What Does Special Educational Needs Mean Anyway?

He’s Got SEN. He’s Not Tall Enough to Punch Me.

Ofsted has produced a report saying that “Special Educational Needs” is being over-identified. Ofsted reckons that many of the children labelled as having SEN just need better teaching, or pastoral support.

Amazingly, 1.7 million children – more than a fifth of all
school-children – have been diagnosed as having “special educational needs”.

Within that, a small number – about 3 percent of the total – are “statemented”. Those are the children with real extreme difficulties, who are identified via a complicated process involving the local authority.

But 97 percent of the SEN children don’t have those “statements”. They just have “special needs”. More than half of the SEN children are identified as such by schools.

Clearly, there can be adverse impacts on a child who is identified as having “special needs” when actually they’re just not behaving properly or haven’t been taught to read. The confidence of such a child could be destroyed by such a diagnosis, or conversely, it could create a sense of entitlement and encourage the child not to work at solving their problems.

The Ofsted report accused schools of overidentifying SEN:

We felt that schools and teachers were well intentioned but they were over-diagnosing the problems – teachers in the classroom weren’t confident they could deal with the problems.

We feel teachers and schools need to have more confidence themselves about looking at what are barriers to learning.

Not surprisingly, teaching unions hit back. The NUT General Secretary 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 both insulting and wrong.

It seems that both Ofsted and the unions are completely missing the point. What on earth does Special Educational Needs mean? It is blindingly clear from the comments above that neither Ofsted nor the unions really have any idea.

The case of the “statemented” special needs children is fairly clear. There are clear rules that determine when a child falls into this category – and these children obviously need much more than just normal schooling and support.

But what about that other 97 percent? What does it mean to say that a child has SEN?

Some have “behavioural problems”. Some have “emotional problems”. Some can’t read as they should be able to. Some are harming themselves.

Schools get extra money for SEN children – giving them a clear incentive to “over-diagnose”. And over-diagnosis can also improve a school’s position in league tables.

But that debate is missing the point. How can you “diagnose” something that is so ill-defined? How much respect would you have for a doctor whose diagnosis of you was simply that you were “ill”? The current definition of SEN is so vague that a medical diagnosis of “ill” would be about as precise.

And how can you ever have a serious debate about whether schools are over-diagnosing SEN when nobody really knows what constitutes SEN, and the “diagnosis” is basically a matter of opinion?

The Children’s Minister, Liberal Democrat Sarah Teather, wants to overhaul the system. But that overhaul is focussed on the children with severe special needs, and on whether they should be taught in mainstream schools or not.

Nobody seems to be asking the fundamental and first question: what does “Special Needs” mean and what is the purpose of the Special Needs system?