Total Eclipse of the SEN

September 19, 2010

Sometimes, it feels like the people commenting on this blog are the only sane people in an insane system. Sometimes, it feels like the press, public and politicians will never pick up on what is going on in our schools. Sometimes, I feel like nobody even believes me when I tell them about it. This feeling has often afflicted me most greatly when discussing SEN.

Anybody raised in the era of Children In Need and Noel’s Christmas Presents will have an instinctive tendency to equate compassion primarily with helping disabled or seriously ill children. It is so much a part of the emotional software of the British people that it is hard to have any kind of discussion about what might, or might not, benefit disabled children without provoking in people an instinctive desire to show how compassionate they are. Debate about Special Educational Needs shows this tendency in full, if you do not support the most expensive, extravagant, inclusive and emotive ideas about SEN then you are clearly some kind of borderline Nazi who would have had Helen Keller strangled at birth. Competitive compassion is the name of the game and anybody who asks questions like “Is that really a disability?” or “Does that actually help anybody?” must be a sociopath who thinks “A Christmas Carol” should have ended with Scrooge going over to Bob Cratchit’s house and giving Tiny Tim a good kicking. No matter how many times you point out that only a tiny proportion of  SEN students have physical disabilities and that most have a “hidden” disability, conceived as a position on a spectrum, diagnosed by observing their behaviour, debate tends to continue as if the SEN racket is focused on the blind, the deaf and the lame. Heaven forbid that anyone mention that most of the children on the SEN register in their school have never been seen by a doctor for their supposed disorders, and, anecdotally, many of those who have, did so only as part of a scam to become eligible for disability benefits.

That’s not to say nobody ever challenged the orthodoxy. There was a ripple of interest when the system’s designer disowned it. The Education Select Committee also declared that the system was “demonstrably no longer fit for purpose”. But the most high profile attempts to challenge the educational ideology were from people from far outside the educational mainstream. Peter Hitchens’ entertaining rants about ADHD in the Daily Mail were never likely to change anything when he was known for supporting  fringe causes that can’t be taken seriously, like Creationism, climate change denial or the Church of England. That something was deeply wrong with SEN seemed to be known to most teachers but the educational establishment would never admit it.

Times appear to have changed. I was surprised a few months back when the Guardian published a letter about people seeking fraudulent diagnoses that previously would have been the sort of thing that only appeared in the Mail. I was more amazed when Francis Gilbert, a journalist and teacher, wrote this for the Telegraph. A surprise given that Gilbert had in the past been willing to act as an apologist for our failing schools system, (most noticeably here, accusing Frank Chalk of hating children and describing Alan Steer as “heroic”). Attitudes were clearly changing.

This week though, incredibly, OFSTED has discovered what is going on. Their latest report tells us about a failing and ineffective system. That OFSTED could find the system flawed and found reason to blame poor teaching is not a shock. OFSTED always do this sort of thing. If you asked OFSTED to investigate the cause of the First World War, they’d blame poor teaching and a failure to monitor outcomes. What is a shock is that OFSTED has correctly identified what is wrong with the system.

It has been noticed that children are being labelled with SEN for no good reason. OFSTED’s investigation found that half of the students on the School Action lists shouldn’t be there. Not a shock to teachers who have seen dubious diagnoses multiplying (well, perhaps it is a shock that it is only half) but for the inspectors to blow the whistle on this is delightful. The report also observes that even for students with genuine disabilities the interventions are often ineffective due to being inappropriate, or poor quality, or both. They found “evidence that the way the system is currently designed contributes to these problems”. In fact without actually saying “it’s all a load of paperwork that does nobody any good” they managed to point out that for outside support “[t]oo often, the agencies focused simply on whether a service was or was not being provided rather than whether it was effective” and within schools “the annual review of statements focused on what had been provided for the child or young person rather than on its actual impact”. In a section about special schools the use of worthless targets was described: “Without any internal or external benchmarking, using these targets to judge whether children or young people were making good progress was extremely subjective.”

And so there we have it. The SEN Racket widely identifies disabilities which don’t exist and plans interventions which don’t actually work and this is supported by a system based around piles of paperwork which do nobody any good.




  1. This was the same OFSTED who 15 years ago were telling me that as a Head of Modern Languages I should be identifying 20% of each cohort as Having SEN.

    Having made us do it they then blame us!

  2. A side effect of this racket is those who do have real SEN don’t often get any help, because it is wasted on euphemisms for “thick” and “badly behaved”, neither of which is a Special Need.

    I think most teachers at least partly agree with you. Most of the mouthpieces don’t. Often it is parents ; try saying “ADHD is wildly overdiagnosed” or my pet hate “ODD” doesn’t exist and you will get flak extraordinaire.

    The best example is Tourette’s. No-one doubts this does exist ; there are people with uncontrollable ticks.

    But every child I’ve seen diagnosed “Tourette’s” simply likes swearing and is well capable of stopping it when it suits them.

    Like those with ODD, if the instruction is to do something they want to do, it’s less of a problem, miraculously.

    I tend to go for the “South Park” cure to most ADHD.

  3. SEN is a tricky area due to it’s nebular system of needs which are so broad that probably every child qualifies in some way. I don’t blame parents for trying to get extra help for their children – I so blame professionals in education and medicine for allowing such abuses to take place

  4. SOOOOO, what do we do with the nutters then?

    • Bring back Borstals? That is if they are the things i’m thinking they are….

  5. The new solution (now that the EBHD/ADHD label is going out of fashion for lack of medical evidence) is to diagnose anyone without the social skills of a prom queen as….autistic. We had a powerpoint on it last inset. Afterwards I turned to a colleague (very bright, ex-management consultant, outstanding teacher) and said…that’s every academic; every “only child” I’ve ever known; every serious musician, and every one of my colleagues when I worked in IT.” “Yes” she said. “And that’s ME”.

    In fact, it’s the typical child who sulks for three years, then dyes their hair in Y9 and becomes a really nice hardworking, ironic Goth.

    I have also taught Aspergers and other ASD pupils, whose problems were real and did need a skilled approach. Whether a noisy classroom is the best place for them is another matter – but whoops we sold off our special schools, and sacked their specialised staff – so tough luck, kids.

  6. The letter to the Guardian was interesting. It was almost suggesting a kind of Munchhausen (spelling?) syndrome with a financial motive.

  7. Speaking as someone that has had to work their arse off to over come dyslexia as they go through various levels of education i must say i do prefer the tough love approach. Seriously, kids get a TA that will sit at their side and effectively do that work for them, what does that teach them about coping in the real world? Yes, children whose needs are *that* severa need the help, but once they’ve got a bit of steam behind them gently and slowly pull away the support so the kids can build up some resilliance.

    I have had tuition/one-to-one stuff in school when i was in the older years of primary, my parents paid out for a tutor for a while when i was in year 8 and then during my GCSE’s i did one optional subject less and spent some time in learning support. I didn’t have anyone sitting over my shoulder and i learnt to get on with the work, it might not have always been great keeping up with the rest (and this is where i’m lucky in that i am bright and modestly academic) but i got there. I might balk slightly if you give me a long reading/writing task to do but thats down to the fact i know it won’t be a pretty process, but i’ll still do it. Would i have this approach if i’d had someone sat next to me doing my work in lessons? I’d say probably not.

  8. So many of the SENS categories are both garbage and a disservice to people with real issues. I dated a guy with Tourettes- it is a very difficult condition which results in physical and verbal ‘tics’- usually wordless grunts or shrieks associated with physical shrugs, spasms or jerks- of the sort that aren’t ‘cool’, but are deeply embarrasing and difficult to live with. That comes with attention/concentration issues and outbursts of temper, but this is clearly the behaviour of someone struggling with normal social interaction, ashamed, humiliated, trying to control twitches and spasms, emotionally disturbed by the serious impact this has on their normal human interactions and trying desperately to hide their condition. My boyfriend would try so hard to hide his behaviour he would shake, then when he got into private shake and swear and spasm for up to thirty minutes at a time, like a spring that had been wound too tightly with the effort of containing the reactions. For a brat with no manners or social control to be certified under SEN as some sort of get-out-of-jail-free to excuse poor behaviour and a lack of interest in social norms does a huge disservice to those who struggle with real, debilitating illnesses every day

  9. An enjoyable post yet again. I think that some of the provocative and amusing points about the irrational and misty eyed idealism that permeates attitudes towards children are worth futher consideration. It also inspired questions such as; if what we (and by this, I mean my colleagues in SEN and I) do is so helpful, why have we apparently failed to improve the life chances for the majority of the most needy children? Another could be; if educators are nice to children at the expense of their education are we not, in reality, being nasty to them?

    However, I am concerned that you have identified issues within which there are a number of complicated threads. There are many more questions to which the answers are not clear. For example, is ADHD a myth? Alternatively, is ADHD a label which has been applied to a variety of problems to form one conflated, meaningless category? I have met numerous children labelled with ADHD who, in my view, have nothing medically wrong with them. Each of these children were very different, some academically able, some intellectually below average. Some have permissive parents, some have parents who are excessively strict to the point of being abusive. Their problems, however could not be reduced to a single simple factor such as “illness” or “lack of good old fashioned discipline.” Indeed, some of these children could be described as leadership and boundaries but others I could comfortably describe as being very disturbed.

    Special Educational Needs may appear to you to be a racket. Yet for some of the reasons mentioned and many more besides, of the children who fall into that category are destined to have immense difficulties in their lives. I cannot believe that this many children would have ordinarily attended special schools. Our society must address those somehow, if not out of idealism then because setting the young on a better course is ultimately pragmatic. Any suggestions?

    • “I cannot believe that this many children would have ordinarily attended special schools.”

      Of course they wouldn’t. The ones whose behaviour is perfectly responsive to meaningful discipline would not be displaying such behaviours in class or at home. The Special Schools would have taken those whose behaviour could not be held to be under their own voluntary control.

      I do believe that ADHD is a genuine complaint. I have known several children, all boys, who convinced me of that. But I have also known literally hundreds of other children who exhibited the same behaviour because they can. Because they have learnt it and have received no incentive they care tuppence about to discontinue it.

      It wouldn’t cost much to establish a system where punishment was feared (oooo the F word) enough to actually influence behaviour and thus assist with diagnosis, but it’s so much more right-on and compassionate to put them on the SEN reg and do sod all else for the next ten years.

  10. “Indeed, some of these children could be described as leadership and boundaries.”

    I should add the following correction

    Indeed, some of these children could be described as lacking leadership and boundaries.


  11. I sat through a SENCO presentation the other week on autism and came out of it convinced that I am autistic: I don’t like change, I get on with some people better than others, I am very interested in some things and other things just don’t interest me at all. That sort of thing. I’m not, of course, but the wooliness of the definitions of all things SEN mean that it is so easy to categorise a child.

    By the way, my step-daughter has difficulties learning. Doesn’t mean she cannot learn, just most things don’t get remembered (though she can remember her mobile number while I can’t remember mine). She was on the fringe of SEN help at school but since she kept her mouth shut, did her work to the best of her ability and didn’t push it, she didn’t get any. Can anyone answer the question of why the badly behaved get on the SEN lists first?

    • Because they pose the biggest threat to classroom anarchy. The rather slow child plodding away in the corner isn’t going to give the teacher a breakdown or bugger up the results. The Spawn Of Satan is, so he will be assigned a minder.

      I personally know three children (two are now teenagers) who are autistic. Their entire quality of life is compromised, their employment chances very limited, their parents’ unbounded supply of love unreturned. To hear the sort of INSET drivel and claptrap you describe as referring to “autism” is so insulting and dismissive that I would had to have been restrained from punching the presenter.

  12. […] a Total Eclipse of the SEN (Special Educational Needs) in Britain, writes Old Andrew. Till now, it’s been impossible to […]

  13. […] a Total Eclipse of the SEN (Special Educational Needs) in Britain, writes Old Andrew. Till now, it’s been impossible to […]

  14. At least the British system has the guts to look critically at this…in the US it’s called SpEd, and it a game of CYA for districts to comply with laws, not get sued and keep their numbers looking good. None of which helps the students themselves. Last year our numbers of SpEd students referred to the office were too high (this includes the “Behavior Adjustment”, ODD etc. students under its big umbrella) I’m sure you can guess what the administrators solution was to that.

  15. Amy is right – the situation, it would seem, in the US is quite dire. Teachers aren’t taught in Ed School how to teach the fundamentals of reading or maths and children are blamed, ‘labelled’, and then end up in “SpEd” hell, as I’ve heard it referred to. It’s the instruction that needs looking at.

    However, there’s a big fight here to hold onto the ever-growing Special Needs/dyslexia empires and to water-down the instruction recommended in the Rose Report 06.

    Virtually all children can be taught to read with good cod-based instruction and allowed time to practise their basic skills. Special Needs funding is desperately needed for the families and children with severe difficulties but these funds are wasted in paying for dubious one-to-one reading sessions etc. after labelling the ‘failures’.


  16. Amy, the differences between the UK system (nationalized, preferring accommodations over evidence-based interventions/remediation) are so huge they really can’t be compared.

    It is a mystery to me why the UK supports unlikely therapies like colored lenses (Irlen-SSS) the Davis Method etc.

    For UKians — education in the US is locally controlled. While there are national laws (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act(IDEA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) re the education of children with disabilities, the individual school districts have significant latitude in what kinds of services are offered. Post-high school, only ADA pertains.

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