Leading article: Children in need

Related Topics

The latest Ofsted report paints an alarming picture of what is happening in our schools. The education watchdog claims to have uncovered a widespread over-diagnosis of children with special educational needs, with at least 475,000 pupils wrongly placed in this category. Ofsted says this fixation is distorting teaching priorities and contributing to a culture of low expectations in the classroom.

Still worse, the report suggests that some schools have been wrongly classifying children as a means of boosting their league-table performance and unlocking additional resources from local government.

Ofsted's conclusions have not gone down well with the teaching profession and parts of the educational establishment. The National Union of Teachers has vehemently rejected the the report, calling it "insulting and wrong". Brian Lamb, who examined the special-needs system for the previous government, also questions Ofsted's conclusions, suggesting that schools have simply become better at identifying children with problems, from autism to mild deafness.

In fairness to schools, there is a considerable grey area when it comes to children with particular educational requirements. It is often hard to distinguish between a child who has a genuine learning difficulty and a regular pupil who is badly affected by an unstable home life.

And there is no evidence that the increase in special needs designations is being driven entirely by schools attempting to manipulate the system. Many schools bear the costs of funding the additional help required by special-needs children themselves. That said, there does seem to have been over-diagnosis in recent years. And there is certainly a wide variation in the definition of special needs in different schools across the country.

The special-needs system should be tightened up and simplified, with clearer guidelines handed down to schools on which pupils should qualify for the status. There should also be more focus in schools on the outcomes of special-needs designation, rather than the classification itself. The test of whether the system is working lies in whether the extra resources are helping a child to progress relative to where they would have been without the additional help.

At the extreme end of the spectrum, existing restrictions need to be lifted. It is a disgrace that at the moment so many parents of severely disabled children are forced to fight with local councils to acquire a "statement" of their child's needs which enables them to get the help they require.

Some have suggested that this report provides cover for education spending cuts. In fact, the opposite is true. Ofsted says children classified as having special needs often simply need better teaching and pastoral support. Yet this is an area of the education budget that is already under pressure. The Coalition Government is cutting budgets for one-to-one tuition. That is likely to mean less money for teaching assistants, who provide the kind of supplementary pastoral care that Ofsted is keen on. And these findings bolster the case for the Liberal Democrats' "pupil premium", which would ensure that extra resources follow children from poorer backgrounds through the education system. One statistic that is not in doubt is that pupils presently classified as having special needs are disproportionately from disadvantaged homes.

In the end, this is an argument about classification. No one disputes that a minority of children, whether or not they should be designated as having special needs, require extra attention and a tailored approach to their education. The challenge facing schools and ministers alike is to put the structures and resources in place to ensure that they get it.

* This article originally reported the numbers of children wrongly classed as having 'special needs' as totalling at least 700,000. This figure arose from ambiguities in the OFSTED report, and the accompanying press briefing. In the light of OFSTED's answer to a Parliamentary Question on this issue, it transpires that the OFSTED report's findings were that half of children identified for 'School Action' under the Special Educational Needs [SEN] umbrella, were possibly wrongly classified by schools, but that there was no widespread mis-classification of children identified under the SEN umbrella as School Action Plus. The figures have been altered accordingly in this article.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

An unelectable extremist who hijacked their party has already served as prime minister – her name was Margaret Thatcher

Jacques Peretti

I don't blame parents who move to get their child into a good school

Chris Blackhurst
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent