Teachers, heads and union leaders have reacted angrily to accusations by Ofsted that children are being wrongly labelled as having special educational needs (SEN) to cover up for poor teaching.
The damning allegations, contained in a report published on Tuesday, are "insulting and wrong" and schools are being made "scapegoats" for following government guidance, critics have said.
Ofsted's report says half of the 916,000 children on the "school action" register - the first stage of support - should not have been identified as having special needs. Inspectors say effective identification of SEN and good-quality extra help in schools is "not common" and this results in children developing needless problems.
Speaking at the report's launch, Ofsted chief inspector Christine Gilbert called for a "change in direction". She wants teachers to be more "accountable" for SEN and to take "greater responsibility".
"If children learnt more effectively, their needs wouldn't go on to become so acute," she said.
"If there was more emphasis on children's progress it would engender trust in the system."
The report has triggered anger among the teaching unions. NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates, said it was "unacceptable to scapegoat teachers" for failings in the "complex" SEN system, while Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, said inspectors were "insulting and wrong."
Ms Blower said the national curriculum was acting as a "barrier" to stop teachers responding adequately to the needs of children.
David Trace, head of Ramsey Grammar on the Isle of Man, said: "We are seeing significantly more children coming into Year 7 with SEN, it's not surprising - they are more tested and monitored than ever before.
"If we have to teach to the test it's no wonder children become unmotivated."
Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, said: "SEN is not an easy thing to categorise; teachers see children every day, Ofsted saw them for one.
"If a teacher isn't seen to fight for any advantages for pupils they will be condemned by parents - and there's no teacher who wouldn't try to get the best for their class.
"It's easy for Ofsted to blame society's failings on schools."
The inspectors' findings correlate with a recent change in national SEN policy. Teachers had been encouraged to improve their identification of special needs and the new Government wants less "bureaucracy" and changes to the system so it can cope with less funding.
Ms Gilbert said the timing of her report - the publication of which was delayed from the summer - just after the launch of a Government consultation on SEN, was "fortuitous".
Children's minister Sarah Teather said: "It is clear that we have a consensus on some of the issues with the SEN system. Now I want to work with parents, charities, teachers and other organisations to find a consensus on the solutions."
But Brian Lightman, general secretary of heads' union ASCL, said the Ofsted report was "grossly unfair" to blame teachers who had been only following the guidance from the former Government.
"There will be a change in SEN policy - schools can't be expected to respond to that before they are told what the direction is, they need a clear steer," he said.
Inspectors visited 22 local authorities between April 2009 and March 2010 to collect evidence and looked at the progress of 345 children.
The review was ordered by former education secretary Alan Johnson.
The report says the new Ofsted inspection framework, which started last September, has made schools more anxious about the performance of lower- achieving pupils.
Heads are worried about the impact of the position of their school. In one case this led to plans to develop a specialist centre for SEN pupils in a mainstream school being scrapped.
At one secondary school all Year 11 pupils who were at risk of not getting their expected GCSE results were put on the SEN register and given additional mentoring. Ofsted says this was "inappropriate".
Another school, many of whose pupils are the children of armed force personnel, said a large number were underachieving because their fathers were in Afghanistan, and they had consequently been put on the SEN register.
TES forums: `Inspectorate feeds parents' worst fears'
"Christine Gilbert said that schools should identify these children and then plan intervention strategies to support them. Well duh - that's what we do! We know these children haven't got `real' SEN, they just need additional support. Next week a lesson for Granny on how to suck eggs!"
"So now when we discuss with the parents of a child with learning problems about putting their child on the SEN route. I'm pretty sure they will simply turn round and say we are trying to disguise our poor teaching. Ofsted is feeding parents' worst fears with this kind of sweeping generalisation."
"Ofsted is an organisation in danger - it has shown itself to be incompetent and dishonest. It's expensive and bureaucratic, and has spent the last decade promoting the values of New Labour. It needs to reposition itself very, very quickly to show that it can be a poodle for the ConDems. The solution? Hit teachers for being crap and suggest a way to cut the number of support staff in schools."
"How can Ofsted inspectors who usually spend just a couple of days in a school turn around and say they know better than the teachers who have probably spent several years working with a pupil?"
Report findings: Tick-boxes not outcomes
- The SEN system focuses too heavily on "tick box" approaches rather than outcomes for children.
- Affluent familes are disadvantaged by the system because parents have to take an "adversarial" approach in order to get the support they want.
- Arrangements between clusters of local schools about SEN provision can work better than a local-authority wide approach.
- Schools do not place enough emphasis on the progress of SEN pupils.
- In schools where the assessment of SEN is good or outstanding, two- thirds of children make good or outstanding progress. In schools with satisfactory or inadequate assessment just a quarter of pupils with SEN achieved well.
- Original headline: Ofsted chief under fire for `insulting' teachers on SEN