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Larger school sizes

Do they help increase SEN diagnosis?

The number of pupils diagnosed with special educational needs (SEN) in England has increased dramatically over the last 20 years. This has levelled out over recent years, with figures from the Department for Education (DoE) showing that the number of pupils with statements of special needs decreased from 236,750 in 2006 to 220,890 in 2010.

However, between 2006 and 2009, there was also a three per cent increase in the number of pupils with SEN who do not have a statement, rising from around 1.53 million to 1.69 million. With most SEN pupils being taught in mainstream schools, there has been increased emphasis placed on the role teachers should play in special needs education. Many reasons have been given for the increase in the number of students with SEN, with some commentators suggesting that such diagnoses are used to explain simple bad behaviour.

A recent Ofsted report claimed that a quarter of all children identified as having a SEN have been wrongly diagnosed and simply require better teaching. However, according to John Coe, General Secretary of the National Association for Primary Education (Nape), large class sizes are playing a role in increasing SEN diagnosis. He said: "Teachers are still being asked to deal with the personal needs of 25 to 35 children. There is a statutory limit of 30 in a class, but it is widely - and has to be - ignored because there is nowhere else for them to go. Because teachers are wrestling with large classes, they take the understandable route of diagnosing specal [educational] needs and getting extra individual help." 

Back in July, the new Children's Minister Sara Teather launched a green paper to examine why the number of pupils with SEN has been on the rise and how their needs can be addressed by teachers and the British education system.  Announcing the green paper, Ms Teather said: "We want to make sure that the most vulnerable children get the best quality of support and care. Children with special educational needs and disabilities should have the same opportunities as their peers." 

The DoE's recent Children with Special Education Needs 2010 report found that the most common types of primary need were autistic spectrum disorder and moderate learning difficulties, while the least common was multisensory impairment. Boys are also more likely to have a SEN statement at both primary and secondary school, while pupils with special educational needs were much more likely to be eligible for free school meals than those without such needs. 

Jane McConnell, Chief Executive at Independent Parental Special Education Advice, a charity which offers free guidance to parents of children with SENs in England and Wales, recently advised that schools and teachers need to "see a child as an individual and not a label with accompanied problems", noting that this will help a pupil to progress.

Teachers who suspect that a pupil has a SEN should inform the school's special education needs coordinator (SENCo) and the principal. All schools are required to have a SENCo in place, who will work with the teacher and the student and liaise with parents or carers. A child who shows signs of requiring educational support will usually be assessed by the school, the National Union of Teachers said. If they are found to have special needs, the SENCo will typically aim to provide support initially from within the school's own resources.If appropriate, the coordinator will also refer the child for additional support from either the relevant health service provision or the local authority.

Nape's Mr Coe said advised teachers that there is no "magic answer" for helping students with special educational needs."These children need one-to-one attention, guidance and teaching. They have a special [educational] need which makes the standard education [that] we offer more inappropriate for them," he advised. Although most pupils with special education needs are educated by a mainstream teacher, he recommended that students with SEN receive some one-to-one help from a specially-qualified teacher. "There are far too many children who have very extreme learning needs who are receiving ten hours a week or one-to-one learning tuition from an unqualified person," he stated. "We have got to make sure that the meeting [with a special educational needs pupil] is given by an appropriately qualified person."