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Friday, 29 November, 2002, 13:10 GMT
Boys dominate 'special needs'
boys in classroom
Boys are more likely to have behaviour problems

Schools in England are identifying vastly more boys than girls as needing special help with their education.

Special needs in mainstream schools
Boys without SEN statements 63%
Girls 37%
Boys with SEN statements 70%
Girls 30%

New statistics on the gender of those with special needs reveal for the first time that 64% are boys and 36% girls.

The gender gap is even wider in the most severe cases - those with formal "statements" of need: 72% are boys and 28% girls.

The figures dwarf the gap of a few percentage points between boys' and girls' exam performance which has caused so much consternation.

Experts say the reasons are unclear but that - controversially - a large factor might be teachers' perceptions of what constitutes problematic behaviour.


A report published on Friday by the Audit Commission says children with special educational needs are being turned away from schools because of worries that they could affect their position in exam league tables.

Children with SEN account for almost nine-tenths of permanent exclusions from primary schools and six-tenths of those from secondary schools.

Almost five times as many boys as girls are expelled from school.

The Audit Commission says early intervention can make a great difference, but funding for this is "incoherent and piecemeal".

Girls outperform boys in tests throughout their schooling.

The special needs figures might tend to confirm anecdotal and research evidence, but this is the first time that the annual official statistics for the whole country have been broken down by gender.

One in five

Overall there were more than 1.5 million children defined as having special educational needs (SEN) in mainstream primary and secondary schools.

That represented almost one in five of all pupils.

Of those, 961,784 were boys and 540,770 were girls.

The proportion of boys among the 88,000 children in designated special schools was 68%.

The Audit Commission report laments the lack of information in England on the type of need - although the Department for Education is working on a way to cover this in the annual census from 2004.

In Wales and in Scotland the pattern of children who have statements of need is much the same.

This is that girls and boys are more or less equally likely to have physical disabilities, but boys are far more likely than girls to have specific learning difficulties, autistic disorders or emotional or behavioural problems.

Medical reasons

An SEN expert in Cambridge University's faculty of education, Richard Byers, said some forms of special need - notably autism - were diagnosed much more often in boys than in girls.

More and more cases of autism were being identified, so more boys were said to have SEN.

But there was a bigger, "greyer" aspect to the issue, especially where children in mainstream schools were identified as having social, emotional or behavioural difficulties - again, many more of them boys.

"It is much less likely that there is an underlying medical reason for that," he said.

And non-medical

"Lots of commentators feel that we identify one kind of social, emotional or behavioural difficulty - florid demonstrations - which tend to be in boys more often than girls."

It was controversial, he said, but it might be that "for all kinds of social and cultural reasons" teachers perceived boys to be more problematic than girls.

So there was an over-identification of boys with SEN - and probably an under-identification of girls' needs, which were more likely to involve withdrawal or self-harm.

The Department for Education said there were likely to be a range of factors.

"Boys are medically more vulnerable during birth.

"There appears to be some evidence that professionals, including teachers, are likely to identify boys as having SEN particularly in relation to behaviour."

More work needed

The department was "taking forward work on tackling boys' underachievement which will help address some of the difficulties experienced by boys, including those with SEN".

The editor of The Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, Lani Florian, said the gender gap might be as high as 10 to one in the case of emotional and behavioural problems.

People had put forward various theories, to do with genes and hormones, for instance - but none had been conclusive.

"It has been said that the classroom is just a more friendly environment for girls - but that's just a theory too," Dr Florian said.

"We really don't know."

BBCi CBeebies
Parents' guide to special educational needs
See also:

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