Society has a learning difficulty

14th November 2008 at 00:00
Four times more children may suffer from special educational needs than previously thought

The scottish Government has been accused of "sleepwalking into the biggest public healthcare crisis of our time", following the publication of figures which reveal four times more children in Scottish schools might suffer from special educational needs than was previously thought.

But the Scottish Government has added a health warning.

A survey published on Wednesday found that more than 120,000 Scottish pupils may be affected by learning difficulties such as ADHD, Aspergers and dyslexia - more than one schoolchild in every six.

Compared with government figures published last year, showing at most 30,000 cases of additional learning support, the new figures suggest that significant numbers of children with learning difficulties are going unidentified and unsupported.

The survey, carried out by charity Mindroom and presented this week at the Scottish Parliament, was sent to around 30,000 UK schools; 800 valid responses were received.

The Scottish Government, however, has warned that the figures should be treated with caution. "Only a very small proportion of the schools in this survey - less than one in 10 - are Scottish, and the response rate was less than 3 per cent," a spokesperson pointed out. "So this survey cannot give a comprehensive picture of the situation in Scotland's schools as a whole.

"The Scottish Government wants all children, including those with additional needs, to have the opportunity to learn and develop, with access to the most effective and appropriate education services."

The Mindroom survey also revealed that, over the past five years, just 0.6 per cent of the Pounds 267 million research budget of the Scottish Chief Scientific Office was spent on research related to learning difficulties. Over that period, no money at all was spent researching ADHD, dyspraxia, Tourette's syndrome, or deficit in attention, motor control and perception (DAMP). Just Pounds 41,000 was spent on researching dyslexia, thought to affect as many as one in 10 people.

Meanwhile, total expenditure by the UK Medical Research Council on learning difficulties over the period was also well below one per cent of its Pounds 2.6 million budget.

As well as more money for research, Mindroom is calling for more investment in educating teachers so they can identify and support pupils with learning difficulties.

But a key demand from the campaigners is for the world's first Mindroom to be created in Scotland. At a cost of around Pounds 10 million, it would be a one-stop diagnostic centre for children with special needs, bringing research, education and diagnosis together.

Mindroom's campaign has the support of international experts and celebrities. These include Simon Baron Cohen, director of the Cambridge Autism Research Centre, and Edinburgh-based author, Alexander McCall Smith. It has also received a boost in the form of a parliamentary motion endorsing its call for action.

Mindroom's founder, Sophie Dow, whose 18-year-old daughter suffers from a chromosome deficiency which causes learning difficulties, said: "Too many people with learning difficulties are condemned to long-term unemployment or - worse - committing crime, because they don't get the help and understanding they desperately need. Without concerted action, these shocking new figures suggest we risk sleepwalking into the biggest public healthcare crisis of our time."

Ms Dow, a journalist and originally from Sweden, added: "Our society seems to have a blind spot - its own form of learning difficulty - towards people with special needs. Society's inability to meet their needs is part of, and adds to, the problem."

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