How many special needs children are misdiagnosed?

14 September 2010

The publication of an Ofsted report into the educational provision for children with special educational needs (SEN) has dominated the day's headlines.

The suggestion in the report that many pupils categorised as having SEN were misdiagnosed has characterised media coverage of the findings.

However when Full Fact compared these reports, we found that not all the figures were reliable.

The Claim

Take these three different slants on the findings from the national media:

The Daily Telegraph: "Schools are wrongly labelling almost 750,000 children as having special needs to disguise poor teaching, according to Ofsted."

The BBC: "It said up to 25% of the 1.7m pupils in England with special needs would not be so labelled if schools focused more on teaching for all their children."

The Guardian: "Half of special needs children misdiagnosed".

There are 1.7 million children with SEN, but 750,000 is neither half nor 25 per cent of this total, meaning at least one of these reports, among others has to be inaccurate.

Full Fact took a closer look.


It appears that of the three quotes above, that from the BBC is the most accurate.

The reason for the divergence between the three is that the Ofsted report did not give figures which directly correspond to the above statements.

Indeed, an Ofsted spokesman insisted that the numbers reported in the press were "not our figures".

Rather, the press coverage focuses on the Ofsted report's assertion that:  "We also recognise 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."

Unfortunately, this has been interpreted in different ways.

Taking the 915,850 children identified for School Action and halving it, this suggests up to 457,925 children are wrongly said to have SEN.

This in turn works out at about 27 per cent of the 1.7 million children identified as having SEN, more or less matching the BBC claim.

The Telegraph, however, includes the children identified for School Action Plus programmes.

This means that when interpreting Ofsted's phrase "half of all pupils identified for School Action", the report uses the higher figure of 1,470,900, which, when halved, suggests 735,450 children are misdiagnosed. This is then rounded up to 750,000 for the headline.

The table below highlights how the two different figures came about:



% of Children with SEN

School Action




School Action + School Action Plus




Given that School Action and School Action Plus are two different things, such extrapolations seem flawed.

Indeed when we contacted BBC reporter Heather Sharp about her figures, she told Full Fact that Ofsted had clarified that the original statement referred only to School Action pupils, and not those identified for School Action plus.

This then leaves the headlines such as that in the Guardian, which claim half of pupils with SEN have been misdiagnosed, looking even more inaccurate.

They are not the only news outlet to have given a misleading picture. The table below shows who got it right, who got it wrong, and why.

Up to 25% of SEN Pupils

Up to 700,000/750,000 SEN Pupils

As many as half of special needs children

Press Association

The Daily Telegraph

Sky News


The Daily Mail

The Guardian

Channel 4

The Independent

ITN Online


New Statesman

Those in the left hand column are the most accurate. A special mention should be given to both the Express and the Mirror, both of whole reported the more accurate 25 per cent figure, but this was due to the heavy reliance on the Press Association.


Ofsted obviously believe they are raising an important concern here about the over-diagnosis of children with low level special education needs. However, Children's Minister Sarah Teather emphasised today that there is also a problem with getting necessary support for children who do have special educational needs, even for those with the highest level of needs.

It is not just a simple question of diagnosis being too lax.

SEN policy is going to be heavily debated over the next few months. There was an Inquiry last year; the government have just started consulting over a Green Paper (which interested readers might like to respond to).

In addition, in the debate over the recent Academies Bill, SEN was the subject of significant government and opposition amendments.

It will certainly be a theme of the debates on the forthcoming Education and Children's Bill.

These debates need to be based on the best information possible for the sake of the hundreds of thousands of children who will complete their schooling before the system is reviewed again.

Because of this, Full Fact will be contacting the media outlets we've identified as having misunderstood this story to correct the record. We will also be asking Ofsted to issue a clarification. Follow us on Twitter or check the blog for updates.

Patrick Casey

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