Half of special needs children misdiagnosed

Ofsted review says many pupils diagnosed as having special educational needs require better teaching or pastoral care

As many as half of all the children identified as having special educational needs are wrongly diagnosed and simply need better teaching or pastoral care instead, a report published today finds.

About 1.7 million schoolchildren in England are regarded as having some form of special needs, ranging from physical disability to emotional problems.

While the number with the most severe challenges has gone down since 2003, the number identified as having milder problems has risen from 14% to 18% of all pupils in England in the past seven years.

The Ofsted review of special needs provision recommended that schools should stop identifying children as having special educational needs (SEN) when they simply needed better teaching and pastoral support.

In one primary school visited by inspectors, where a large number of service families had children, Ofsted said pupils were “inappropriately” identified as having special needs because their fathers had been deployed to Afghanistan.

The report said: “This group was … vulnerable to underachievement because their fathers were all serving in Afghanistan. However, although these pupils had additional needs for a period of time, this should not have required special educational needs to have been identified.”

Ofsted also visited a high school which identified all year 11 students – 15-16-year-olds – who were at risk of falling short of their expected GCSE grades as having special educational needs. All the students got additional mentoring from senior staff.

“This led to a doubling of the numbers of such pupils between years 10 and 11,” the report said. While the additional support was valuable for many of them, the identification of special educational needs was “inappropriate”.

Ofsted found that about half the schools and nursery providers visited used low attainment and relatively slow progress as their principal indicators of SEN. In nearly a fifth of these cases very little further assessment took place.

Inspectors also saw some schools that identified pupils as having special needs when their requirements were no different from those of most others.

They were underachieving, but this was sometimes simply because the school’s mainstream provision was not good enough, and expectations for them were too low.

The report said: “Some pupils are being wrongly identified as having special educational needs and … relatively expensive additional provision is being used to make up for poor day-to-day teaching and pastoral support. This can dilute the focus on overall school improvement and divert attention from those who do need a range of specialist support.”

In areas where school funding was linked to the proportion of children with special needs, this provided an “obvious motivation for schools to identify more such children”, the review said.

Some schools Ofsted visited believed that identifying more pupils with SEN could boost a school’s contextual value-added score, a measure of how much pupils are improving which takes into account the challenges they face.

Pupils with special needs or a disability are disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds, much more likely to be absent or excluded from school and achieve less than other children both at a given age and in terms of their progress over time, the report noted.

The number of pupils with a statement, given to those children who require intensive support, has declined slightly from 3% to 2.7% since 2003. But the proportion of those identified as requiring “school action”, which means they get extra help such as tuition in small groups, has risen.

Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector, said: “With over one in five children of school age in England identified as having SEN, it is vitally important that both the way they are identified, and the support they receive, work in the best interests of the children involved.

“Higher expectations of all children, and better teaching and learning, would lead to fewer children being identified as having special educational needs.”

Parents told inspectors that under the current system they needed to “fight for the rights” of their children.

Often they saw an SEN statement as a guarantee of additional support for their child. But inspectors found that the identification of a special need or disability did not reliably lead to appropriate support for the child concerned. The review team found that children with similar needs were not being treated similarly and appropriately, and parents’ perception of inconsistency was well-founded.

Claire Ryan, a mother of three children with autism, said she had fought for her children to be properly diagnosed and supported in school. “[My daughter] has got a specific learning difficulty, although she is very bright. I have been telling the school since she was in the infants, I think she is dyslexic.

“It was not until she was in year five – 10 years old – that she was diagnosed. The report says parents are fighting for statements to ensure their child’s future – that is exactly what I’ve done. If teaching was better and schools understood and were willing to work with parents, we could get these things into place at such an early age.”

Across education, health services and social care, assessments were different and the thresholds for securing additional support were at widely varying levels. In some cases, repeated and different assessments of a child threw up a time-consuming obstacle to progress rather than a way for effective support to be provided, the report said.

Ministers launched a review of special needs provision last week to look at how to ensure parents can send a child with SEN to their preferred choice of school. A green paper to be published in autumn will aim to overhaul the system and look at early assessment, funding and family support as well as school choice.

The children’s minister, Sarah Teather, said yesterday: “Children with SEN and disabilities should have the provision they need to succeed and parents should not feel they have to battle the system to get help. Improving diagnosis and assessment will be central to our commitment to overhaul the system to ensure families get the appropriate support.”

Jolanta Lasota, chief executive of TreeHouse, the autism education charity, said families often faced “immense barriers” when trying to access services and support. “One of these barriers is getting that initial statement of SEN. But a statement alone is not enough and at TreeHouse we are calling for a greater understanding of special needs such as autism and more collaboration with young people and their families to deliver effective services which really support the family involved.”Ed Balls, the shadow education secretary, said: “The key to success is investment in good teaching and support. So I hope the present government will maintain the same level of funding and support for training teachers and support staff to ensure that children with SEN continue to remain a priority and that the focus on how best to maximise children’s development and learning is maintained.”