The number of children labelled as having special educational needs (SEN) in England has fallen by almost 90,000 in just two years, official figures have revealed.
The decrease comes after the government said there were "perverse incentives to over-identify children as having SEN", claiming in last year's Green Paper on SEN reform that schools had "perpetuated a culture of low expectations". Ofsted inspectors have also said that children were being wrongly identified as having SEN simply because teaching was not good enough.
But figures reveal that after a number of years of consistent growth in SEN figures, the total is now falling. In January 2010, 1.48 million pupils were listed by schools as having SEN; this year that number had fallen to 1.39 million, or 17 per cent of the school population.
The fall is in the number of children identified by teachers as having less severe needs, who are then placed on the School Action and School Action Plus registers. The number of children with SEN statements - which have to be agreed by experts, rather than teachers - has remained static at just under 3 per cent of all pupils.
Paul Williams, chair of the SEN committee at the NAHT heads' union, said the drop could have been prompted by Ofsted's critical report, which was published two years ago.
The removal of the contextual value added measure on school league tables could also have contributed. Ofsted inspectors said the measure provided an incentive for schools to label children as having SEN, as it helped them to get a higher score.
"They know that inspectors will question if they are using appropriate interventions. They are more mindful of this," said Mr Williams, who is head of Shaftesbury High, a special school near Harrow, northwest London. "There has also been more emphasis on SEN training in recent years. Teachers may be using these skills to support earlier intervention, before a child is put on the SEN register."
Schools may also be less willing to use the SEN register because they are not confident that they will get local authority funding to pay for extra support, school leaders have suggested.
"There is less money coming in. For School Action, schools have to look within their own funds, and teachers seem to be looking for more creative ways of providing support," Mr Williams said.
The drop in SEN numbers follows a consistent rise in recent years. In 2003, just 14 per cent of children were placed on the School Action and School Action Plus registers, but that had reached 18.3 per cent by 2010.
Brian Lamb, who led a review of parental confidence in the SEN system for the last Labour government, also identified training and funding as key reasons for the drop. But he said that the most important question to ask was whether children's needs were being met.
"It's positive to see a fall as long as we can be sure this is because of better assessment and the removal of perverse incentives," said Mr Lamb, who is now chair of the SEN charity Achievement for All. "I hope the fall is not because schools are not addressing special educational needs."
A Department for Education spokeswoman said it was not in children's interest to be labelled as having SEN if they ended up with the wrong support.
"We are working with experts to draw a much tighter definition so children who need the most help get specialist provision," she said. "And we are putting in place much better training and targeted teaching and pastoral support to address all the complex underlying reasons that may account for children who fall behind at school."
Original headline: SEN numbers drop by 90,000 after Ofsted rebuke