What it means if 20% of students have special educational needsPosted: November 18, 2015
This is not a new fact, but I was recently reminded that 20% of students in English schools are classified as have a special educational need. I am sure that I heard this when I lived in the U.K. but I didn’t think about it much at the time. Reflecting on it now, it seems extraordinary.
Imagine we used some kind of test to identify students with special educational needs. Now, I know that we would not actually do this but humour me for a minute as I explain. We would expect the results to follow a normal distribution around a mean value. Normal distributions are mathematically well-described :
If we selected the lowest 20% of scores then some of these students would actually be within one standard deviation of the mean.
For comparison, the mean adult male height in Australia is about 176 cm (5’9″) and we could expect, based on other data, that the standard deviation is around 7 cm (3″). So a man who is 169 cm (5’6″) would be about one standard deviation below the mean. Would you classify such a man as being especially short? Indeed, is a guy who is 183 cm (6′) especially tall?
For interest, if we decided to only classify those students who are two standard deviations below the mean as having a special educational need (equivalent to an adult male height of 162 cm or 5’4″) then this would represent just over 2% of the population.
There is a problem with this comparison. Students are identified as having a special educational need in a number of different categories. So the 20% could be composed of students who are all in the bottom 16% in that particular category. I wonder how much of a factor this is. It seems likely that one special educational need will correlate to another.
One of the invidious aspects of seemingly benign education theories like learning styles is that they imply labelling students. You have to wonder how a teacher’s expectations change when a child is labelled as a ‘kinaesthetic learner’. Clearly, a label of ‘special educational needs’ in some way has to alter teachers’ perceptions of a student. What will this mean for the student?
Well, there is evidence that it could affect teacher assessments.
And what about early reading? The following is quite possible: Students are taught with less effective methods, a significant minority of these children therefore do not learn to read, they then gain the label of having a special educational need which explains this and so nobody seeks to scrutinise the teaching approach. I am sure that this doesn’t happen but it seems to me that it could.