THE number of pupils in English schools with statements of special educational needs has topped more than a quarter of million for the first time, according to the annual schools' census.
And more than 40 per cent of the children with statements are now under the age of 10, official government figures reveal.
They show that this year primary schools had, on average, a slightly higher proportion of pupils on registers of special needs (22 per cent) than secondary schools (20 per cent).
In a small number of these schools, headteachers identified more than half of the pupils as having some kind of special need.
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "This is very disturbing. The Government has to take a more realistic view on inclusion. Teachers are paying a heavy price in terms of additional stress and so are many pupils."
Statistics collected from local education authorities show that more than 9,500 children in England under the age of five and almost 98,000 pupils aged five to 10 now have statements of special need.
Statements have also been issued for some 136,00 young people aged 11 to 15, and more than 15,000 16 to 19-year-olds.
The census shows that the number of pupils with statements in English schools this year rose to 252,857 - up 4,816 on 1999 but the proportion remains around 3 per cent.
The total is even higher - 259,500 if statemented English children who are educated at home, in Scottish or in private schools are included.
But the trend of placing pupils with special needs in mainstream schools continues to increase, from 54 per cent in 1995 and 59 per cent in 1999 to 60 per cent this year.
The 1996 Education Act and its predecessors place a duty on councils to secure education of children with statements in mainstream schools provided that this is in line with parents wishes.
Councils also have to meet the child's special needs, not hinder the education of others and represent an efficient use of resources.
The percentage of children with statements in special schools or pupil-referral units fell again and is now down to 37 per cent. In 1999 it was 38 per cent and five years ago, 44 per cent.
Department for Education and Employment Statistics of Education. Special educational needs in England: January 2000 is published by The Stationery Office, PO Box 29, Norwich, NR3 1GN. www.thestationeryoffice.com
How to address needs
There are five recommended stages for addressing the different levels of pupils' special needs.
Stages 1-3 are school-based, with support from specialists from outside the school at stage 3. The vast majority of these children will have their needs met in mainstream schools.
Stage 4 involves the local authority considering the need for - and, if appropriate, making - an assessment of a child's needs.
Stage 5 involves the council making and monitoring a statement of special educational needs.