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UK has FIVE times as many 'special needs' pupils as EU average: Schools accused of classifying poor performers as having learning difficulties

A fifth of pupils, or 1.6m, identified as having special educational needs

Represent 19.8% of school population, compared with EU average of 4%

The number of children identified with learning difficulties in England is five times the European average because schools too often classify under-performing pupils as having special educational needs, it was claimed last night.

A fifth of pupils, or 1.6million, have been identified as having special educational needs (SEN).

They represent 19.8 per cent of the school population, compared with an EU average of 4 per cent, according to an analysis of European Commission figures from 29 countries.

The statistics are revealed in a book from the ARK Schools chain of academies and the CentreForum think-tank which claims youngsters are being routinely over-classified as having SEN.

This ‘special needs inflation’ is contributing to a worrying ‘tail of underachievement’ in the country’s schools that is letting down thousands of pupils.

The book, The Tail: How England’s Schools Fail One Child In Five – And What Can Be Done, was publicly endorsed by Education Secretary Michael Gove this week.

He criticised schools for using the SEN label as an excuse for under-performance, insisting there was no reason why a child with visual impairment or deafness could not do well at school.

Paul Marshall, chairman of ARK Schools, which runs academies in London and Birmingham, said: ‘There would need to be something very wrong with the water for England to have five times the special needs of our European peers.

‘The true explanation lies in a system of skewed incentives which encourages schools to over-classify children.’

Sophy Blakeway, its director of education, said many schools ‘have reached too readily for the SEN label when faced with pupil underachievement’.

She added that this approach is ‘perpetuating a culture of low expectations which has too often trapped children in the tail of low attainment’.

League table performance measures scrapped by the Coalition meant schools could boost their rankings by having higher numbers of SEN children.

But Miss Blakeway said there was still a ‘perverse incentive’ for schools to over-identify SEN to prove they were improving the average attainment of these pupils compared with their non-SEN peers during Ofsted inspections.

Ofsted should instead focus on a school’s success in improving the progress of low attainers and moving children off the SEN register.

Schools – particularly those in disadvantaged areas – should also be acknowledged in Ofsted judgements for using the SEN label ‘sparingly’.

She added: ‘This requires a cultural shift away from locating all issues around low attainment in the child and asking hard but honest questions about how much of it is due to poor teaching.’

In 2010, Ofsted found that around 450,000 children would not be identified as having SEN if schools focused on improving teaching and learning for all.

In some schools, a ‘culture of excuses’ meant pupils making slow progress were automatically classed as having SEN, the education watchdog warned.

Jean Gross, the Government’s former speech and language tsar, has also said a special needs diagnosis could be ‘used as an explanation for failure’.

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