Has reporting of Special Educational Needs improved?

15th May 2012

Today the Government announced that families are to be given 'personal budgets' for their children with Special Educational Needs (SEN). The reforms are also expected to reduce the number of schoolchildren who are identifed as having SEN.

Ministers argue that this is necessary, pointing to research released two years ago by Ofsted which suggested that many pupils were being wrongly diagnosed with SEN. 

Long-standing Full Fact readers may remember that, when we looked at the Ofsted report ourselves two years ago we found that problems with the way that the findings were reported by some outlets. In particular the Telegraph and the Guardian printed corrections after they significantly overstated the number of misdiagnosed children.

So what does the research actually show?

In 2010 1,691,790 pupils were identified by Ofsted as having SEN, as the following table from the report shows:

Ofsted found that: 

"As many as half of all pupils identified for School Action would not be identified as having special educational needs if schools focused on improving teaching and learning for all, with individual goals for improvement."

When pupils require 'School Action', they have "additional learning needs" and receive additional support from within their school. 915,850 fall into this category, which means that a little over 450,000 could have been misdiagnosed if Ofsted's research is correct.

However some reporters seemed to have been under the impression that Ofsted had suggested that half of all pupils placed in all categories of SEN were being misdiagnosed, and therefore ran with the higher figure of either 750,000 or even 850,000.

The problem was compounded by the fact that Ofsted was reluctant to correct the mistake. Indeed it wasn't until Full Fact asked for a Parliamentary Question to be tabled that Ofsted went on the record over the correct interpretation of the figure.

At the time we were worried that inaccurate information could influence the direction of policy in this sensitive area. We were therefore extremely pleased that all the reports on the topic that we've seen today used the correct figure, as did Children's Minister Sarah Teather in interviews:

Sky News: "Official figures suggest around one in five schoolchildren - roughly 1.7m - are classed as having special needs."

BBC Today Programme: "A report by Ofsted in 2010 concluded that as many as 450,000 pupils had been wrongly identified as having problems with learning"

Daily Mail: "ministers believe that up to 450,000 youngsters are identified as having special educational needs, or SEN, without justification"

Daily Telegraph: "Ofsted has claimed that as many as 450,000 "special needs" children are actually no different from other pupils"