Special needs race row

21st October 2005 at 01:00

Experts say that ethnic-minority pupils are being wrongly consigned to special schools. Jon Buscall reports

A massive increase in the number of children placed in special schools has resulted partly from the incorrect diagnosis of ethnic-minority youngsters, according to an investigation by Sweden's biggest newspaper.

The number of upper-secondary children in special schools has increased by 89 per cent since 1993, while the figure for junior pupils has risen by 71 per cent, a new study by the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions has found.

Special schools, or SArskolor, are intended for pupils who cannot follow the national curriculum because of severe disabilities or developmental problems.

But the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter claims National Education Agency officials have admitted that one explanation for the increase is that ethnic-minority children are being wrongly diagnosed as having special needs because their Swedish is poor.

The agency has denied the claim. Carin Holtz, its director of education, said there were no concrete figures to support the paper's claim. But she revealed that a parliamentary committee had recently looked into the issue.

Council workers in Danderyd and TAby, just north of Stockholm, confirmed to The TES that some children are misplaced.

Per Lodeneus, an education administrator at Danderyd district council, said: "It's the children who don't have an obvious mental or physical disability that are difficult to diagnose. We work hard to make the right recommendation for each individual."

The NEA requires that a child must undergo a variety of physical and psychological tests before a place at a special needs school is offered.

But Ms Holtz told Dagens Nyheter: "There are quite a few municipalities who do not test children properly."

Guhn Godani, a licensed psychologist and psychotherapist who works with immigrants and asylum-seekers for Save the Children Sweden, said she is aware of cases where immigrant children have been misplaced. "But I don't think we're talking great numbers."

Even if a school and local authority recommend that a child be placed in a special school, parents can, in theory, insist that a child remain in the mainstream. Parents can also request that their child be taken out of a special school at any time.

"The trouble is that parents, and especially immigrants, don't necessarily know how the system works," said Anneli Nuanes, a teacher at a junior school in Rinkeby, one of Stockholm's largest immigrant communities. Ms Nuanes has worked extensively with parents whose children have been judged to have special needs. "They don't always speak Swedish. And they're not always aware that in some local authorities their child's case will not be re-evaluated unless they specifically request it."

Mrs Nuanes said that many parents were not aware that the special needs school leaving certificate, awarded at 16, only gives admission to special needs senior high school and prevents them from going on to university.

"It doesn't qualify them for higher education," Mr Lodeneus said. "That's why it's important principals and local authorities, with teachers and medical staff, make the correct recommendation."

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