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Huge gender gap in special needs revealed

Boys in London primaries are much more likely to be identified as needing help than girls. Primary school boys are up to eight times as likely to be identified as having special educational needs as their female classmates are, new research suggests.

It is well-known that boys outnumber girls in special schools by at least 2:1. But a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council has now revealed that mainstream primary schools are also providing much more SEN help for boys.

The research, which was conducted in a London borough, shows that junior school boys were, on average, two-and-a-half times as likely to receive SEN support as girls were. But there were huge variations in the proportions of boys and girls singled out for such help.

In one school the special needs gender balance was roughly equal, but in another similar school eight times as many boys were being helped. The disparity may be even greater than those figures suggest. "When schools gave us information and saw how few girls were getting mentioned, they would find a few additional girls who 'could be said' to be receiving SEN support," say Dr Harry Daniels of Birmingham University and his co-researchers Dr Valerie Hey, Dr Diana Leonard and Marjorie Smith of London University's Institute of Education. "In other words, data would get 'massaged' in front of our very eyes."

The study - which covered 359 SEN pupils in 28 schools - also showed that boys were receiving more support with emotional and behavioral difficulties, moderate learning difficulties and specific learning difficulties (usually with reading). The only category where there was virtually no gender gap was mild learning difficulties.

"Boys were also given more help - in terms of time, and the prestige and expense of the form of support," the researchers say. "Cheaper forms of help were more evenly spread and girls actually got more help from volunteers - the help which didn't cost anything at all."

The boy-girl disparity was particularly pronounced among white pupils, especially in the emotional and behavioural difficulties category. Black boys were heavily over-represented in this category too, and although black girls were also over-represented, it was "to nothing like the same extent".

The researchers were disturbed to find that black children with learning difficulties were more likely to be described as having a "general learning difficulty" rather than "reading difficulty".

They also noted that no one in either the borough offices or schools had been asked to develop and monitor gender equality in special needs provision. But, ironically, the study revealed that it was not the schools with supposedly strong equal opportunities policies where girls received the fairest treatment. The best gender balance was found in primaries that focused upon individuals as learners, managed behaviour effectively and limited the draining away of SEN resources into behavioural management.

The researchers suggest that the great variation in practice that they witnessed stems from the devolution of budgets to schools and the lack of objective criteria for identifying pupils with special needs. Schools often did not record the same information and their special needs co-ordinators were treated very differently. SENCO work could be regarded as a full-time responsibility, or a role that should take up 15 minutes a fortnight. But the researchers point out that this situation may be improving following the introduction of the special needs Code of Practice.

Daniels and his colleagues also found that some primaries were pouring most of their SEN resources into the infant classes, and this sometimes exacerbated the gender inequity in the junior school. "When relatively little money was left for key stage 2 it all went to boys - with little or no monitoring of its effectiveness," the researchers say.

However, they acknowledge that the very different attitude and behaviour of boys and girls also has some impact on schools' SEN decisions. "Boys' learning seems to be more teacher dependent than girls', and boys have various anti-learning behaviours," the researchers say. "Girls, on the other hand, have a capacity to keep out of SEN provision by generally supporting each other's learning and not demanding too much of the teacher's time. At times girls were also used to control boys' behaviour. In fact, several teachers told us that they got the African-Caribbean girls to 'sort out' the boys, both in the classroom and the playground."

"Gender and special needs provision in mainstream school", by Harry Daniels, Valerie Hey, Diana Leonard and Marjorie Smith

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