Special educational needs affect all ability levels. As other European models show, many children may be suited to less prescriptive learning – and a later start
It’s an eye-catching statistic. Almost 20% of schoolchildren in the UK are registered as having special educational needs, five times higher than the EU average. The statistic has inspired an eye-catching book title, too. The Tail: How England’s Schools Fail One Child in Five is a new tome edited by Paul Marshall, chairman of ARK Schools, which runs a group of academies.
It’s not a very good title. It’s one thing to suggest that one in five may be too high, it’s another to claim that every child who has been identified as having special needs has been “failed”.
Nevertheless, despite this specious and illogical leap, the education secretary, Michael Gove, has endorsed the book. No doubt he likes its thesis more than its title, which is that endemic “skewed incentives” encourage schools to classify underachieving children as having special educational needs, in order to mask their own poor performance.
But Gove should tread more carefully. In the book’s eagerness to blame the education system for over-diagnosis, he is surely also endorsing its further claim, that special needs have “become a proxy for socio-economic disadvantage”. In other words, perverse as the incentives within the school system may be, they are a response to the deeper problem of social and economic exclusion.
Since economic inequality is higher in the UK than in most of the EU, it would be reasonable to suppose that high levels of incorrect special needs diagnosis may indeed be linked to high levels of socio-economic inequality. Yet, while the left is used to arguing that problems in schools tend to reflect wider problems in society, the truth is that schools, while they cannot be all of the solution by any means, should at least be part of it. Over-enthusiastic diagnosis of learning difficulties among disadvantaged kids sounds, on the contrary, like a counsel of despair, something that could maintain or deepen inequality, rather than playing a part in tackling it.
So, in that respect, Marshall and Gove are right to be concerned. Their solutions, however – more intense and more rigorous education, longer hours at school, more testing, more competition, more academies, and schools that are more strict and conformist – could actually be an attempt to put out the fire with petrol.
As well as this high level of special needs provision, there’s another huge discrepancy between the way children are taught in Britain and the way they are taught in the rest of Europe: the age at which formal education begins. This issue is always skulking around in the background of UK debate, but is somehow never fully discussed or explored, no matter how many experts warn that it is damaging.
In most European countries, children usually start formal education at six to seven, rather than our four to five. Finland has the best educational outcomes in the EU: it not only boasts a high level of income equality but also has the highest age for beginning formal education – which is seven, a full three years later than many children here.
There are many reasons why it’s not necessarily a good idea to get children learning in an academic way at too early an age. People tend to think that this puts more pressure on the less bright kids. Actually, it’s not terribly good for the majority of children – academically or psychologically. But, interestingly, it can be the brightest children who fare least well, when their natural curiosity about the world, and instinctive eagerness to learn about it, is institutionally curtailed in favour of prescriptive learning. People think that clever kids will always be spotted and always thrive. It’s a wrong assumption. The charity Potential Plus UK advocates for “gifted” children. It argues that such children often underachieve for a variety of reasons, including: an inability to manage time; disorganisation and frequently losing things; lack of intrinsic motivation to succeed; problems with friendships; bullying; being disruptive, confrontational or disrespectful in class; difficulty concentrating; poor handwriting and overall poor presentation of work, and perfectionist personality type – resulting in resisting work that is deemed more challenging because the fear of failure.
In fact, a talented child can look a lot like a child who has significantly little in the way of talent. Sometimes it’s simply because they are tired at school – they often have trouble sleeping because their brains won’t stop. Here’s another list, this time of learning difficulties that “gifted” but underachieving children are often misdiagnosed as having: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; oppositional defiant disorder; depression; bipolar disorder; obsessive-compulsive disorder or obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and Asperger’s syndrome. As far as the last is concerned, Asperger’s is frequently misdiagnosed in gifted children. That was partly why the American Psychiatic Association this year dropped the Asperger’s diagnosis from the fifth edition of its highly influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
It seems like a ghastly dystopian vision, the idea that children are being forced into formal schooling too early, then being diagnosed with learning difficulties when they react badly to the straitjacket that has been laced around their intellect at too tender an age. This must be particularly awful for children whose intellect isn’t stimulated enough at home. Imagine. You find yourself in an environment where there are books and toys, other children to play with, adults who engage with you, then just as the possibilities of the world are blossoming like fireworks in your head, you’re told to sit down, be quiet, somehow silence that synaptic explosion, and concentrate on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. People in Britain don’t seem to understand how damaging our desire to get our children on to the three Rs as early as possible can be.
Some children thrive on it. Many do not. In the UK, there seems to be little understanding or acknowledgement of the fact that underachievement at school can simply be because our highly standardised education system is inappropriate, not because there is necessarily a learning difficulty.
The picture is complicated further because, despite what Gove and Marshall imply, it is crucial that learning difficulties are addressed. It’s significant that Finland is also good at identifying special educational needs. As Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg points out in an excellent article for American Educator, “up to half of those students who complete their education at 16 have been in special education at some point in their schooling. In other words, it is nothing that special any more for students. This fact significantly reduces the negative stigma that is often brought on by special education.”
It’s important to note that the Finnish system prizes early intervention, preferring diagnosis “during early childhood development and care, before children enter school”. This is sensible, since actual developmental difficulties are being identified, rather than a response to a more general antipathy – which is, let’s face it, pretty understandable – to the highly artificial and controlling environment that is a classroom. Start the wrong child learning formally at five, and by seven he – and boys do have a bigger problem here – could well have had enough of education to last him a lifetime.