'It's unforgivable that so many children are misdiagnosed with learning difficulties, diverting help from those with genuine need'

24th February 2017 at 10:57
SEND misdiagnosis
Teachers believe that pressure from parents is a major reason why many children are wrongly being labelled as having SEND, writes one data expert

Six-and-a-half years ago, Ofsted wrote a well-publicised report claiming that a quarter of all children identified with SEND were misdiagnosed.

Too many schools, it said, were using low attainment and slow progress as a proxy for SEND, rather than more robust assessment measures. The government concurred and vowed to crack down on “teachers overdiagnosing”.

Fast-forward to today and those promises appear fulfilled.

SEND in England, excluding statemented children, has dropped from 18.3 per cent in 2010 to 11.6 per cent today. Interestingly, the corresponding percentages in the devolved nations are significantly higher.

Taken at face value, it would appear that Westminster’s crackdown has worked. It would seem that misdiagnosis had inflated the number of SEND children and so getting tough with loose practice has borne fruit. But the reality is less comforting.

We commissioned YouGov to ask teachers if they thought there was still misdiagnosis of SEND. Well over half (57 per cent) thought there was, with only a quarter (26 per cent) disagreeing.

At first glance, those findings appear contradictory: how can instances of SEND be falling so rapidly in England and yet teachers still think misdiagnosis is an issue?

The answer, of course, is that misdiagnosis can refer to both under- and over-reporting of a problem. Fewer children overall may be diagnosed with a learning difficulty but that doesn’t mean that the remainder have been correctly identified.

The teachers in our survey clearly thought misidentification was a real problem. Over three-fifths (62 per cent) thought children with genuine need were missing out because resources were being diverted to those who didn’t really need help. Less than a fifth (18 per cent) disagreed.

When we asked teachers why children continued to be misdiagnosed, just over half (54 per cent) said parental pressure was to blame.

In fact, almost three-quarters of teachers (72 per cent) believed some parents wanted their child to be labelled as SEND even though there was little objective evidence to support that belief. Only one in 10 (10 per cent) disagreed.

Parents 'want a SEND diagnosis'

When we asked teachers why they thought parents pushed for a diagnosis, almost two-thirds (64 per cent) said it was because some wanted a medical or psychological explanation rather than having to accept that their child had a classroom problem that could be addressed by a teacher.

More alarmingly, a large minority (39 per cent) thought it was because some parents wanted a label to help their child gain a competitive advantage in exams.

It is understandable that parents want a quick diagnosis if their child is struggling at school. A diagnosed disorder can trigger much-needed support and a label can be a comfort and incline others to be less judgmental about their child or their parenting skills.

But the fact is that a lot of the issues children present are best addressed in the classroom, not in the clinic – they don’t necessarily need a label and their condition may even be temporary. 

A SEND diagnosis is often about finding the one thing that is holding back a child who might otherwise do much better, rather than identifying a child with a broad difficulty in learning. That's why the classroom solution is so often better.

Accurate assessment, personalised teaching and targeted support can often overcome a specific difficulty without the disruption that an external intervention can cause to teacher and pupil.

It cannot be right that so many children are misdiagnosed with learning difficulties; all the more so if family pressure is the cause.

Parental anxiety, however understandable, is no substitute for objective evaluation. The process, after all, isn’t a victimless pursuit.

When resources are finite there are bound to be losers. How unforgivable then, if children with genuine need miss out because help is diverted to those who don’t really need it.

Greg Watson is the chief executive of GL Assessment, provider of formative assessments to UK schools. He tweets as @Greg_GL_Assess

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