Hundreds of thousands of children are being wrongly labelled as having 'special needs' – when their real problem is that they have been let down by poor teaching.
So says a damning Ofsted report, which claims that schools have wrongly identified as many as 750,000 children as having special education needs (SEN).
The report criticises some schools for having a 'culture of excuses' which automatically classes children as having special needs if they show signs that they are making slow progress.
Around 1.7million pupils in England were classed as having SEN in January – just over one in five.
But, says Ofsted, almost half of these have no special needs at all: they have simply not been taught to read and write properly.
It says that many pupils would not be identified as having special educational needs if schools focused on improving teaching and learning for all.
Inspectors, who say that the term 'special educational needs' is being used too widely, found that some local authorities appear to offer incentives to give such labels to children as some types of educational need bring in extra funds.
Exam results are also adjusted to take account of the number of pupils with special needs. This can have a 'positive influence' on their league table rankings, Ofsted found.
'Inspectors saw schools that identified pupils as having special needs when, in fact, their needs were no different from most other pupils,' says the report.
'They were under-achieving, but this was sometimes simply because teaching was not good enough and expectations of pupils were too low.
'A conclusion that may be drawn is that some pupils are being wrongly identified as having special needs and that relatively expensive additional provision is being used to make up for poor teaching and pastoral support.'
Pupils from poor backgrounds or who regularly play truant or who were disruptive were more likely to be given the label.
Janet Thompson, an Ofsted inspector and the report's author, said: ' 'We did find examples of young people identified as having behavioural, emotional and social difficulties who, if you unpicked the reasons for that, were actually around inability to read and write.'
But Brian Lamb, who last year carried out a review for the Government of parents' views of the SEN system, challenged Ofsted's claim that large numbers of children were being wrongly classed as needing special help.
Mr Lamb told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "As Ofsted shows itself, there is both over-identification in some areas and under-identification, so there's swings and roundabouts on that. I am not sure how they can be so precise that there are that many children being over-identified. I am sure some are, but it can't be that figure."
Alison Ryan, education policy adviser at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: "Ofsted's report makes for interesting reading, but there are some notable omissions, in particular the need for a greater emphasis on SEN in teachers' initial training and continuing professional development, and the impact of the current high-stakes accountability system on school decisions.
"Ofsted needs to do more than say what schools should do and identify 'poor practice'.
Has your child been registered special needs? Did you find it easy or difficult to have your child's needs identified?
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