"Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass. Chapter 6
What do we know about 'Special Educational Needs'?
There are now ten times as many pupils with 'Special Educational Needs' in our schools than there were 20 years ago - over a million and a half pupils in total.
Across the country more than one in five of all pupils are on 'Special Needs' registers - and in some schools the figure is as high as a staggering 55% or more.
Can all these pupils really have 'Special Needs'? The answer is almost certainly no.
Children with the most severe problems - pupils with Statements of Special Educational Need - make up only about 2% of all pupils. But the number in mainstream schools has more than doubled in only eight years and is now, as a deliberate policy, about twice as many as are in special schools.
But the most dramatic growth has been in 'Special Needs' pupils without statements - a category which was only introduced in 1994. Such pupils now make up over 16% of school rolls in secondary schools and more than 19% in primary schools rising from figures of 9.8% and 11.6%, respectively, over the last four years.
What does it cost?
How much does all this cost? Earlier this year The Economist, using official data, said:
The budget for special-needs education is £2.5 billion a year and rising...
Now I estimate that the total expenditure on Special Educational Needs could be as high as £3.8 billion each year.
If the money also spent on these pupils from the rest of the schools budget is included, the total expenditure by schools and Local Education Authorities (LEAs) on pupils with Special Educational Needs rises to about £7.1 billion out of a national schools budget of about £20 billion - more than a third of the total.
But nobody - not even David Blunkett - really knows how much money is spent.
What else don't we know?
That is not all we don't know about 'Special Needs'.
We don't know - and nobody knows - where the money goes or what it is spent on.
We don't know - and nobody knows - what criteria are used to put pupils on 'Special Needs' registers because each school and LEA does it differently.
We don't know - and nobody knows - how many pupils there are at each of the four levels set out in the government's Code of Practice or how many boys & how many girls have Special Educational Needs of any kind.
We don't know - and nobody knows - what types of specific handicap or special need constitute 'Special Needs' or how many pupils there are with each specific type of handicap.
And, most important of all, we don't know - and nobody knows - how many pupils with 'Special Needs' can't read or whether they are being, or ever have been, taught to read or whether or not all the funding actually improves pupils' learning or increases their knowledge.
This list of unanswered questions is far too long. Money is going in increasingly large amounts into a Black Hole of unknown and possibly unknowable size
What is the Government doing?
The Government's long promised Special Educational Needs and Disability Rights in Education Bill has now been postponed to the next session of Parliament. Even then all it is likely to do, if the consultation document is any guide, is to make the system more complex, more bureaucratic and more expensive without putting right any of the major problems outlined above.
And the problems have been compounded by the recent landmark legal decision (Times Law Report, 28/7/00) in the House of Lords which held LEAs responsible for their failure to recognise severe dyslexia in pupils and to ensure that they received the appropriate remedial teaching of reading which they clearly needed. Substantial damages were awarded. Further similar cases are in the pipeline and may prove very costly to settle.
What should be done?
The Code of Practice should be withdrawn because it is so imprecise as to be virtually meaningless.
All special needs pupils should take external tests of reading and spelling each year. If they show no progress, the 'Special Needs' funding should be stopped.
The Government's policy of 'inclusion' should be abandoned, especially if this means more inefficient mixed ability classes.
Instead reading should be taught earlier and more effectively, there should be more academic selection both within and between schools and we should introduce the continental practice of pupils repeating a year of schooling if they fail to reach the required standard.
The case for special schools is much stronger now than it was in the early 1980s especially since the development of the National Curriculum. Many parents actually prefer special schools to mainstream schools and many teachers favour inclusion in theory more than in practice.
For pupils with the worst problems, we should revive the concept of defining specific categories of handicap as we used to do in this country and is still done in many other countries.
Finally a National Enquiry should establish the scale of the present waste of resources and monitor the effects of the proposed changes. It is a public disgrace that so little has been done to shed light on such an important and expensive matter.
The question that really needs to be asked is:
Is the explosion in 'Special Needs' real?
Or has it happened because schools have failed over many years to teach properly - and to teach reading in particular - a failure which even Ministers now acknowledge.
This is a hypothesis which is well worth testing. If it proves to be right, we can all benefit. Teachers would not have such a wide range of ability to teach in the same class and could thus teach much more effectively. Pupils, especially the less able, will be better taught - and taught to read in particular. And pupils generally will benefit from the improved and more focused teaching which will be increasingly possible.
If we really cared about children with special needs or handicaps we would have done these things long ago. We would not have tolerated a system or policies which leave us in the current cloud of unknowing.
Not to know whether special needs pupils can read is not to care. And not to take the trouble to find out whether they can read or not is the opposite of that accountability which is at the heart of true professionalism. It is professional negligence of the kind which the House of Lords has now recognised for dyslexia but which may be much more widely applicable.
So let us put existing policies on 'Special Needs' to the test - in the interests of all those pupils who have over the years been failed by 'the system' by not being taught to read properly at the age when they were most capable of benefiting from such teaching and of all those new pupils to come in the years ahead.
For more information see:
What are Special Educational Needs? An analysis of a new growth industry by John Marks; £7.50 from the Centre for Policy Studies, 57 Tufton Street, London SW1 3QL (0207-222-4488)
Dr John Marks OBE is the Director of the Educational Research Trust and was formerly Administrator of the National Council for Educational Standards (NCES). He has been an elected parent/foundation governor of a comprehensive school since 1978 and has 40 years teaching experience in universities, polytechnics and schools. He sat on the Schools Examination and Assessment Council, 1990 – 3; the National Curriculum Council, 1992 – 3; and the Schools Curriculum & Assessment Authority 1993 – 1997. He has written many publications assessing standards and value for money in schools.