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Special educational needs: Case studies

14 September 10 16:45

Views and experiences from a headteacher, a parent and special educational needs (SEN) specialists as the schools watchdog, Ofsted, suggests thousands of pupils are being wrongly labelled as having SEN.

Tony Murray, St Bede's primary school, Basingstoke

Tony Murray, the head of a primary school where about 30% of the children have special educational needs, thinks Ofsted is being unfair in saying schools over-identify SEN.

"As far as it's possible, you try to avoid labelling children, because once you've labelled a child they carry it with them," he says.

"You need to be very careful, for example, making sure there's evidence that a child is dyslexic - so it's proceed with caution.

"But on the other hand, there have been cases where young adults look back on their school career and say 'I wasn't diagnosed' and have subsequently sued schools, so you try to be as accurate as you can."

Mr Murray says some special educational needs are "quite a grey area".

Sometimes what appears to one problem can turn out to be another - what looks like a learning difficulty might turn out to be a problem at home, he says.

Some needs are obvious, but others are "very subtle" he says, "sometimes it can be emotional things hiding other difficulties - you might see a lack of confidence or a child who is afraid of taking risks, but sometimes those problems can mask other problems."

He says that even if children have statements of special needs requirements, in his area, that does not necessarily mean extra funding.

The school provides, from its own budget, a teaching assistant to support two children with Downs' Syndrome, which means less help for other children.

While Mr Murray fully supports the policy of trying to include , where possible, children with severe SEN in mainstream schools, he says it can be a "two-edged sword".

"Our other children get the chance to live alongside children with disabilities, but the downside is it can be a drain on resources."

Mother Christine Grainger says the system is tough

Christine Grainger, a mother from Surrey, says navigating the system on behalf of children with special needs is difficult and time-consuming.

Christine's 11-year-old son Dean has dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and she has had a battle to get the specialist teaching he needed.

At the end of his reception year, she was told Dean had problems and was being put on the SEN register.

When he was eventually given a statement saying he needed 20 hours of support, Christine was told the school did not have the specialist staff required to support him and was asked to find a different school.

"First of all Dean didn't want to leave his school because he'd made some special friends and it was also trying to find a school that would meet all of Dean's needs.

"We found we couldn't just take him to any school, I had to try and find a school that would accept him with all the problems that he's got."

Family strain

Christine says the problems faced by Dean, who is now at secondary school, have put the whole family under strain.

"We have to live with Dean on a day-to-day basis. He has mood swings where he thinks that he's never going to get a job because he can't do a certain thing.

"Sometimes he can be withdrawn because he's been frustrated by what's gone on at school and he doesn't want to tell anybody because he thinks that he's going to be made to feel stupid."

Christine says trying to keep on top of the system is very challenging, especially as she is also working full-time.

"It can take a lot of your time up. The system is never made easy - the paperwork and the amount you have to keep, the reports you have to keep and you've got to be on the ball and check that you've sent everything that you should have sent."

SEN assistant says too many pupils are labelled

Graham from Northumberland says: "My partner is a special educational needs assistant who has specialised in autism for over 10 years. Over recent years she has said that there has been an serious increase in children labelled with SEN in order to mask other problems."

She says that a great many of the behavioural problems are due, in her professional opinion, to the following main areas:

1) Teachers not being able to cope and using the label to obtain additional funding and support - it makes their lives easier.

2) Bad parenting - a) where both parents work and it is easier to give in to children rather than bring them up with boundaries and b) where parents want to use the label and try to get a statement. This can then open the doors then to additional benefits - some of which are mind blowing.

She says that in many such cases she turns the child around by merely applying boundaries and sticking to them - something that both parents and teachers should do anyway. She says some children have never been told "no."

Former SEN coordinator says definitions not clear

Jill Corfield, was a special needs coordinator in a school for eight years, and is now a senior lecturer at Winchester University.

"One of the issues with identification is that it's not absolutely clear what constitutes an SEN.

"For example, if you are a wheelchair user, you might not have a special educational need, but you would still go on the SEN register because you've got a physical impairment.

"There's a category called behavioural, emotional and social difficulties, that can include children who have behavioural problems, children who are withdrawn, or children who have suffered a bereavement. Some children may be considered to have SEN under these circumstances whilst others may not."

"But you go into teaching because you want to do the best for the children, and if the best is that they go on the SEN register because that alerts teachers and parents and they may get extra support, then you do that."

Mrs Corfield also says trainee teachers learn about identifying SEN on the job, as part of their teaching practice, "but schools are very busy places so it doesn't always happen to an adequate degree".

She says she can see some parents have been dubbed "warrior parents" by The Lamb Inquiry in 2009.

"I can empathise how parents feel that is the only way they can get the best for their child. They've had to fight the system."

But she believes that when issues such as those in the Ofsted report are highlighted in the media, "the voices that are heard are perhaps those of extremes of either end".

"For the majority of children, in my experience, parents and teachers want to work together and that actually happens and I think that, broadly speaking, most children, get the support that enables them to progress."

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