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Daily View: Special needs education

Clare Spencer | 10:50 UK time, Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Primary school children

Commentators discuss special needs education after an Ofsted report found thousands of pupils are being wrongly labelled as having special educational needs when all they require is better teaching and support.

Alice Thomson argues in the Times [subscription required] that the figures show that some people need a more practical education system:

"The main reason so many pupils are on special needs is that the British education system forces them to conform to a narrow, inflexible model. Children all have to reach the same milestones and be taught in the same way. They are expected to strive to reach universities when many would prefer to be driving a tractor or operating a lathe. If they become disobedient, disruptive or despondent they are labelled SEN. What we need is a range of different educational establishments to cater for children across the spectrum."

In the Daily Mail ex-special needs teacher Tom Bukard calls the special needs industry a "gigantic con" allowed to happen by schools being allowed to diagnose educational needs:

"The cause of so much of this mayhem is the 1980 Education Act, which massively widened the scope of special needs. Before then, pupils could only be diagnosed as having special needs if they were assessed by a medical practitioner and were shown to have an identifiable medical problem, often even before they reached school. As a result of these strict criteria, only about 2 per cent of pupils were classified as special needs.
"But the 1980 legislation changed all that. From that moment, all local education authorities were given the duty to provide pupils with the schooling 'suitable to their needs' - a catch-all term so wide and so meaningless as to encourage indiscriminate diagnoses by the schools themselves.
"The result has been the massive jump over the past 30 years to the ludicrous situation today where 20 per cent of British schoolchildren are said to have special needs. What is really at the root of this crisis is the inadequacy of too much primary school teaching, particularly in the basics of the English language."

In the Guardian head teacher Jo Shuter defends special needs provision, which she says covers a huge scale of different students, with emotional and home problems as well as narrower educational needs:

"The code of practice states: 'Children have special educational needs if they have a learning difficulty which calls for special educational provision to be made for them.'
"Young people in our schools, particularly challenging inner-city schools, do need special educational provision to liberate them from the constraints with which their world attempts to strap them down.
"Schools have a duty to provide these young people with the tools to enable them to break free from these constraints, to drive up self esteem, aspiration and expectation, and to take their rightful place at the table of learning."

The Independent's editorial says the report shows more, not less, funding is needed:

"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 Times' School Gate blog Sarah Ebner urges [subscription required] that the children with genuine special needs are remembered and points out that the report says they are being underserved:

"One of the interesting things about the new report is that it points out that the number of children diagnosed with the most severe challenges has actually gone done since 2003. I don't know why this is, but I hope it's not because parents are having even more difficult problems getting a diagnosis. Some children seriously need help. I hope there aren't any over-reactions to this report which may stop that happening."

Links in full

Alice Thomson | Times | We need technicians, not middle managers
Jo Shuter | Guardian | 'Special' education comes in many different guises
Independent | Children in need
Tom Bukard | Daily Mail | The special needs industry is a gigantic con. What pupils really need is to be taught properly
Daily Mail | Excuses culture that betrays our children
Sarah Ebner | Times | Special needs - don't forget the thousands of children who genuinely do need help

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