Special Needs Jungle in the Daily Telegraph. What I really think

There's a story about SEN in the Daily Telegraph today "Can 20 per cent of schoolchildren really have special needs?" by Peter Stanford. It's already attracted lots of comments, some informed, others somewhat less so, shall we say.

The story is a follow on to other, recent reports blaming rising SEN figures on either bad parenting or bad teaching or both. Peter wanted to find out the real root of it, but it seems even he was flummoxed.

He interviewed me for the piece and the general gist of what I said is there, although I didn't give up my TV career to go into school to help, I gave it up to be with my children at home because I decided it was a much better use of my time than giving good "TV smile". Being able to help in school and see for myself how things worked was very useful, especially in the light of my boys' difficulties. I could see for myself how different they were to other children, in a classroom setting. I could see that the teachers were, in my opinion, of varying quality, ranging from totally brilliant to inexperienced and out of their depth.

What I said when speaking to Peter but didn't make it into the piece, was that I believe that the pressures of today's society on children, parents and teachers are immense. Responsible parents are faced with the knowledge that their kids are going to have to survive in a highly competitive world and are more vigilant when they see their child not doing as well as they might. Responsible parents just want their child to have the same opportunities as every other child to reach their potential - and that sometimes means accessing extra help through the SEN system.

Are these parents all middle-class? Many are, but far from all of them. I know this to be true from the emails I get. It doesn't matter what class you are, the difference is how much attention you're paying to your child and that has nothing to do with class.

Now, it is obviously true that a child does not automatically have SEN just because they are not at the top or even the middle of the school class. But a parent knows their child the best. When their profile of achievement is uneven or their social difficulties affect their ability to learn, intervention is warranted. In a mainstream school, a teacher has thirty children in the class. That's thirty children of differing ability, different learning styles and varying levels of attention and behaviour, whatever their background.

Teachers aren't super-human. They're overworked, stressed (whatever the man from OFSTED says) and under-resourced. Can one person pay as close attention to the needs of thirty totally different children as each child requires? Of course not and the blame is not theirs. The SENCo might have three other roles in the school. The IEP may not be worth the paper its written on because it's rarely looked at (through time pressure, not because the teacher doesn't care).

This is why responsible parents have to step in to make sure their children get the help they need. They're not "sharp-elbowed" or any other derogatory term. They are responsible, vigilant and determined, because if they don't help their children, no one will. And don't think that they are able to somehow 'cheat' the system. Only around 2% of children actually get a statement - far less than should have one in my opinion, but those that do have been through an unforgiving assessment process of experts and, sometimes, the scrutiny of an appeal to the SEND Tribunal

And what about those children who are not blessed with determined parents like these? The ones who are often put on the SEN register because it's the only thing in a teacher's toolbox to give them a leg-up? This is the huge inequity of society. These children often fall through the cracks. They end up in a continuing cycle of deprivation. They may even end up in the criminal justice system.

They may or may not actually have special educational needs to start with, but if their home life is insecure and they live in poverty, it is sure to have an impact on their learning. They may just need attention and nurturing to give them self-esteem and confidence in themselves. Former head teacher, now an Educational Psychologist, Charlie Mead, has an answer and it's not rocket science. He has instigated 'nurture groups' in secondary schools with amazing results.

In this presentation he describes how nurture groups in mainstream secondary schools can enable children with "special educational needs" to receive the support they need and improve their educational outcomes making the best use of scarce resources. Watch his presentation below. To see him speak, book for the TAPF SEN conference in June at this link

Tania Tirraoro


  1. Thank you for posting this. The simple truth is, that when you stand up for your child, 9 times out of 10 you are going to be perceived as asking for something extra, rather than being seen as stepping up and asking for what is required. As parents we have to be thick skinned, though some days that’s much easier said than it ever is done. We don’t want to be seen as the bad guys all because we are trying to get the job done. Society’s attitude needs to change on so many different levels.

  2. Worried tired mum

    That is exactly my story, seen as a bad guy because I ask for more support. My son has an official diag of aspergers, I have been treated so badly….. No one will listen to me….

    1. Special Needs Mum

      You’re NOT alone. If nothing else, join your local NAS branch for support or look for a special needs parents’ coffee morning locally. Most of all, don’t despair – you are your child’s best advocate. x

  3. As a parent of a child with SEN and Medical Needs as well as a professional speech and language therapist who supports families, I am horrified by the comments on the Daily Telegraph page under this article. Our conference on 16th June will focus on what works to improve the educational and life outcomes of children and families despite the political, economic and indeed legislative climate (- and the ignorance of adult people in society who read the daily telegraph but still haven’t a clue what SEN are and how they affect the individual forever). Our speakers include Charlie Mead, Tania Tirraoro, Martyn Sibley, Clive Rawlings and Jane Asher.

  4. The key problem with the English education system is that it isn’t designed around the needs of ALL children, just those within the central range (around 70%). In addition, children within the central range are assumed to be identical for the purposes of education (although different ability ranges are taken into account). The system isn’t designed to take into account individual children’s aptitudes and abilities, even though, by law, a suitable education is supposed to do this (s.7 Education Act 1996). This has resulted in children outside the central range being labelled ‘gifted and talented’ or as having ‘SEN’, even though they are simply at either end of the whole range of children. As a result, teachers, parents and children are working in a system that produces counterproductive pressures. This is a systems issue, and won’t get sorted out until the system is redesigned, rather than tinkered with.

  5. Karen Aherne

    My child (age 6) has ASD,SevereADHD, Sensory issues, Mild L CP. Her present school is very large with open ceilings. The noise level causes her pain. Because of weight loss, I filed for an Appeal for her to be admitted to a smaller school near us, and against the Head Teacher’s wishes, The Appeal Board ruled in my daughters favor, and said this new school must admit her, even though the year 2 class is full. well, my daughter is high functioning and does very well in her studies. She is doing year 3 work. The new head teacher, is NOT happy about the decision, and said her only option is to place my child in Year 1, and that the Year 1 teacher, will help instruct my daughter, AFTER she gives her Year 1 student’s their assignments. I said this was NOT acceptable, as it will have a huge affect on my daughter to go from Year 2 Class to Year 1. The head teacher said, “well, that is the only option, and that my daughter will not ever be in a class with her peers while she attends this school. She said next year, my daughter will be placed in a Year 2 class. What is the point of winning an appeal, if this is the attitude ??/

  6. I’d just like to add (having found your blog from the Telegraph site and being somewhat appalled by the comments and ignorance but not wanting to get into the free-for-all that exists on such sites) that in an area of less well-off parents, and in a school where there is a good proportion of kids from less-than-stable families, their SEN may well be identified by the teachers because their family background is unsettled. A caring teacher will have been able to identify a child with less-than-the-best start in life as having ‘extra needs’. So once again it will be the disadvantaged kids who miss out. And when they grow into teenagers and adults unable to function properly… where will the blame lie then?

    Also, many adults with low academic ability end up in low paid jobs, or basically unemployable. Those with a bit more about them will generally earn more money, so for the article (indeed, the government) to identify poor children being overly labelled as SEN is very misleading. If the child’s parents are of lower academic ability, of course the child is likely to be, and hence the proportion of currently-labelled SEN kids coming from poor families will be higher. That’s not a difficult deduction to make.

    I speak as the mother of a statemented autistic child. My husband works with lower ability teens and adults at the local college – those who are not quite bad enough for statementing but don’t get enough help when they are young enough to really make a difference. It’s no good him doing it at that age (though he does a great job!). Far better for these things to be picked up early and an attempt made at helping the child. This is all backwards, done purely to save money rather than to ‘help society’ and it makes me very sad. In a year or two the statemented kids will no doubt be ‘malingerers’, or ‘workshy’ as soon as they hit 18… :-/

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