SEN update: Full Fact complains to the PCC

10 November 2010

Back in September, Full Fact examined some widely-reported figures concerning the over-diagnosis of Special Educational Needs (SEN), and found many of them to be significantly exaggerated.

The errors stemmed from a confusion over which categories of SEN students were included in an Ofsted estimate that over half were misdiagnosed.

We judged that the lowest figure mentioned in the press was the one that agreed with Ofsted's research. Now, as we reported last Wednesday, Ofsted have responded to a Parliamentary Question based on Full Fact research.

Their answer confirmed our conclusions that the newspapers which cited the level of over-identification as up to 750,000 have overstated Ofsted's claims by around 300,000 children.

More importantly, the higher figure inaccurately cast doubts on the whole School Action Plus SEN programme, about which Ofsted said "there was no such finding."

Coming at a time when an overhaul of SEN policy is under consultation, we think it is vital that current schemes are not misrepresented in this way.

Some publications willingly corrected their stories when we alerted them to the inaccuracies, but others have continued to defend their original figures in spite of clear indications that they are mistaken.

To put the matter beyond doubt, we had extensive correspondence and discussions with Ofsted, who confirmed our view in private but refused to say anything, publicly or privately, to instigate corrections from the holdout papers. That's a funny way for public servants to behave.

On the other hand we were grateful to Peers who responded to our briefing when the House of Lords debated Ofsted's Review, leading to the Minister accepting that there was misreporting going on.

We have also responded to the government SEN Green Paper consultation and are now confident that these misperceptions will not influence policy makers' views, although we will monitor the forthcoming Education Bill to make sure.

With Ofsted refusing to go public, Full Fact was able to work with SEN expert Lord Low of Dalston (himself blind) to use a Parliamentary Question to force them onto the record.

Even then, after almost two months of concerted, polite effort on the part of Full Fact to remove inaccurate figures from the debate the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Independent still refuse to correct their stories. Indeed, the Independent and the Mail both repeated the claim. They say they will not correct except at the request of Ofsted themselves.

This is a clear breach of the Editors' Code of Practice, which demands that "a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence..."

We have therefore complained to the Press Complaints Commission, and will be updating readers on the progress of our complaint.

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