Thousands of children with behavioural problems could be left without support under government plans to significantly reduce the number of pupils labelled as having special educational needs (SEN), heads' leaders have warned.
Ministers have claimed that SEN is over-diagnosed and want to cut the rate at which pupils are categorised as having behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD). The term is overused by schools and does not result in the correct support being put in place for children who most need it, according to children's minister Sarah Teather.
Under plans announced this week, the BESD label will be reviewed by experts in a bid to identify underlying problems and give targeted support to pupils with the most serious problems. The number of children described as having BESD rose by 23 per cent between 2005-10, to a total of 158,000 pupils.
But while many in the SEN field have welcomed the review, concerns have been raised that the desire to cut numbers could mean children do not get the help they need and may lead to schools refusing to accept pupils.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT heads' union, said behavioural difficulties are genuine special educational needs that require "time and energy" to treat.
"The government might think BESD is overused, but this doesn't mean it is not a legitimate SEN category," he said. "There is a real fear changes to the category could make schools less inclined to take children with behavioural problems on if they are not going to get the resources they need to help them."
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that the reforms could lead to children who need help "slipping through the net".
"Whatever the BESD category is replaced with, the government has to make sure the support is still there and it's accessible," he said. "There has been an increase in the number of children with BESD and you can't brush that under the carpet. They need to be supported."
The BESD category of SEN was introduced in 2001, with ministers at the time believing that this group of children needed more specialist support.
The current government's proposal to review the category featured in its response to a consultation on plans to radically overhaul the whole SEN system. As reported by TES last week, this includes scrapping statements and introducing combined education, health and care plans.
Charlie Taylor, the government's behaviour tsar and former head of a BESD special school, said that the aim of the reform was to stop schools labelling children as having behavioural problems without first looking at underlying factors.
"There might be a more appropriate category of SEN for the child," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if we end up with fewer children in the BESD category, but they might go in others."
BESD pupils are the most likely of all pupils with statements to be eligible for free school meals. Professor Harry Daniels, a University of Bath academic and president of the Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties Association, said that the category had "always been a catch- all for a wide range of children with problems in their life".
Professor Sonia Blandford, founder and chief executive of the Department for Education-backed programme Achievement for All, which aims to help schools reform the way they teach children who have SEN, said that schools should work with parents to resolve these problems more quickly.
"Going down the labelling route, which often means waiting for an educational psychologist, can mean a problem that is low-level can turn acute," Professor Blandford said. "The outcome of a label can mean teacher expectations of the pupil are less and that's inherently wrong."
Replace SEN statements with single education, health and care plans.
Give personal budgets to the parents of children with SEN to give them greater choice over the support services they receive.
Provide legal protection for people with SEN in further education up to the age of 25.
Require local councils to publish details of the support available to children with disabilities and SEN.
Original headline: SEN shake-up will be bad for behaviour, heads warn