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جمعه, 27 نوامبر 2020
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Special needs is a fad that harms children

Children diagnosed with special needs can be given laptops and MP3 players Photo: Alamy
Twenty years ago, when I started teaching in a tough, inner-city comprehensive, only three of my pupils were labelled as having "special educational needs". All three were extreme cases: one girl liked to throw chairs at her teachers, another had severe hearing problems, and another didnt have a working stomach.
Today, things have swung to the other extreme: classrooms are swamped by pupils classified as "SEN", or having learning difficulties. All told, one in three of those aged between six and 16, or more than two million children, are identified as having some sort of learning difficulty. And its getting worse: in the past two years, the number of under-fives with learning difficulties has risen by almost 20 per cent, and the number of teenagers being diagnosed has also increased exponentially.
Why is this? Is it that our children have got a lot thicker? Are teachers getting better at identifying problems? Or is some kind of chronic "SEN" inflation going on?
Partly, the explanation is medical. A recent survey by Glasgow University showed that babies born even a week early have a greater propensity to develop special needs. Overall, eight out of 10 severely premature babies go on to have learning difficulties, with two out of 10 having a severe disability. Even a decade ago, many such children would have died; with todays improved survival rates, they will grow up to enter the education system.
At the same time, teachers are undoubtedly getting better at spotting SEN. There are, of course, huge variations from school to school, with some, particularly in more deprived areas, identifying as many as 70 per cent of their pupils as such. To my mind, they are justified in doing so, because there is a clear link between social deprivation and what we call SEN: poverty breeds students who really struggle to read and write. In that inner-city classroom I mentioned, alongside the three children labelled as having special needs there were many others who struggled to read even simple picture books. Nowadays, most would be diagnosed as having SEN. And with good reason – they needed a lot of extra help.

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