The number of children with statements of special needs in England's schools has fallen to a five-year low.
The number of children with statements has fallen
But there has been an increase in the number and proportion of children who have learning difficulties but no statement of special needs.
Campaigners say many councils are unwilling to "statement" pupils because of the legal entitlement and possible extra costs that brings.
Despite recent complaints about closures of special schools, there has been a slight increase in the proportion of children with statements attending them.
Government figures show that the number of children with statements of special education needs (SEN) hit a five-year low in January.
A total of 242,600 such children were listed in all schools, that is 2.9% of the total number of pupils.
In January 2003, the total was 250,000 and the proportion 3.0%.
Statistics on the number of children identified as having SEN but with no statement show there has been an increase across all schools.
In 2003, 14.0% of the school roll were in this position (1,169,780) compared to 14.9% (1,230,800) in January this year.
The proportion of children with SEN placed in mainstream schools has remained at around 60%, although there has been an increase of one percentage point in the proportion of children with SEN statements placed in special schools.
However, analysis of provision for children with new statements of special needs shows a higher proportion (66%) going into mainstream schools.
The government statistics provide other details about children withSEN. In primary and secondary schools, boys are nearly twice as likely as girls to have SEN with no statement. One in five boys is affected compared with one in nine girls.
Children with SEN are more likely than others to receive free school meals.
In January, 30% of children with SEN in primary schools received free school meals, compared with 14% of other pupils.
The National Association for Special Educational Needs said it was not surprised that the number of children with statements was falling while the number with SEN but no statement was rising.
Chief executive officer Lorraine Petersen told the BBC News website: "Some of our members have rung us to say how hard they are finding it to get statements for their children.
"Thinking cynically, that may be because of funding implications but it is also about meeting the needs of youngsters in different ways. It is not all about statementing.
"I found it interesting that the number of children in special schools has not fallen. People talk about special schools closing and some are, but others must be developing."
A separate study by the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education - based on government data - has found huge variations in levels of inclusion of children with special needs in schools across England.
Researchers said children with SEN were 24 times more likely to be segregated at school if they lived in parts of the north east of England than if they were in London's East End.
Mark Vaughan, co-director of the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education said: "It is simply unfair and unjust for families that moves towards inclusion have been so slow, and that these variations still exist 22 years after the law to include disabled pupils in mainstream education first came into force".
The Department for Education and Skills said inclusion was about more than the type of placement. It was about the quality of the educational achievement and how far children are able to learn, achieve and participate in the life of the school.