Changing needs in special education

iStock_000014442615XSmallA survey carried out in English primary schools in 1981 and again in 1998 sought to determine the number of children in need of special educational services. Both studies were large, used rigorous data-collection procedures and achieved exceptionally high response rates.

Researchers Paul Croll and Diana Moses, University of Reading, report that two findings stand out – that teachers perceive widespread special needs and that needs have increased over the last two decades. In 1981, teachers surveyed reported that approximately one in five children in their classes had special educational needs. By 1998, one in four children was identified as needing special services. Learning difficulties were identified as the most common reason for special education, but many children had multiple problems. Behavioral problems were seen by teachers as the main barrier to inclusion in regular classes.

Ninety-six percent of teachers in the study responded to these surveys. All data was collected through structured, in-depth personal interviews. In both surveys, many more boys than girls were identified as having special educational needs, but the overrepresentation of boys decreased between 1981 and 1998. The overrepresentation of ethnic minority children described as having special needs in 1981 disappeared in the 1998 survey. In addition to an increase in the number of students perceived as having special needs, a larger percentage of students were receiving services in the 1998 study. It was still true, however, that teachers believed 40 percent of special-needs students needed more help than they were receiving.

The second survey revealed that schools were providing support for children in a variety of ways not seen in 1981. There was more combined in-class and out-ofclass help. The majority of students with special needs were supported within the classroom by the teacher alone; about 40 percent of these children got other inclass help from an assistant teacher. In 1998 a slightly smaller proportion of children than in the earlier study received special help outside the regular classroom.

Special schools

Poverty was not addressed in the 1981 survey, so no comparison can be made. In the 1998 study, however, the well-established relationship between poverty and achievement was apparent. Behavioral problems were the most highly correlated with poverty, but there were significant correlations with learning and emotional difficulties as well.

By 1998, district policies called for the fullest possible inclusion of special-needs children in regular classrooms. However, some districts had increased the proportion of children in special schools in recent years. Virtually everyone surveyed in 1981 believed there was a continuing role for special schools, especially for children with emotional and behavioral problems. The pressures of class size and limited resources were seen as making it difficult for teachers to deal with disruptive students. A similar pattern of beliefs was seen in the 1998 survey.

Children with emotional and behavioral difficulties were cited by the majority of teachers as needing special schools. Children with physical or sensory impairments were rarely mentioned as needing special placement. For nine of 10 children with special educational needs, the teachers felt that the regular classroom was the right place for the child. About one in 20 special-needs children was believed to need a separate, special class within the school, and less than one in 20 special-needs children was thought to need a special school. Despite their willingness to deal with almost all special-needs children in the regular classroom, teachers continue to believe there is a place for separate classes and schools to prevent disruption of mainstream students’ education.

Special education vs. low achievement

As more children are identified as having special educational needs, these researchers question the overlap between special needs and low achievement. They believe that in the current situation where a quarter of students are formally described as having special education needs (nearly all of which are learning difficulties), low achievement and special needs overlap. They suggest that having separate achievement and special-needs policies may not make much sense.

At the school level, both low achievement and special needs are strongly associated with poverty. Successive governments in England have made it effectively illegitimate for schools to use poverty as an explanation for achievement problems. The recent survey shows, in these authors’ opinion, that changes in education have created a situation in which special-education services may have expanded beyond the point of usefulness. They suggest that educators and policy makers need to reexamine how they identify special educational needs.

There may be little point in distinguishing between strategies to meet most special educational needs and strategies to address problems of low achievement. Croll and Moses point out that large surveys reveal the central role that teachers’ perceptions and school circumstances play, along with formal policy, in accounting for changing educational circumstances.

“Special Educational Needs Across Two Decades:Survey Evidence From English Primary Schools”, British Educational Research Journal, Volume 29, Number 5, October 2003, pp. 731-747.

Published in ERN February 2004 Volume 17 Number 2

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