More than 700,000 children in England listed as having special educational needs would not need extra help if they had better teachers, a new report says today.
The study, from Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, says nearly half the schools in the country are classifying pupils as in need of extra support unnecessarily.
In one school, all the pupils at risk of failing to get their target grades at GCSE were listed as having special needs so they were given extra mentoring for the exams. Ofsted described the action as "inappropriate".
In all, 1.7 million children in England are identified as having special educational needs. The vast majority come from disadvantaged homes. In three per cent of cases (250,550), the need is obvious and acute, such as blindness or deafness, and they receive the help they need speedily.
However, Ofsted cites a growing trend among schools to pencil pupils in for extra support. The numbers said to need less intensive support have soared while the school population has declined – from 1.16 million to 1.47 million (or from 14 per cent to 18.2 per cent of the school population) in the past eight years.
Today's review of special education provision recommends: "Schools should stop identifying pupils as having special educational needs when they simply need better teaching and pastoral support." It adds: "As many as half of all the pupils identified for school action (special needs provision) would not be identified as having special educational needs if schools focused on improving teaching and learning for all – with individual goals for improvement."
Half the schools and nurseries surveyed used low attainment in the three Rs and slow progress at school as the main means of identifying whether a child needed specialist help. The study cited two reasons which could prompt schools into claiming more pupils needed extra help.
First, some schools felt it could boost their rankings in performance league tables. In addition to giving A-level and GCSE results, these also give schools a "contextual value added" score. For example, if you can prove that you have made great strides in improving the performance of pupils with special needs, you get a higher ranking.
"This provided an incentive for higher levels of pupils to be identified as having special educational needs.," said the report. However, it sometimes had a downside in that it lowered the expectations of those pupils labelled as having special educational needs – and they fared worse in exams.
The second benefit to schools came in local council areas where special-needs funding was decided on a formula based on the number of special-needs youngsters in each individual school. "This gave an obvious motivation for schools to identify more such children," it added.
The report also came to the conclusion that the allocation of special needs funding to those children who did merit it was "unfair".
"Those who are able to make sense of it have quicker and greater access to resources and support," it said.
Christine Gilbert, chief executive of Ofsted and chief schools inspector, said: "We found that schools are identifying pupils as having special educational needs when they just need better teaching and pastoral support.
"If they had been identified better in the first place, their needs wouldn't be so acute later on. More attention needs to be given to identification."
She added that there was a "poor evaluation at all sorts of levels of pupils' needs".
"With over one in five children of school age in England identified as having special educational needs, 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 chilren, and better teaching and learning, would lead to fewer children being identified as having special educational needs."
The review urges schools to analyse the effectiveness of its teaching – rather than put in for extra support – when a child falls behind in class.
It coincides with an announcement by Children's Minister Sarah Teather that the Coalition Government is launching a Green Paper to review special needs provision in school.
Ms Gilbert said she hoped the findings from the report would play a key role in the review.
The review said that there was no one particular recommended setting for teaching special-needs pupils. Some could flourish in mainstream schools while others benefited from being taught in special schools.
The number of places in special needs schools had declined by six per cent in a decade – compared with an overall four per cent decline in the school population as a whole.
Responding to the review, Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "Teachers do a great job in often very difficult circumstances to meet the needs of all their pupils and for Ofsted to suggest otherwise is insulting and wrong."
She warned that sometimes the national curriculum itself could act as a barrier to pupils' learning.
Case studies: 'Inappropriate' actions uncovered by Ofsted
The primary school
Typical of the cases uncovered by Ofsted was one at a school with large numbers of children from armed-services families.
All their fathers were serving in Afghanistan with the result that their performance at school slumped. The school's reaction was to declare all the children as having special educational needs. "The school was very clear about why it had identified the pupils, the resulting additional support and monitoring were well-matched to their needs and involved the army welfare service effectively," says the report.
However, Ofsted described the school's action as "inappropriate". "Although these pupils had additional needs for a period of time, this should not have required special educational needs to have been identified," the report said.
In other words, these were not special needs pupils. Their short-term needs should have met within the pastoral support system of the school.
The secondary school
Less justifiable, perhaps, was the case of a secondary school that identified all the pupils who were at risk of not achieving their expected grades at GCSE as having special needs.
As a result, they were given additional mentoring in the run-up to the exam by senior staff at the school.
Ofsted said: "While the additional support was valuable for many of the young people (it did improve their exam performance), the identification of these students as having 'special educational needs' was inappropriate."
In other words, they did not have special needs. Their teachers should have been able to coax a better exam performance out of them.
Ofsted poses the question whether the designating of pupils such as these as having special educational needs matters – especially in view of the fact it enhanced their performance.
The answer, it said, is "yes" if it means that the standard offer of education at the school is "insufficiently adapted for frequently found needs".