The special needs system is open to abuse

Assessment of educational needs should be overhauled, as parents may be encouraging misdiagnosis to access resources

(This article was first published by The Guardian)

Plans to change the “special needs” system in schools will have a big impact upon teachers like me, as well as millions of pupils and their parents. That said, the system does need an overhaul.

Far too many pupils are judged as having “special educational needs” (SEN). Last year, an Ofsted investigation found that one in five pupils is judged as SEN – a whopping 1.7 million children – and suggested that possibly 450,000 had been misdiagnosed. The latest policy initiative is based on this report.

It’s important to appreciate how the current system works. One of the problems is that SEN has become such an all-encompassing term that it’s difficult to distinguish from “deserving” and “undeserving” cases. Under the 2001 Special Needs Code of Practice there are three main stages for a child who is suspected of having a “learning difficulty” that makes it difficult to keep up with peers. The first is called School Action; this is when the school or parents flag up a problem – whether it’s problems with literacy, organisation or behaviour, etc. The school can then give the child more help such as in-class support or a laptop. If, after some time, this intervention isn’t working, the pupil may move on to School Action Plus; typically outside agencies get involved then and the child might get more intensive assistance. However, if the parent/school may feel that a child has extreme special needs, such as a mental disability, they may opt to have a “statutory assessment” which is the first stage in having a Statement of Special Educational Needs. A statement is a serious matter and I don’t think anyone is suggesting doing away with them; they are needed to help our most vulnerable children. In January 2011, some 224,000 (or 2.8%) pupils across all schools in England had statements of SEN, while there were more than 1.4 million pupils with SEN without statements, or about 18% of pupils across all schools.

The increasing numbers of pupils on School Action and School Action Plus do seem “dodgy”; in the past seven years, the numbers have increased by 4%. I suspect this is because many more teachers and parents, desperate to do their best for their charges, have got “wise” to the system. They realise there are extra resources, attention and privileges for SEN children, and so have pushed more strongly for an SEN diagnosis. Unfortunately, as Ofsted has noted, this has created inequalities and unfairness because children with clued-up parents have often been judged to have conditions like “dyslexia” when it’s debatable whether they are sufferers.

Quackery, misdiagnosis and dissembling have crept in. For example, dyslexia has become a catch-all word in SEN diagnosis: it can mean a difficulty with spelling, or with reading; but some claim a child’s entire perception of the world can be shaped by dyslexia. Such confusion has meant that profiteers have cashed in on school and parents’ uncertainties, with a growing number of doctors prescribing drugs to “cure” pupils’ lack of concentration, after following the advice of schools and parents. A 2010 Guardian investigation has found that the taxpayer is forking out £31m to pay for these drugs, while the root causes of the problem aren’t being addressed.

So, yes, the SEN system does need an overhaul and, yes, hundreds of thousands of children do need to come off the register; however, this should mean a reallocation of cash rather than cutbacks. What is needed is more accurate assessment of our children so that if a child is poorly behaved, that’s all they’re treated for. At the moment, children who muck around are often judged as SEN but this doesn’t improve their attitude, rather it gives them an excuse for staying as they are. The SEN label can be demotivating and demoralising for some children, encouraging a “victim” mentality.

Ultimately, our whole system needs an overhaul. Behind so many problems in our schools is the fact that school league tables and our obsession with exams mean that the child gets forgotten in the hunt for good results.


Published by: @wonderfrancis

Francis Gilbert is a Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London, teaching on the PGCE Secondary English programme. He also teaches the Creative Writing module on the MA in Children’s Literature, which is run by Maggie Pitfield and Professor Michael Rosen. Previously, he worked for a quarter of a century in various English state schools teaching English and Media Studies to 11-18 year olds. He has, at times, moonlighted as a journalist, novelist and social commentator. He is the author of ‘Teacher On The Run’, ‘Yob Nation’, ‘Parent Power’, ‘Working The System -- How To Get The Very Best State Education for Your Child’, and a novel about school, ‘The Last Day Of Term’. His first book, ‘I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here’ was a big hit, becoming a bestseller and being serialised on Radio 4. In his role as an English teacher, he has taught many classic texts over the years and has developed a great many resources to assist readers with understanding, appreciating and responding to them both analytically and creatively. This led him to set up his own small publishing company FGI Publishing ( which has published his study guides as well as a number of books by other authors, including Roger Titcombe’s ‘Learning Matters’ and anthology of creative writing 'The Gold Room'. He is the co-founder, with Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, of The Local Schools Network,, a blog that celebrates non-selective state schools, and has his own website, He has appeared numerous times on radio and TV, including Newsnight, the Today Programme, Woman’s Hour and the Russell Brand Show. In June 2015, he was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing and Education by Goldsmiths.

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