educate their children appropriately.

Kate Fallon is an educational psychologist and General Secretary of the AEP

Julia Douetil: No

A serious challenge runs through this report, that too many children are "mis-labelled" SEN, when their difficulties are the result of poor initial teaching. On the one hand, this appears reasonable. The reports cites the over-representation of children in poverty among those with SEN, and a culture of low expectation which my experience in Reading Recovery backs up.

One of the first challenges of Reading Recovery has to overcome is the assumption "you can't expect our children to do as well as children elsewhere". Given a child who, after a year of formal literacy teaching cannot read his own name, has illiterate parents, a dysfunctional home, and innumerable strategies for avoiding literacy activity, the toughest challenge for the teacher is to expect this child to be successful.

Yet I am deeply uncomfortable with the sense that this report seems to want to put the blame for low attainment at the feet of class teachers. There are good reasons why, even in the best literacy programmes, some children may need something extra. It's the reverse of the elephant gun argument. Why do you have an elephant gun in Surrey? To scare off marauding elephants. But there are no marauding elephants in Surrey. My gun must work then.

The logic is, if the classroom programme is sufficiently well taught, then no child should fail. So if any child fails, then the classroom programme is not taught well enough. The evidence of Every Child a Reader is that very low-attaining children can be taken out of long-term special educational needs, given the right intervention. But it is a mistake to assume that this is a simple task. Too often, the report reveals, schools concentrated on whether or not children had support, rather than on whether that support enabled the child to make progress.

In times of economic austerity, cutting the SEN bill is a legitimate goal, but it is not fair to assume that this can be done by class teachers alone. The right kind of early intervention can reduce the long-term costs of SEN, if it is effectively designed, efficiently delivered and thoroughly monitored.

Julia Douetil is National Coordinator at the European Centre for Reading Recovery

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