Children are wrongly being diagnosed as suffering from special needs to cover for poor parenting and “failure at school”, experts warned today.

Pupils as young as four are regularly being labelled with behavioural problems and learning difficulties as an excuse for a bad upbringing, it was claimed.

Almost 1.7m schoolchildren in England – more than one-in-five – currently have some form of special educational needs requiring particular attention from teachers.

In some schools, more than half of pupils are registered as suffering from problems affecting their ability to play a full part in lessons or activities.

But today it was claimed that many difficulties are being exaggerated to explain away poor exam results or bad behaviour.

According to figures, pupils from poor families and those raised in deprived inner-city communities are much more likely to be placed on special needs registers than those from middle-class backgrounds.

Twice as many pupils are officially registered in Liverpool than in Richmond-upon-Thames, west London, it emerged.

Katharine Ann Angel, a teacher and author, said many children – particularly those diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – had legitimate conditions.

But she told the Times Educational Supplement that it was wrong that “so many children from disadvantaged families seem to be handed out this label”.

“Some of these children have erratic or poor behaviour because of poor parenting – very few books, very poor diet and very late bedtimes,” she said.

Jean Gross, a former Government adviser on speech, language and communication needs, insisted that problems were often “used as an explanation for failure” at school, particularly among boys.

She said: “One third of nine and 10-year-old boys have special educational needs. It’s at that age that schools start to think they are not going to get a [pass] on their SATs, so they get labelled as having special needs.

“This is not done out of malice – schools are just trying to explain themselves. It is a real incentive to do this when schools don’t hit their floor target.”

According to figures, almost 21 per cent of pupils in England had special needs in 2011 – up from 19 per cent in 2006. The rise has been driven by a sharp increase in those registered with less serious problems – often by schools themselves without a formal external assessment.

Data shows that 840 primary and secondary schools have between a third of half of pupils registered with special needs. At almost 100 schools, the rate exceeds 50 per cent.

A highly-critical report published by Ofsted in 2010 found that as many as half of children with certain categories of behavioural and learning problems were actually “no different” to other pupils. Many of these children were simply “underachieving” because teaching standards were not good enough, it was claimed.

Philippa Stobbs, assistant director of the Council for Disabled Children, told the TES: “The recent figures show that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be identified as having special educational needs. What really matters is progress and outcomes for children, not whether they are on the register.”

By Graeme Paton

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