A little learning is a dangerous thing:  factors influencing the increased identification of special educational needs from the perspective of education policymakers and school practitioners

Year: 2013

Author: Graham, Linda

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


This paper considers the increased identification of special educational needs in Australia’s largest education system from the perspectives of senior public servants, regional directors, head teachers, school counselors, classroom teachers, support class teachers, learning support teachers and teaching assistants (n~ 30). While their perceptions of an increase generally align with the story told by official statistics, the premise of this paper is that the numbers do not necessarily reflect what they are being taken to reflect. Firstly, strategies that are employed to orchestrate SEN funding when student eligibility is in question put the accuracy of government statistics in serious doubt. Secondly, the system is dependent on the knowledge, perceptions and skills of the adults who teach, assess, refer and confirm the diagnosis of individual children as it is their beliefs that set identification and referral processes in motion. Findings suggest that school-based identification and referral processes rest on shaky foundations. For example, school practitioners’ judge both the constitution and prevalence of special educational needs by looking at the students within their immediate surroundings; however, this ‘local’ perspective can lack the mediating effect of a more distant vantage point. Yet, despite the benefit of ‘inside knowledge’, even public servants at the highest level draw on deficit-theories and subjective cultural myths to explain patterns and trends. In this paper, I argue that official statistics may be more appropriately viewed as a product of funding eligibility and the assumptions of the adults who teach, refer and assess children who experience difficulties in school and with learning.
Keywords: SEN identification, funding policy, practitioner perspectives, teacher education and professional learning, inclusive education.