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State schools are wrongly labelling children with SEN to cover up for poor teaching, claims a scathing new report by Government inspectors Ofsted. In addition, schools are encouraged to over-identify children with SEN in order to improve their standings in league tables and gain additional funding from local authorities, the report suggests.

Commissioned by the previous Government, the review argues that the quality of SEN assessments needs to be improved and that it is imperative to ensure that additional support provided to children is both effective and necessary. Many of those with special needs, it claims, were not fulfilling their potential simply because standards of teaching were not good enough. Schools are told that they should focus on improving teaching and pastoral support early on to ensure that additional provision is not needed later.

Perhaps most damning of all is the report’s conclusion that “Schools should stop identifying pupils as having special educational needs when they simply need better teaching and pastoral support.” According to inspectors, “the term ‘special educational needs’ is used too widely” and large numbers of children have been categorised as SEN when, in reality, “their needs were no different from those of most other pupils”.

The report, Special educational needs and disability review: a statement is not enough, also concludes that legislation should be simplified to ensure that the system is clearer for parents and education providers, and those providing services should be held accountable according to outcomes for the children and young people concerned.

Educationalists and the charity sector have given the report a mixed reception. While some have welcomed its focus on outcomes for children with SEN, others have criticised what they see as its attempt to ensure that fewer children are eligible for SEN status and appropriate assistance.  

Peter Holland, CEO at disability charity MOVE Europe, said that his organisation “welcomes Ofsted’s view that there should be higher expectations for children with complex needs through the focus on the quality of teaching and learning and how well young people do as a result.” The Alliance for Inclusive Education, however, described the report as “deeply unhelpful”, claiming it is an “attack on children with SEN’s rights”. Simone Aspis, a spokesperson for the Alliance, argued that “It really is unacceptable for ‘politically driven’ decisions to determine if and what SEN provision is reasonable for children....It is crucial that the support children with SEN get in school remains based on need rather the budget.”

The National Autistic Society (NAS) says it is saddened but unsurprised by the poor provision and low standards revealed in the review. “Ofsted’s important report exposes a number of key failings within the SEN system and crucially recognises that children with complex needs, such as autism, are not getting the help they need in the classroom”, said the charity’s chief executive Mark Lever.

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