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special educational needs

Special educational needs-a problem with the diagnostic test?

Ami Banerjee
Last edited 16th September 2010

Just over one in five pupils – 1.7 million school-age children in England – are identified as having special educational needs. An Ofsted report
this week claims that half of children in UK schools have been labelled incorrectly as “special educational needs” or SEN. There has been much debate in the media about whether this was to raise extra revenue for schools or to save money on teachers’ wages.

Given the implications on the child, the parents and the educational system, I was amazed how difficult it was to find out about how SEN is diagnosed. In practice, children with SEN encompass a wide variety of conditions from autism and dyslexia to ADHD. SEN are defined by one website as:
• significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of their age;
• a disability which prevents or hinders them from making use of educational facilities of a kind generally provided for children of the same age in schools within the area
• Is under compulsory school age and falls within the definition above or would do so if special educational provision was not made for them.

Even though it is in the field of education and not directly health-related, I was reminded of problems in inaccurate diagnosis in evidence-based medicine. The issues of money and stakeholder interests are no different to the conflicts of interest often found in health research. However the major issue is that children who have been falsely diagnosed with SEN are “false positives”. Therefore the way we are diagnosing SEN is not specific enough. Surely there needs to be a debate about the way we diagnose SEN?

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