SENtenced to failure?
Tim* was just seven years old when teachers decided that he might not be able to cope with the rigours of secondary education.
They assessed him as having no chance of getting five good GCSEs and pointed to his poor ability at reading, spelling and maths. Tim also had difficulty understanding lessons and suffered from a very short attention span. His speech and language skills were significantly delayed for his age.
So it was almost inevitable that Tim, like 1.6 million other children in England - 21 per cent of pupils - would be labelled as having special educational needs (SEN). Unlike the majority of these pupils, however, Tim was also given a statement, implying that he had particularly poor prospects.
Yet new evidence suggests that the SEN system is deeply flawed. Designed to help teachers identify children's needs so that they can support them and guide them back into mainstream education, critics suggest that, in many schools, SEN has become a convenient label for underprivileged pupils, sentencing the most vulnerable children to a lifetime of failure.
Poverty was never meant to be a qualifying factor for SEN. Yet TES can reveal that SEN rates are far higher in deprived areas and among children from poorer families - indeed, primary pupils who claim free school meals are more than twice as likely to be given the label.
In affluent Richmond upon Thames in West London, just 11.8 per cent of primary pupils are on the SEN register, but 200 miles north in Liverpool, an area of greater deprivation, the figure jumps to 22.6 per cent.
In Nottingham, where schools languish towards the bottom of the league tables and a third of pupils qualify for free school meals, a quarter of under-11s are on the SEN register. In the area administered by Nottinghamshire County Council, however, where just 15 per cent of children receive free school meals, this falls to 16 per cent. There are similar paradoxes in schools across the country.
"So many children from disadvantaged families seem to be handed out this label," says Katharine Ann Angel, a teacher and author who has years of experience fostering and teaching children with SEN. "I do believe, for example, in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but some of these children have erratic or poor behaviour because of poor parenting - very few books, very poor diet and very late bedtimes."
And the government is concerned. A review of the SEN system by Ofsted in 2010 claimed that children were being wrongly labelled as SEN when their underachievement was a result of poor teaching. In one primary school, inspectors saw children with SEN being taught mainly by teaching assistants who were spoon-feeding them information to ensure that they would complete an undemanding task correctly. Meanwhile, nearby, other pupils were "enthusiastically" working on a far more dynamic history project.
Ofsted branded this "not good enough" and said it highlighted the fact that too many teachers have low expectations of children with SEN. The watchdog concluded that "in too many cases there was a culture of excuses".
Jean Gross, the government's former "champion" for children with speech, language and communication needs, accepts that the SEN register can be "used as an explanation for failure".
"One-third of nine- and 10-year-old boys have SEN. It's at that age that schools start to think they are not going to get a level 4 on their Sats, so they get labelled as having SEN," she says. "Teachers are also worried the child will not get help when they move to secondary school. This is not done out of malice - schools are just trying to explain themselves. It's a real incentive to do this when schools don't hit their floor target."
But she adds that there is a distinct difference between poor and affluent areas in the way children are labelled. "The sort of SEN you get in affluent schools refers to specific learning difficulties or conditions," she says. "But in less affluent schools, more children are diagnosed with behavioural, social and emotional difficulties, and moderate learning difficulties."
Triumph over the SEN tag
Tim is now 18 and studying for a sports degree at university, confounding the predictions about his potential. Despite his unpromising start, he went on to get 11 GCSEs with A-C grades, including English and maths. He succeeded after his teachers at Lyng Hall, a secondary school in Coventry, removed his SEN tag, which they saw as a "pointless label". They believed he could do better and so Tim believed it, too.
"The support I had from teachers made a big difference," Tim says. "I had extra tuition in English and maths in Year 11, which helped me make steps forward. I also went to after-school study clubs and that helped me improve my grades.
"The school knew me and other children had it in us to do well and they helped us achieve our full potential."
Paul Green, headteacher of Lyng Hall, says: "What's true in Year 7 is not true by Year 9. Teachers should be constantly probing children's ability to learn.
"Tim never had low expectations of himself, nor did his parents or teachers. He worked with one teacher for 20 hours a week and was closely monitored. Eventually, the barriers in his mind unravelled, and he was more receptive and could cope with the work.
`The statement was useful to us at first, because it showed us he used to struggle. It wasn't wrong for him to have it, because it gave us information. But we always had the assumption that he could do better - we never take it for granted that children won't. Once you just accept things, you condemn children and they don't make as much progress."
Green uses the Achievement for All programme, which is designed to help teachers avoid "labelling" pupils. Instead, they are encouraged to support students without singling out a particular group. And it seems to be working.
In 2009, half of the 600 pupils at Lyng Hall went on the SEN register. By 2011, the number had fallen to 32 per cent. The figure is currently 23 per cent.
The proportion getting five good GCSEs including English and maths rose from 39 per cent three years ago to 49 per cent last year.
Label for life?
Politicians have long been aware of the SEN dilemma and have repeatedly raised concerns about the way children are assessed. Former Labour ministers flagged up "inconsistency" in the criteria and expressed fears that children were being diagnosed with SEN "too readily" or "too late".
The coalition administration has gone a step further. The recent SEN and Disability Green Paper blamed league tables for creating "perverse incentives to over-identify children as having SEN" and suggested that there was "compelling evidence that these labels of SEN have perpetuated a culture of low expectations".
This spring, children's minister Sarah Teather will set out reforms to the SEN system and a time frame for introducing them.
But concerns remain that the system will continue to be misused, with more working-class children being branded SEN - a label that is meant to be a temporary signal that a child needs help, but which can stick for life. The mislabelling can occur because teachers have no knowledge of the damaging environment a child may be enduring at home, leading them to misunderstand their problems.
Sean* was the fifth of seven children and missed significant amounts of primary schooling because of poor parenting. His father was in prison for abuse, and his mother was a heavy drinker and neglectful of her children. Sean was labelled SEN and his behaviour became so disruptive that he was taken into care.
Every time he created a problem at school, he was excluded, often for up to a fortnight. Yet when he had access to private tuition - three hours a day from a foster parent who was a teacher - it was discovered that his reading was above average for his age and that he was intelligent and interested in learning.
The questions he asked were more like those posed by a much younger child, which could easily have given educators the wrong impression: "Are all cats female and all dogs male?" "What is real out of Father Christmas, elves, fairies and leprechauns?" However, he was excited by war poetry and the work of poet Rupert Brooke.
Sean went back into care - and no education system picked him up again. Not until he committed a serious crime, aged 15, and went to prison for several years did he study and gain six GCSEs with good grades. He had slipped through the system. Was he truly SEN or simply troubled and neglected?
`Culture of dependency'
No teacher willingly ignores a child they believe has SEN. But there are reasons why more difficult children may be labelled that way. A school with greater numbers of SEN children is likely to have a better contextual value added (CVA) rating because these pupils can be shown to have made greater improvements. Schools can also bid for support staff and local authority funding to pay for extra services for such pupils.
But Bob Balchin, now Lord Lingfield, who led the Conservative Party's last review of SEN seven years ago, believes that the current system has led to a "sad culture of dependency". He says that "if schools are offered a sum of money to do a job, it's only human nature they are going to suggest that job needs doing".
And the use of SEN to explain away problems caused by deprivation has led, in some schools, to the majority of pupils being labelled in this way.
In England, 600 primary schools have between 35 and 50 per cent of pupils registered as having SEN. And there are 57 schools where more than half the pupils are categorised in this way. At secondary level, 42 schools have at least half their students on the SEN register and 238 have rates of between 35 and 50 per cent.
In 2010, 53 per cent of children at St Anne's Park Primary in Bristol were classed as having SEN. And in Year 6 - when pupils take Sats - this jumped to 56 per cent; 40 per cent of children are eligible for free school meals at St Anne's Park, which is twice the national average.
When headteacher Gareth Jones took over the school two years ago, he looked hard at the SEN numbers. He found places at special schools for children with severe needs, but he also discovered many other pupils he believed should not be on the register at all. They may have needed extra support in the past, but they no longer had SEN and were now making good progress.
"The problem in some primary schools is there is a culture that, when children go on School Action and School Action Plus, it's difficult to get them off that register," he says. "That shouldn't be the case. SEN should not be a label for life, but unfortunately that does happen."
St Anne's Park is an interesting case. Over the past decade, its demographic has changed dramatically. Whereas previously 98 per cent of children there were white British, now some 16 per cent of pupils are immigrants from Eastern Europe.
Jones found that some pupils who have English as an additional language had been put on the SEN register when they joined the school and were still on it five years later, despite no longer having SEN. After his re- evaluation, only 21 per cent of pupils are classed as having SEN. One child has a statement, 20 are on School Action Plus and nine are on School Action.
At St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School, a high-achieving secondary in Bristol, the story is very different - teachers do not label children as having SEN, even when they are getting extra support.
During the last academic year, just 8 per cent of GCSE pupils were on School Action and 2.4 per cent of children were on School Action Plus or had statements.
Headteacher Elisabeth Gilpin admits that teachers deliberately "under- report" the number of pupils with SEN, with only those dealt with by the school's SEN department being included on the register.
However, the school provides underachieving pupils with learning mentors and teachers run one-to-one and small-group literacy sessions for those who do not reach the expected level in their Sats.
The school is now reviewing its practice as staff fear they may be presenting the picture "unfairly". "The percentage of pupils in this school who require additional support is a lot more than we record on our School Action and School Action Plus registers," Gilpin says. "The problem for schools is that, if you under-report, you somehow seem less deserving of additional funding.
"It also means that we are not demonstrating the considerable progress our pupils who receive extra help are making. Perhaps we are not giving ourselves credit for moving children on. We are clearly underselling the amount of work we do."
If Teather has her way, School Action and School Action Plus will be scrapped - replaced with a single category that she hopes will place greater accountability on schools to make sure all children fulfil their potential.
Fears of limited support
This decision has been criticised by teachers who feel it will mean that only children with easily identifiable medical and physical problems will be given extra support. Meanwhile, others working in the education system are not convinced that the change will stop working-class children being unnecessarily identified as having SEN.
Philippa Stobbs, former government adviser and now assistant director of the Council for Disabled Children, says the problem lies not with the numbers of children labelled as having SEN, but with the low expectations teachers often have of them.
"The recent figures show that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be identified as having SEN," she says. "What really matters is progress and outcomes for children with SEN, not whether they are on the register. Simply taking children off the register doesn't improve their outcomes."
Thirty years ago, the woman responsible for getting children with learning difficulties into mainstream schools, Mary Warnock - now Baroness Warnock - has since been critical of the impact of her groundbreaking reforms and does not believe that the new reforms to the SEN register, outlined in the Green Paper, will help.
"There are always going to be schools eager to identify children with SEN and others who will be unwilling," she says. "I can't see how the Green Paper will even this out because it doesn't address the fact that it is an advantage in various ways for schools to identify pupils."
Can Teather's reforms truly transform the SEN system? Will they help children from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds who may have been inappropriately classed as having special educational needs?
These children often do need extra support. But perhaps the real challenge lies outside the education system - dealing with their impoverished or troubled home environments, and putting them in a position where they feel safe and ready to learn, rather than lowering expectations about what they can achieve from the learning process.
How it works
If a pupil's rate of progress in lessons is inadequate, they are placed on the SEN register and classed as School Action or School Action Plus.
Those on School Action are overseen by a special educational needs coordinator (Senco), who decides what support they need. This continues for as long as the school deems fit.
If children need extra help or are not making progress, they are put on School Action Plus. The Senco will then get support for the pupil from other services, such as educational psychology or speech and language therapy.
* Names have been changed