The most needy of all?

21st January 2005 at 00:00
Why does the UK appear to have more children with special needs than other countries? Fran Abrams investigates

This summer, Mic Carolan, headteacher of Hurst special school in St Helens, Merseyside, will bow out after 36 years in special needs education. The closure of his school is not exceptional - it is part of a pattern all over the UK and, indeed, the world.

Perhaps the fate of Hurst school was sealed 10 years ago, when representatives from more than 92 governments met in Salamanca, Spain, to sign up to a new policy on special educational needs. Its vision was far-reaching and its aim radical - to ensure that all pupils were educated in mainstream schools unless a compelling reason could be found to do otherwise.

Mr Carolan says he has nothing against integration; he has been working closely with his local mainstream schools for many years. But he still thinks the assumption that all children should learn in the same classrooms is misguided.

"If we can have specialist status for some secondary schools," he says, "why not for others? If your child was a brilliant artist you would want the best for him. There's an argument that the parents of children with special needs are entitled to that, too."

There is little doubt that Britain has tackled its promise to bring more children into the mainstream with some gusto. In fact, it had begun the process even before it signed the declaration made by the United Nations'

education and science organisation, Unesco, at Salamanca. Since 1984, the number of special schools in England has dropped from 1,500 to 1,100, and pupil numbers from 118,000 to 89,000.

But, in the past few years, the picture has stabilised, with around 3 per cent of English pupils holding statements of special needs and around 1 per cent in special schools. So is the Government's work now done in this area? A look at how our special needs education compares with some of the other countries that signed that declaration reveals some interesting facts.

At first glance, it seems those who want to see virtually all children in the mainstream should have little to worry about. The UK's is not the most integrated education system in the world, but nor is it the least. Italy, for example, places just one child in 300 in special education - a third of the UK figure - while in Belgium almost one child in 20 learns in a segregated environment.

But there are some strange anomalies about the way schools in England treat these vulnerable children. Why, according to a recent study for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, does the UK appear to have a higher proportion of children with special needs than almost any other country? Although the figures need to be treated with some caution because every country categorises special needs differently, the organisation found the UK placed 18 per cent in this group, compared with just1 per cent in Japan and less than2 per cent in Mexico.

This might be a good thing, of course, for those children receive extra help as a result of their needs. It does not necessarily indicate that pupils in the UK have more problems than those elsewhere. But some of the other anomalies in our figures might be of more concern.

The OECD reports, for example, that boys are more likely than girls to be labelled as having special needs. Typically, most countries find that out of every five pupils with special needs, three are boys and two are girls.

In itself, this raises questions. But in the UK, the picture is even more skewed.

Here, two-thirds of pupils with special needs - both those with statements and those without - are boys. But within that group, boys are even more likely to be statemented. In fact, more than seven out of 10 statemented pupils are boys. Those boys are more likely, too, to find themselves in special schools. Among those with special needs, 6 per cent of boys are in separate provision, compared with just under 5 per cent of girls.

Seamus Hegarty, director of the National Foundation for Educational Research and editor of the European Journal of Special Needs Education, says the over-representation of boys among special needs pupils has long existed in UK schools - and its causes are almost certainly a complex mix of social and educational factors.

"In the old days when we used categories such as 'severely sub-normal', the severest cases were evenly distributed between boys and girls," he says.

"In those cases the causes were clearly organic. But among the less severe categories there were many more boys than girls - and many more of them were from the lower socio-economic groups." Greater scrutiny of the international figures gives a further clue as to why boys are so much more likely to be categorised as having special needs. Pupils in the UK who are badly behaved are far more likely to be labelled as having "emotional and behavioural difficulties" than their counterparts abroad - and, of course, those pupils are most likely to be boys.

Here, the international picture is at its most stark. Although the UK did not tell the OECD how many pupils it had with behavioural difficulties, the Department for Education and Skills has recently published its own figures.

And, when placed alongside those for other countries, the story they tell is worrying. While some Western countries have as few as one EBD child in every 700 pupils - and some do not even have a behavioural category at all for special needs - the UK has far more.

The DfES figures do not include all special needs pupils, only those with relatively severe problems. But even they show almost one UK pupil in every 50 is labelled as EBD. By this measure, more than a quarter of the UK's special needs pupils appear to have behavioural difficulties or autism.

That is three times the proportion in the United States, where armed guards patrol some inner-city schools to prevent pupils from bringing in knives and guns. Mic Carolan, whose brother works with behaviourally disturbed children in Chicago, thinks part of the reason for this must be down to the way we label children, rather than to their actual behaviour.

"As I understand it, you go through a metal detector to get into a lot of American schools," he says. "There may be youngsters carrying guns and taking drugs. They have huge behaviour problems, but they don't call them EBD. If you don't label them, you don't have them."

Seamus Hegarty says behaviour is affected not just by pupils' own special needs, but by an interaction between their needs and their environment.

Therefore, some schools with apparently similar intakes have dramatically different levels of behavioural difficulties.

"I think dealing with challenging behaviour is a big issue in this country.

It's difficult for teachers when they have 29 kids who want to get stuck in, and one little bugger who's making it awkward. But if he was my little bugger I'd say it was the job of the state to be attentive to his needs."

Despite differences in labelling, Mr Carolan does think the UK has a real problem: in a changing jobs market, too many young men are growing up without any clear sense of purpose, and that can lead to serious behavioural problems.

"We do seem to have a problem with our young males," he says. "It's only my own experience but you don't seem to have the same yob behaviour in other European countries. What is the role of a young man when he hits 16 now? They can't all go to university. We're not quite sure what the kids are there for."

Aspects of the integration of handicapped and disadvantaged students into education, OECD June 2003. OECD statistics portal: education and training - students with disabilities: DfES statistical first release, Special needs in England, January 2004, published November 25, 2004.

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