Everyone’s special in a therapy culture

A new report blames teachers for overdiagnosing kids with special needs. But the whole of society is playing this game.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

There are currently 8.5million schoolchildren in England. There’s nothing particularly startling about that. What is incredible though is this: 1.7million of them – that is, nearly a quarter – have been diagnosed as suffering from a special educational need (SEN).

Though there are varying gradations of SEN, from the severely disabled to the merely hyperactive, that is still a remarkable number of children with needs considered special. Indeed, given that so many are now requiring extra support, special needs are ceasing to appear quite so special.

What’s more, the number of kids with learning disabilities is rising. In 2003, there were 1,169,780 diagnoses of the less severe level 1 and level 2 SEN. This year, the figure had risen to 1,470,900. Those with more severe impediments are also increasing, with a three per cent rise in level 3 SEN diagnoses in the same period.

Now, if it seems improbable that English children are increasingly afflicted with learning diabilities, especially given the concomitant year-on-year improvement in GCSE and A-Level grades, then last week’s report from Ofsted calling for schools ‘to stop identifying pupils as having SEN’ and concentrate on teaching might seem welcome. As Ofsted’s chief inspector Christine Gilbert said: ‘We felt that schools and teachers were well intentioned but they were over-diagnosing the problems – teachers in the classroom weren’t confident they could deal with the problem. We feel teachers and schools need to have more confidence about looking at what are the barriers to learning.’

This is surely a positive recognition on the part of officialdom that too many surmountable problems are being passed off as special needs – right? After all, as the Ofsted report points out, to diagnose a pupil lacking the motivation to revise before his GCSEs as suffering from an SEN sounds more like an abdication of pedagogic responsibility than pastoral concern. But there are problems with Ofsted’s report, and they lie in its diagnosis of what is behind the problem of ever-expanding special needs, its examination of why this is happening.

For Ofsted, or at least those interpreting Ofsted’s report, it seems that it is all the schools’ fault. They are seduced by the extra funding that comes with SEN diagnoses and their teachers are glad of the extra help that the funding provides. Not only that, expanding SEN diagnoses tap into a ‘culture of excuses’. That is, according to the Ofsted report, some schools are passing off their poor academic performance as a consequence of having a high number of special needs pupils. No wonder Christine Blower of the National Union of Teachers considered the report ‘insulting’.

Can everything really be laid at the feet of cynical and opportunist schools? Aside from the fact that there is no actual money to be made from getting a kid with poor concentration diagnosed with a SEN, the phenomenon of medicalising, of pathologising, many everyday behaviours is hardly limited to schools. And it is this broader therapeutic culture, where many social and individual problems are increasingly turned into diagnostic categories, that lies at the root of the rapid expansion of SEN in schools. Schools may be playing a game, but the terms of that game have been politically and socially determined. Given the attempt to pin the blame solely on schools, it is little wonder that the Lib-Con coalition’s solution of ‘overhaul[ling] the system’ and ‘improv[ing] diagnosis and assessment’ is so underwhelming.

That the root of the problem lies not within schools but within the society in which they acquire their meaning and purpose becomes clear with the example of that increasingly common SEN diagnosis: dyslexia. Back in 2007, as reported by James Panton on spiked, Durham University education professor Julian Elliott made the news by saying that there was little scientific evidence for dyslexia. This was not to suggest that certain people are pretending to have difficulty reading and writing. Rather, he was arguing that the criteria for diagnosis was so variable, so broad – from mentally inverting letters to untidy writing – that it was, well, meaningless. Hence the diagnosis could proliferate so rapidly.

So, if dyslexia is not a medical phenomenon, then what accounts for the fact that it is being more commonly diagnosed? Elliott’s explanation is key: ‘[The condition] persists as a construct largely because it serves an emotional, not a scientific, function.’ That is, in a society in which we, as its increasingly isolated, individuated members, pale before big social or, in this case, educational problems and challenges, it becomes easier to turn them into facts of life, of nature. It is emotionally reassuring that there is nothing that can be done about the challenges we face.

No doubt the emotional benefits of this trick of the light are great. If your child is struggling at school, it’s a relief to know that it is not because he is lazy or thick. And if you yourself have trouble with your spelling, it is a weight lifted to know that it is not your fault. So while the Department of Education might not be able to solve any large-scale educational problems, it can certainly make people feel better about these problems.

But the problems with hyperactive diagnoses of this type are twofold. First, they devalue the existence of genuinely inhibiting conditions. So, for children suffering from a severe mental disability, for children struggling to overcome a genuine impediment to learning, their travails are rendered equivalent to those of a child who makes a lot of noise while running around, or as they’re otherwise known these days: an ADHD sufferer.

Secondly, the expansion of SEN diagnoses does a disservice to those children tagged with a mild condition. It doesn’t encourage children to strive, to improve their reading, to develop their mental arithmetic skills; instead it reconciles them to their troubles. It explains failure, even makes children feel good about these failures.

In the context of expanding SEN diagnoses, poor spelling or a lack of concentration cease to be problems to be overcome; they are just the way things are. The prospect of low achievement ceases to be a spur to doing better – it becomes an SEN-diagnosed child’s destiny.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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