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Special needs anomaly revealed

Children with reading difficulties are receiving statements of special need even though they may be making better progress than the majority of pupils in a neighbouring school.

The anomaly has been highlighted by Gary Thomas of the University of the West of England, who is concerned that children's chances of being given statements of special need are partly determined by their classmates' level of ability rather than their own.

A survey that he conducted with Pauline Davis of Oxford Brookes University revealed that, in classes where most Year 4 children are level 2 readers, the average grading of a child perceived to have reading difficulties is 1. 65. In classes where most children are at level 4, however, those labelled as having difficulties have an average reading level of 2.28.

Thomas and Davis, who surveyed nearly 600 schools, say that the inconsistency has been created by the new code of practice on special needs, which has shifted judgment about reading difficulty towards individual teachers. They are now using subjective, within-school comparisons to define "difficulty", but their judgments appear to be "over-influencing" the psychologists and administrators who are responsible for statementing.

"Judgments by teachers may - if they are used for any purpose outside the individual school - give a distorted picture concerning the incidence and distribution of reading difficulty regionally and nationally," Thomas and Davis say in a paper to be presented to the British Educational Research Association conference today. "Increasing use of within-school assessment also raises the danger that resources may actually be diverted from those more in need to those less in need."

The full results of Gary Thomas and Pauline Davis's research, which was funded by the Cadmean Trust, will be published in Educational Research, vol 39, no 3 (1997).

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