Misdiagnosis of SEN in schools means children with real problems are overlooked, teachers warn


Well over half of teachers think parental pressure is leading to children without special educational needs being misdiagnosed while those with genuine problems miss out.

A large majority of teachers (57 per cent) think there is a misdiagnosis of SEN in children, according to the survey from GL Assessment, with a similar proportion (54 per cent) blaming parental pressure. Barely a quarter of teachers (26 per cent) say misdiagnosis isn’t an issue.

Over three-fifths of teachers (62 per cent) think those with genuine needs are missing out because resources are being diverted to children that don’t really need help, with less than a fifth (18 per cent) disagreeing.

Almost three-quarters of teachers (72 per cent) believe some parents want their child to be labelled as having a learning difficulty even though there is little objective evidence to support that status. Only one in ten (10 per cent) disagree.

When asked why they thought parents pushed for a diagnosis, almost two-thirds of teachers (64 per cent) said it was because some parents wanted a medical or psychological explanation rather than being willing to accept that their child had a classroom problem that could be addressed by a teacher.

However, a large minority (39 per cent) thought it was because some parents wanted a label to help their child gain a competitive advantage in exams, though a similar proportion (37 per cent) thought that wasn’t the case.

On the whole, teachers in the survey, which polled more than 800 teachers across the UK, thought most parents were supportive. Two-thirds (65 per cent) thought parental interaction with them and their schools was appropriate. Only a quarter (25 per cent) thought it was lacking with one in ten (10 per cent) believing it was intrusive and inappropriate.

Individual parents, however, presented a much bigger problem. Over half of all teachers polled (52 per cent) complained that at least one parent took up so much of their time that it was difficult to give others sufficient attention, with two-fifths (41 per cent) saying they had to deal with more than one difficult parent.

Lorraine Petersen, a special needs expert and former chief executive of National Association of Special Educational Needs, said she wasn’t surprised by the findings. “Most parents will work on the assumption that the quicker you assess why a child is having difficulties and give him or her a label, the faster you can get extra support. There may also be a sense of relief that comes with being able to ‘blame’ a diagnosed disorder. Parents may think people will be a lot less judgmental of a child’s behaviour – and their parenting skills – if they know the child has a label.”

Some parents, she pointed out, had the opposite problem and were in complete denial about the support their children needed and resisted having them on a SEN register. But at the other extreme were parents who were looking for a label even though their child may not require one. “They feel a label will give the child and perhaps the family additional support that they may not get without it; access to benefits, for instance, or support with exams or a place in a specialist setting.”

Greg Watson, Chief Executive of GL Assessment, said: “Few things are more difficult for a teacher to deal with than a frustrated parent who cannot understand why their child is not doing as well at school as the parent feels they should. Parents naturally want to know why. But the fact is that a lot of issues children present are best addressed in the classroom not in the clinic, they don’t necessarily need a label and their condition may even be temporary.

“A SEN diagnosis is often about finding the one thing which is holding back a child who might otherwise do much better, rather than identifying a child with a broad difficulty in learning,” Greg adds. “That’s why the classroom solution is so often better. Accurate assessment, personalised teaching and targeted support can often overcome a specific difficulty without the disruption that an external intervention can cause to teacher and pupil.”

Sue Thompson, Senior Publisher at GL Assessment, said it was imperative that teachers were given as much help as possible to distinguish those children who had learning difficulties that could be addressed by a teacher from those who needed more specialist medical help: “Teachers have to be allowed to make the necessary identification of a child’s educational needs with the appropriate diagnostic tools. It cannot be right that they feel pressured to mislabel children or that educational problems are misdiagnosed as medical ones.”

GL Assessment’s ‘Hooked on labels not on needs’ report is available to download from gl-assessment.co.uk/hookedonlabels

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