Pushy parents causing children to be misdiagnosed with special needs, research suggests

More than 1.2 million children in England are diagnosed as having special education needs, a figure experts say is misleading

Rachael Pells
Education Correspondent
Friday 24 February 2017 02:19
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Three in five teachers worry that resources are being diverted to those who do not genuinely need them
Three in five teachers worry that resources are being diverted to those who do not genuinely need them

Children are being misdiagnosed with special educational needs (SEN) due to pressure from pushy parents, new research suggests.

According to teachers, some parents want their children to be labelled as having learning difficulties such as dyslexia or attention deficit disorder (ADD), even if they do not have them, so that they receive more help and attention in the classroom and during exams.

As a result, pupils with genuine needs are being overlooked, the researchers for the GL Assessment report found.

More than 1.2 million children in England were classed as SEN last year – down from more than 1.3 million in 2015.

But a YouGov survey of more than 800 teachers and school leaders suggests the true proportion could be lower, as it is thought a high number of these children are being incorrectly labelled.

More than half (57 per cent) of teachers polled claimed there is a misdiagnosis among pupils, with a similar proportion of the belief pressure from parents has led to some school pupils being categorised as SEN unnecessarily.

Nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) thought some parents who have a child with a learning issue that could be addressed by a teacher are too quick to want a medical or psychological explanation.

And just over a third (38 per cent) agreed that some parents who push for their child to be recognised as having SEN do it to help them gain a competitive edge in tests and exams.

Children with disabilities or special educational needs can apply for adjustments to help them in exams, such as extra time to complete a paper.

Guidance published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) states that an exam candidate with ADD “has persistent difficulty concentrating and poor working memory”.

As a result, it suggests: “Supervised rest breaks and the use of a prompter, who may need to physically show him where on a page he had been working in order to restart his work, would be reasonable adjustments.”

According to the guidance, a child with dyslexia could need a coloured overlay, a word processor and 25 per cent extra time in exams.

The majority of respondents to the survey (72 per cent) said they believed some parents who want their child to be recognised with SEN genuinely believe their son or daughter has a problem, even if there is little evidence to support it.

And three in five (61 per cent) said they worry that some genuine SEN children do not get as much help as they need as resources are being diverted to those who do not really need it.

Lorraine Petersen, a special needs expert and former chief executive of National Association of Special Educational Needs, said she was not surprised by the findings.

“Most parents will work on the assumption that the quicker you assess why a child is having difficulties and give him or her a label, the faster you can get extra support,” she explained.

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“There may also be a sense of relief that comes with being able to ‘blame’ a diagnosed disorder. Parents may think people will be a lot less judgmental of a child’s behaviour – and their parenting skills – if they know the child has a label.”

Some parents, she pointed out, had the opposite problem and were in complete denial about the support their children needed and resisted having them on a SEN register.

But at the other extreme were parents who were looking for a label even though their child may not require one. “They feel a label will give the child and perhaps the family additional support that they may not get without it; access to benefits, for instance, or support with exams or a place in a specialist setting,” she said.

A study carried out last year found approximately two children in every Year 1 class will experience language disorder, or autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) severe enough to hinder their academic progress.

Department for Education data also suggests that many fewer than this are identified by schools as having difficulties, leading experts to estimate at least half of children with language difficulties miss out on the support needed.

Miranda Cooper, a former SEN teacher and education consultant for SEN Consultancy, said she had mixed feelings on the survey’s findings.

“A lot of the people I work with have really had to fight to get everything that their child needs,” she said.

“On the other hand, some parents with more able children might feel they are not getting what they need from school, and it might be the only way that school’s going to give them the attention that they need is by diagnosis.

“Even if there’s maybe not something actually wrong with them, a diagnosis fits them into a box which means they can get that extra help.”

“Parents are naturally going to want to do everything they possibly can to help their son or daughter do well.”

Greg Watson, chief executive of GL Assessment, added: “Few things are more difficult for a teacher to deal with than a frustrated parent who cannot understand why their child is not doing as well at school as the parent feels they should.

“Parents naturally want to know why. But the fact is that a lot of issues children present are best addressed in the classroom, not in the clinic, they don’t necessarily need a label and their condition may even be temporary.

“A SEN diagnosis is often about finding the one thing which is holding back a child who might otherwise do much better, rather than identifying a child with a broad difficulty in learning.”

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