A report by Ofsted, the education watchdog, has argued that up to a quarter of those children determined to have special needs simply require better teaching.
The term 'special needs' itself is too widely used and there is too much variation amongst schools and local authorities in identifying cases, according to Ofsted.
The suggestion that improved teaching and support was required has met with angry reaction from teacher's unions.
Special schools have declined in number in the last decade, while more than 20% of children of school age (1.7 million) have been diagnosed with some manner of special educational needs (SEN).
The government is considering proposals to change the way special needs are identified and dealt with in the education system.