Pupils are being subjected to all manner of crank treatments in the name of helping them, says Francis Gilbert.
By Francis Gilbert
Published: 6:22PM BST 22 Jul 2010
Children diagnosed with special needs can be given laptops and MP3 players Photo: Alamy Twenty years ago, when I started teaching in a tough, inner-city comprehensive, only three of my pupils were labelled as having “special educational needs”. All three were extreme cases: one girl liked to throw chairs at her teachers, another had severe hearing problems, and another didn’t have a working stomach. Today, things have swung to the other extreme: classrooms are swamped by pupils classified as “SEN”, or having learning difficulties. All told, one in three of those aged between six and 16, or more than two million children, are identified as having some sort of learning difficulty. And it’s getting worse: in the past two years, the number of under-fives with learning difficulties has risen by almost 20 per cent, and the number of teenagers being diagnosed has also increased exponentially. Related Articles Special needs boy subjected to ‘Lord of the Flies’ attack Dishing out fines won’t stop the chaos in class Turned away at the school gates How a good headteacher can save a school British burns victim in Crete feared he was going to die Children with rare cancers ‘to get hi-tech radiation treatment’Why is this? Is it that our children have got a lot thicker? Are teachers getting better at identifying problems? Or is some kind of chronic “SEN” inflation going on? Partly, the explanation is medical. A recent survey by Glasgow University showed that babies born even a week early have a greater propensity to develop special needs. Overall, eight out of 10 severely premature babies go on to have learning difficulties, with two out of 10 having a severe disability. Even a decade ago, many such children would have died; with today’s improved survival rates, they will grow up to enter the education system. At the same time, teachers are undoubtedly getting better at spotting SEN. There are, of course, huge variations from school to school, with some, particularly in more deprived areas, identifying as many as 70 per cent of their pupils as such. To my mind, they are justified in doing so, because there is a clear link between social deprivation and what we call SEN: poverty breeds students who really struggle to read and write. In that inner-city classroom I mentioned, alongside the three children labelled as having special needs there were many others who struggled to read even simple picture books. Nowadays, most would be diagnosed as having SEN. And with good reason – they needed a lot of extra help. It’s a moot point, however, as to whether they have genuine difficulties, or are just the victims of parents who don’t value education. These parents usually hate their child being labelled in this way, and cause more problems by making their children feel ashamed of their diagnosis. At the other end of the social scale, I’ve found that many middle-class parents are chomping at the bit to have their child dubbed SEN. In fact, increasing numbers of pupils don’t seem to have any learning difficulties whatsoever. What they do have are pushy parents who know that a SEN diagnosis means that their kids will get preferential treatment: extra time in exams, more attention from teachers, and even special equipment like laptops and MP3 players. That said, many teachers, myself included, like to “work the system”, too. We realise that having a child diagnosed as SEN is greatly to our benefit because it means that we get extra resources – and it also lets us off the hook if they fail their exams. In other words, pupils categorised as having special needs have been wrongly labelled: a government survey of teenagers classed as having SEN in 2009 showed that almost half had no such diagnosis six years earlier. A particularly worrying trend is the increasing numbers of children who are being identified as having attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a phrase which in the teaching profession is a politically correct euphemism for “being completely out of control”. According to data released under Freedom of Information legislation, there has been a 65 per cent increase in spending on drugs to treat ADHD over the last four years. Such treatments now cost the taxpayer more than £31 million a year. In the US, the use of prescription drugs to “cure” learning difficulties has become a billion-dollar industry. This “medicalisation” of SEN is deeply worrying; it promotes the lie that a child’s learning difficulties can be solved by drugs rather than good teaching. It’s meant that all sorts of self-help quacks are grabbing money from schools and gullible parents by promising to “cure” children with herbal remedies, head massages, visualisation techniques, brainwave measurement, or the chanting of mantras. All of which makes me think that perhaps it’s time to junk the term “Special Educational Needs” altogether, along with much of the jargon that goes with it. Sadly, these terms have become excuses to hide behind rather than steps towards solutions. Instead bandying around vague pseudo-scientific terms like “dyslexia” and “ADHD”, we need to demand that learning difficulties are identified simply and specifically. If a pupil has a problem with reading books aimed at their age range, let’s call it precisely that, rather than saying he’s “dyslexic” – a notorious word that seems to mean something different every time it’s used. It’s time we all realised no amount of jargon, drugs or massages can solve our children’s problems. The only real solution, as it always has been, is hard graft.
Francis Gilbert is the author of ‘Working the System – How to get the Best State Education for your Child’ (Short Books)