The number of pupils classed as having special needs has risen dramatically since the introduction of a method of measuring school performance that rewards schools that do well with their pupil "raw material", a TES investigation has found.
Critics of the contextual value added (CVA) way of assessing pupil progress say heads are labelling more children as SEN so they can climb up the league tables. They are now demanding changes to the CVA so it can't be manipulated. Government experts have also expressed concern at the "perverse incentives" created by the measure.
CVA was introduced in 2006 as a way of showing if pupils had improved at secondary school. At the time 9.1 per cent of children in the UK were classed as having SEN. A further 8 per cent had statements or were on "school action plus" - where they receive help from outside experts in school. By 2009 this had climbed to 13.5 per cent and 10.8 per cent respectively.
"There are probably schools which put children in the SEN register to support their CVA score, and to support their budget," said Lorraine Petersen, chief executive of the National Association for Special Educational Needs.
This year senior Department for Children, Schools and Families SEN adviser Philippa Stobbs admitted there were "perverse incentives" for teachers to label pupils as having special needs and this then hindered their achievement.
A new report for the Government has come to the same conclusions. "Schools are very honest and say that the more children they have on their SEN register, the better their value added looks," a senior SEN adviser told the researchers.
Staff at Isca College of Media Arts, a secondary in a deprived area of Exeter, rely on CVA to show the good progress children make. But chair of governors Matthew Macan says he is sick of other schools "playing the game" and making the CVA worthless.
He has calculated SEN numbers in Devon have risen by 82 per cent since 2006, and he is worried his school will suffer if the CVA continues to be "grossly misleading".
Mr Macan confronted Schools Secretary Ed Balls on the issue when the minister visited the school recently. He has also written to the DCSF.
"Those who choose not to play the system will be pushed out. We could easily chalk up 80 per cent SEN numbers if we wanted to, but we don't," he said.
Isca head Mandi Street said: "'The pressure to 'look good' in league table and Ofsted terms encourages schools to exaggerate SEN figures. The problem for a school like mine - with high levels of challenge and low prior attainment, but where we have limited the numbers on the SEN register - is that artificially high national averages for the numbers of pupils with SEN now lowers our CVA measure.
"We no longer have an effective contextual measure to describe our achievements to governors, parents and others. In effect, the new CVA measure is meaningless."
The DCSF will spend #163;4 million this year on advanced teacher training on SEN to better identify children with problems. Government guidance has been given to teachers to stop over-identification of SEN. It reminds them poor academic performance could be due to family problems. It also says children who speak English as an additional language or have medical problems should not automatically be classed as having special needs.
Analysis, pages 24-25.