Pupils from poorer families are twice as likely to be officially diagnosed with special educational needs (SEN) as other pupils, new official statistics have shown. And headteachers believe there is now a cultural divide for SEN, as more and more children with difficulties are being sent to mainstream schools.
Figures for January 2008 show that among those in primary schools eligible for free school meals, 28 per cent had SEN; just 13 per cent of all pupils were eligible for free school meals in the same period. In secondary schools, 12 per cent overall were entitled to free school meals, but among SEN pupils this rose to 25 per cent.
"Disability cuts across all classes, it doesn't matter about background," said Eddy Jackson, head of Highfurlong, a specialist school in Blackpool. "But there are now many cultural connections between disadvantage and SEN.
"Those from poorer families often don't get the same rich language experience, and their parents have different expectations."
The statistics also show a sharp rise in the number of children with SEN without statements - the annually reviewed written record that ensures a child receives the support they need - being put in mainstream primary and secondary schools, as well as independent schools.
Additionally, the trend of fewer pupils being statemented has continued, with a 2 per cent fall between 2007 and 2008, while numbers attending special schools have stayed relatively static, accounting for 1.1 per cent of all pupils since 2004.
Pupil referral units still contain a high percentage of children with SEN, with some 12 per cent of the 16,100 had statements compared to the overall rate of 2.8 per cent.
But there has been a large rise in the number of SEN children in secondary schools without statements - up from 13.6 per cent in 2004 to 17.8 per cent four years later.
Christopher Robertson, a specialist in special education at the University of Birmingham, believes this shows that secondary schools are having difficulties in supporting SEN children.
"It's obviously down to their curriculum and organisation," he said.
The numbers of SEN pupils on roll at local authority-run and independent schools have been decreasing slowly since 2004, although the private sector saw a small increase in 2008. This is partly due to falling birth rates and also because of the rising number of SEN children being put in mainstream primaries and secondaries.
In 2004, 16.1 per cent of children in primary school had SEN; by 2008 this had risen to 18.1 per cent. Secondaries have seen an even bigger rise - up from 13.6 per cent to 17.8 four years later. But there has also been a slight increase in the numbers with statements sent to special schools.
"Special schools are now dealing with pupils who have the most complex needs," said Mr Jackson. "But it's been a growing trend that those with milder learning problems are put in mainstream schools because it's cheaper."
A private specialist education can cost from pound;40,000 to pound;340,000, and cash-strapped local authorities are increasingly trying to expand their own provision so they don't have to pay to send children elsewhere.
According to Stephen Bajdala-Brown, vice-chair of the National Association of Independent Schools and Non-Maintained Special Schools (NASS) and headteacher of Penhurst School in Chipping Norton, the private sector is getting smaller.
"There is a growing market for schools specialising in behavioural problems or autism, but I've seen a number of special schools close in the last few months," he said.
"We are forced to justify our existence nowadays, and this could be an opportunity to make SEN quite exciting, but it does mean we need to think about the future."
The NASS says that a growing number of local authorities are working together to commission services from private state schools.
"This could be beneficial, but if the aim is to be cost effective the risk is that those bidding for the work will try to cut corners," Mr Bajdala- Brown added.
HOW SEN IS DROWNING IN THE MAINSTREAM
There are 94 mainstream primary schools in England where 50 per cent or more of children have SEN, and 31 are in the South East. There is just one in the South West.
The vast majority of primary schools (some 77 per cent) have between 5 and 25 per cent of pupils with SEN.
At secondary age, 46 schools have more than half of pupils classed as having SEN, but most (72 per cent) have between 5 and 25 per cent of special-needs pupils.
Most mainstream primaries (75 per cent) have up to 2 per cent of pupils with statements. But 113 have 10 per cent or above with statements - 25 in the North West and 15 in London.
Most secondary schools (95 per cent) have between 2 and 5 per cent of pupils with statements. Six schools have levels of 10 per cent or above.
In search of the special treatment
There has been a large fall in the number of SEN children educated in special resourced classes in mainstream schools - down from 20,000 (7.8 per cent) in 2004 to just over 9,000 (4 per cent) in 2008.
Around 3.4 per cent are taught in "SEN units" in primary and secondary schools.
The numbers sent to special schools - 35 per cent - has risen since 2004 from 32 per cent. At the same time, the number of SEN pupils in primary and secondaries has fallen, from 52 per cent to 48 per cent in 2008.
Just 6,620 children are sent to independent special schools - 2.9 per cent of children. Academies take just 0.7 per cent of children with SEN.