24 Feb

Dual and Multiple Exceptionality

It is increasingly recognised that the early identification of SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) has an important role to play in ensuring that children maximise their developmental and academic progress and that they feel included alongside their peers. However, there are some children whose needs are more difficult to identify.

DME (Dual and Multiple Exceptionality) is used to describe those individuals who have one or more special educational need or disability and who also have high learning potential (or high ability). DME is sometimes referred to as twice exceptionality or 2e. It is estimated that there are around 60,000 children with DME in England, but the truth is that nobody really knows the true prevalence of DME and this is most likely a gross under-estimate.

The reason that it is not easy to spot this group of children is that their abilities can mask their needs just as their needs mask their abilities, so they can appear to be ‘average with flashes of brilliance’. This means that teachers may get very few clues about the extent of a child’s true potential or needs which can cause tension; for example, the education professionals may see a child struggling within a classroom environment and parents/carers see the same child coping fine at home where there are fewer pressures or expectations to achieve.

A child with DME can face several barriers to their learning, including:

  • Strengths may conceal a learning difficulty, making SEN more difficult to identify.
  • Needs and abilities may be misdiagnosed or misinterpreted.
  • Where SEN is identified, emphasis can be placed on supporting this to the exclusion of high learning potential, which also needs to be recognised and supported.
  • Where strengths are identified, traditional support for high learning potential is not suitable as it is reliant on basic skills being in place.
  • High learning potential alongside SEND can facilitate average achievement and so the child does not qualify for additional support.

Of course, there are schools who do identify these children and this happens in both mainstream and special settings, but there are still many children who are not identified as DME because the children develop coping strategies and so they appear to be functioning normally within the classroom.

To progress in this area, there are political and cultural barriers that need to be overcome. Politically, DME is not currently recognised as a special educational need, which adds an additional layer of complexity to identification. Culturally, there is a perspective from some that students who are coping and have high learning potential are going to do okay anyway, so why ought we to invest the nation’s scarce resources into this group. Of course, this perspective can vary significantly depending upon which lens these children are viewed through. Seeing DME children as a subgroup of those with SEND can be interpreted very differently to seeing DME children as a subgroup of those with high learning potential.

As educators, it is important that we do not see SEND and high learning potential as opposite ends of the same spectrum but instead understand that they can occur simultaneously. In fact, it would be most useful to think of high learning potential as a need in its own right. In Wales and Scotland, the terms additional learning needs or additional educational needs are used as alternatives to special educational needs and this is good because they encompass a much broader set of needs including high learning potential. Ultimately, we need to be in the position that the needs of each individual child are robustly identified with appropriate provision put in place to meet those needs.

nasen’s annual conference in July will be opened with a video introduction by Prof Stephen Hawking CBE, who will be formally launching nasen’s DME campaign.

Dr Adam Boddison

nasen Representative