It makes my blood boil that so many normal children are deemed to have special needs - 29 July 2010

The list goes on and on. So much so that if Johnny is under-performing or Sophie is falling behind, there is bound to be a pseudoscientific syndrome that explains why.


As a result, 20 per cent more under-fives are being diagnosed as having special needs than two years ago. That is a truly terrifying increase  -  and I'm convinced it's nonsense. 


Should one-in-five of our under-16s really be categorised with educational special needs, as figures released this week by the Office For National Statistics show they are?


I don't believe they should. Nine times out of ten there will be very little about these children that requires such a label.


Maybe little Johnny will never be the brightest button in the box, maybe Sophie will be better off working with horses rather than the Large Hadron Collider.


That doesn't make them special needs, it just makes them normal children  -  some children are bright, some are not; some behave beautifully, some definitely do not.


Somewhere along the way we have forgotten this basic truth and clutched at an explanation for our children's perceived shortcomings; something we can blame, something we can try to cure.



But here is the problem  -  cures, genuinely required or not, cost money, which in this case comes from those who can afford it least: the 110,000 children in this country who do have real special educational needs.

They are not children who have a bit of trouble spelling or sitting still; they are children whose entire lives are a battle.


They are children like my daughter, Domenica, who has Down's syndrome, and the thousands of others facing challenges more serious, such as cerebral palsy and autism.



They are the real special needs children in this country and, as their exhausted parents will tell you, securing an appropriate education for them is a fight. 


'Not only are parents seemingly all too keen to have their child assessed with this syndrome or that but the schools are colluding with them.' 


Many parents will have heard about disadvantaged children being statemented  -  the laborious official process whereby pupils are assessed for educational needs. 



But few, fortunately, will know the emotional turmoil it involves or the crippling financial costs that can ensue when decisions are disputed.

If money is diverted from children with real special needs to the 'phantom' special needs children of this week's headlines, this most gruelling of battles will become even worse.


For the parents of genuine special needs children  -  already dubbed the angriest group of parents in the country  -  it will be a disaster. The prospect of such a gross injustice occurring makes my blood boil.


But all the signs show this is exactly what is happening. For not only are parents seemingly all too keen to have their child assessed with this syndrome or that  -  and therefore placed under the special needs umbrella  -  but the schools are colluding with them.



There are two reasons for this and one, inevitably, is money.

For each child diagnosed with special needs the school receives additional funding, so it is in the school's financial interest to have as many special needs children as possible  -  particularly if many of these children won't require much in the way of expensive special needs teaching.


Whether any surplus that arises remains ring-fenced within the special needs department in this stringent financial climate I doubt.


But there's another shocking incentive for schools to increase the number of special needs children they have  -  it makes them look better in the Ofsted league tables, particularly in the much-vaunted 'value-added' tables that we have heard so much about. 


Strain: The high numbers of children being diagnosed as special needs draws resources away from those who need them most.


Not only can schools make up for poor exam results by having a high proportion of special needs children, an unscrupulous failing school could disguise its shortcomings by categorising more children than necessary as having special needs.


Such incentives to register more children as special needs aren't just perverse, they're a scandal.


But this is exactly what I've come to expect from an education system still crippled by trendy but utterly hopeless teaching methods.



Let's take the dated dogma first, which boils down to a wrongheaded, one-size-fits-all belief that all children are equal and that, from the brightest to those with serious disadvantages, they should be educated together. As a consequence, many brilliant specialist schools have been forced to close down  -  there isn't, for instance, a single school for mild learning difficulties like Domenica's anywhere near our home in Sussex  -  and their hitherto happy pupils are bussed off to 'normal' schools all over the country.

But the majority of these real special needs children aren't taught with the more able pupils, but in specialist units that effectively become a school within a school.


This is little more than window- dressing, an illusion of inclusion, that often stretches an already very hard-pressed special needs unit to near-breaking point.



The arrival of so many of the sort of special needs children we've been reading about this week can only make the problem worse.


'There is growing evidence that many children are being wrongly categorised as special needs at 11 and 12 years old. They just haven't been taught to read properly.'


But why are they arriving in such numbers?



Parents and schools, as we have seen, must share some of the blame, but so too must some of our primary school teachers, still wedded to the out-dated, mixedability, pupil-led teaching methods of the Seventies and Eighties.