What are special needs?

14th July 2000 at 01:00
I BEGAN reading the booklet What are special needs? An analysis of a new growth industry by John Marks with some sympathy. Huge amounts are unaccountably spent on special needs in education, Marks asserts, and no one is sure how special needs are defined. So far so good. These are important issues. But from then on it is "Warp factor 8, Mr Sulu" and we're off into hyperspace: rising numbers of children with special needs are due to the Plowden Report; we should have more phonics to help prevent special needs occurring; selection should be increased within and between schools; and children who are not doing well should repeat a year.

Marks is right to say that there are no objective criteria for assessing whether a child has special educational needs. He is probably also right when he says that "the system has a vested interest in failure: the more children with SEN that can be identified, the greater the resources that can be claimed". He charts proportions of children with statements in different local education authorities and overall numbers of children recorded according to Code of Practice stages and concludes that it is all a bit of a mess. The conclusion is correct: special needs are currently identified relativistically - there are no absolute measures. Since schools can get more resources by raising numbers, they do so.

But having recognised that problems of definition inevitably invalidate the counting exercise, Marks then makes the extraordinary step of employing - evidently unselfconsciously - precisely the statistics derived from the relativistic assumptins he has challenged. He repeatedly says "we don't know - and nobody knows" about numbers of children with special needs, and then proceeds to lament the "great expansion in the number of pupils deemed to have special educational needs". Not only this, he offers an explanation for it: it is "a symptom of the substantial under-achievement in many schools".

So now the expansion is not merely a way for schools to get more money: it is caused by bad teaching - notably the scandalous decline in phonics teaching. Again he forgets that he has shown that the statistics mean practically nothing when it comes to objectively stating real levels of need and goes on to use those statistics in the reporting of a "case study" (in reality an item from the Daily Telegraph), which notes that a school in London that uses phonics has very low levels of children on the SEN register, in contrast to neighbouring schools. Unblushingly, a whole page is devoted to the Daily Telegraph report, including the line: "Effectively, phonics keeps children off the SEN register." There we are then: the solution is simple.

Thirty years ago, the psychologist RH Thouless wrote a book called Straight and Crooked Thinking, in which he noted some legitimate and illegitimate devices used in argument. For those teaching students of education, Marks's booklet would make a good companion volume to Thouless's tome.


Gary Thomas is chair in education at Oxford Brookes University. 'What are special educational needs?' by John Marks, Centre for Policy Studies, pound;7.50. Tel: 020 7222 4488

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