The number of children diagnosed with special needs has soared by 10 per cent in just five years amid concerns schools are “playing the system” to disguise poor exam results.
Official figures show more than one-in-five pupils in England are now labelled as suffering behavioural problems, learning and communication difficulties or physical disabilities.
A report published by the Department for Education today showed boys and children from the poorest backgrounds were significantly more likely to be classified than other pupils.
The study also underlined the link between special needs and poor examination results.
According to data, pupils without special needs are more than three times as likely to reach the standard expected for their age at the end of secondary school than classed as having behavioural and learning problems.
Just 20 per cent of children with special needs leave school with five decent GCSEs, including the key subjects of English and maths, compared with 66 per cent of their classmates.
But Ofsted has already raised concerns that many pupils with special needs are simply “underachieving” because expectations made of them are too low.
Last year, school inspectors warned that as many as half of children with certain categories of problems were wrongly labelled to disguise poor teaching.
The watchdog claimed that “higher expectations of all children” would lead to an overall drop in the number of those being diagnosed.
The Government has now proposed a sweeping overhaul of the system in England, including earlier checks to identify those with the greatest difficulties in pre-school and more freedom for parents to choose services best suited to their children’s needs.
Ministers are trialling the reforms in 20 areas.
Responding to the figures, Sarah Teather, the Children’s Minister, said: “The attainment gap between pupils with special educational needs and their peers is still far too wide.”
The latest DfE report revealed that 19 per cent of English schoolchildren had special needs in 2006 but the proportion increased to 21 per cent by 2011. It represents a rise of just over 10 per cent.
In all, some 1.67million children now have special educational needs, with the vast majority educated in mainstream schools.
The most common problems were behaviour, emotional and social difficulties and moderate learning needs, it was revealed.
Data showed that some children – typically boys from poor backgrounds – were significantly more likely to be diagnosed than other pupils.
It emerged that 25 per cent of boys in primary schools and more than 26 per cent of those in secondary education had special needs. This compared with less than 14 per cent of girls aged under 11 and 16.4 per cent of those at secondary level.
At the same time, 31.2 per cent of primary pupils with special needs are eligible for free meals – meaning they come from families earning less than £16,000 – compared with 14.9 per cent of other pupils. The gulf is even wider in secondary education.