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Ofsted special needs report 'too simplistic'

By Kris Jepson

Updated on 14 September 2010

Unions react angrily as a damning Ofsted report accuses teachers of labelling too many students as "special educational needs" when it says all they need is improved teaching. But one mother tells Channel 4 News how the system has failed her son and his school.

Special needs: Tens of thousands of schoolchildren in England are being wrongly labelled as having special educational needs

The report, published today, claims widespread weaknesses exist in the quality of provision for children with special educational needs in England, with many pupils put into the category because of poor teaching.

The education watchdog's report says good quality provision coupled with effective identification of children with special educational needs is "not common".

Ofsted claims as many as half of the special needs pupils in School Action, the lowest SEN category, would not be identified as having these needs if teaching and learning improved in schools with individual goals for improvement.

However, teaching unions have reacted angrily to the report, warning it is "unacceptable to scapegoat teachers".

Ofsted inspectors examined provision for children aged up to 19, carrying out 345 case studies in 22 local authorities, incuding 228 nurseries, schools and colleges.

The report said too frequently the agencies focused simply on whether a service was being provided rather than whether it was effective.

It added that concerns of parents over inconsistencies in identifying special educational needs were "well-founded".

'The system failed the school and Oliver'
Nine-year-old Oliver Campbell, from Essex got his statement of special educational needs four years ago and his mother is fighting for him to be sent to a specialist school where he will recieve one-to-one tuition in a speech and language unit. His mother, Carmel Campbell told Channel 4 News that the system failed the school and Oliver.

She said: "It just seems as a parent you assume people in authority are telling you the right thing. You talk to people in the LEA (local education authority), but they don't seem to be talking to each other. The whole system is very confusing. The only reason we've made progress now is because we had to pay ourselves to get private assessments for Oli.

"To get a statement in the first place is hard - they're like gold-dust. As far as I'm concerned the LEA failed him because they didn't take up on anything we told them. Not the school, they were amazing and supportive, but the system failed the school - it needed specialist help and it just wasn't available.

"Oli was diagnosed with global development delay, but actually in some of his tests he scored average points, so he couldn't have had that. But this wasn't picked up by the LEA. It turned out he actually had a severe speech and language disorder. He wasn't understanding a lot in class. The things they tried at school to help him wouldn't work, because he was wrongly diagnosed.

"I think if the system had been less confusing at all levels and if the LEA had looked into what his needs actually were - their educational psychologists, speech and language therapists coming in and seeing him, it may have been different.

"As it was we had to pay for at least four different private assessments, which cost between £1,000 to £1,500 per report, just to get a proper diagnosis. We now know he has the speech and language disorder, but he's been held back a year, and every year that goes by the education gap is widening."

Ofsted chief inspector Christine Gilbert said: "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 children, and better teaching and learning, would lead to fewer children being identified as having special educational needs.

"For those children with complex and severe special needs, schools often need the help of health and social care services.

"All these services should be focused on the quality of what they are doing, and how well young people are doing as a result. At the moment too much effort is going into simply checking that extra services are being provided."

Children in special educational needs
 1.7 million school-age children, which is one in five pupils in England, are identified as having special educational needs.
 Pupils with a statement of special educational needs has decreased from 3 per cent to 2.7 per cent since 2003.
 Children identified as needing less intensive additional support, known as School Action and School Action Plus has increased from 14 per cent in 2003 to 18.2 per cent in 2010.

'Scapegoating teachers'
Teaching unions reacted furiously to Ofsted's conclusion. Chris Keates, general secretary of teachers' union NASUWT, said: "It is unacceptable to scapegoat teachers for the variability in identifying pupils with SEN and ensuring their complex needs are met.

"High quality health and social care services are needed to remove barriers to learning and support pupils with complex and severe special needs.

"However, the looming cuts to children's services proposed by the coalition government will drastically affect the ability of children with SEN to receive the support they are entitled to."

'Ofsted report has wrongly blamed schools and teachers'
Mother and a special educational needs campaigner Julie Maynard told Channel 4 News that the Ofsted report is too simplistic and that it is politicians to blame for the problem, not the teachers.

She said: "I'm concerned because schools have merely been following government policy that they should broaden what should be classified as special educational needs. Removing Barriers to Achievement - that's the policy that has resulted in a confusing regime.
"We accept that there are children at times in education who may have difficulties with some aspects of the curriculum, but that doesn't constitute special educational needs.
"Children who come in from poverty or challenging family circumstances, who have social reasons for failing to excel in education, but they are not necessarily special educational needs. However, the previous government decided to categorise special educational needs with another group of children they classified as additional needs.
"So the question now is what constitutes special educational needs?"
"Ofsted can't blame schools for that. Ofsted has wrongly blamed schools, because the teachers are merely following current government policy, albeit from the previous administration.  

"The problem is the government also removed the necessity to ring-fence funding for children with clearly identified special educational needs. The current government were well aware of these problems and have done nothing to address it. The fact is the Conservative party reneged on its promises to undertake a review of the system and instead proposed a Green paper.

"How can Ofsted say half-a-million children are misdiagnosed as special educational needs? Ofsted's claim is a guestimate at best - no way have they analysed 1.7 million individual educational plans. It is a random sample that has come up with a mean figure and resulted in this report. Ofsted's conclusion is so simplistic and generic."

Lorraine Petersen, a former headteacher and chief executive of the special needs organisation Nasen told Channel 4 News that coverage of the report had missed other key findings.

"I do think it is really unfortunate that this report, which has got some really really hardhitting issues in it - this is the one bit that has actually got into the press," she said.

"We have to remember there are still much larger numbers of children who have been identified with special needs who are not getting the provision that they are entitled to either."

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "It is nonsense to say that 'simply' improving teaching and pastoral support would address the issues around SEN in schools.

"The fact is that more young people today bring behavioural and emotional issues into school and need intensive, often one-on-one, help inside and outside the classroom.

"Teachers are not social workers. To fully support these young people, schools require access to trained psychologists and other professionals, which is too often in short supply."

'It's another cut isn't it?'
One former special needs teacher, who did not want to be named, told Channel 4 News the Ofsted report is insulting to teachers.

She said: "They are just doing it because they know special needs attaches money and they don't want to be paying out on special needs budgets so that's another cut isn't it?

"Is it not that we're getting better at diagnosing children with special needs, not that the teaching is worse?

"And what about the children who can't make these gains, because the intellect just isn't there? It's a cheek!"

Children's Minister Sarah Teather had argued for a Green paper on the special needs provision system. She said: "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 at the right time."

Shadow Children and Education Secretary Ed Balls who promoted "inclusion" during his stint as education secretary, whereby special needs children were placed into mainstream schools as much as possible, said: "The key to success is investment in good teaching and support.

"So I hope that 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."

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