An avalanche of learning disabilities?

On March 25, The Times published an article headlined “Schools struggle with attention disorder ‘avalanche’”.
It said that two pupils in every primary school classroom have a new form of attention-deficit disorder that affects children born prematurely. It quoted Barry Carpenter, director of a two-year review into the teaching of children with special needs, saying that schools were using outdated methods to cope in the face of an “avalanche of pupils” with learning difficulties caused mainly by very premature birth.
It is true that children born very prematurely run a higher than average chance of suffering a number of deficits, including cognitive ones. But is there an avalanche of such babies? Enough for every class to have two of them to look after? I may be just a natural sceptic, but it sounded very unlikely to me.
So I turned to the research underpinning the claims. It was funded by the Department of Education and carried out by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. On the trust’s website it says “ground-breaking research published”. But it isn’t.
What has been published is a press release, and two pages of recommendations deriving from The Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities Research Project. Click on that and you are invited to submit an e-mail address in order to be told when the research is actually published. So “ground-breaking research not yet published” would have been more accurate.
I e-mailed asking if I was missing something. Was the research published, somewhere? Jo Egerton, research coordinator, told me: “As we have only just completed the mainstream phase of the research project, the final project report will be delivered to the DfE on 31 July. I will send you a copy of the report.”
She added: “The words ‘ground-breaking’ were used by critical observers in schools.” Actually I wasn’t questioning for a moment whether or not it broke ground, simply whether it had been published. It evidently hasn’t.
As a matter of principle, it is wrong to publish conclusions allegedly based on research without making that research available. It denies anybody the chance to assess how soundly-based the conclusions are. It is the same as ministers devising their own statistical analyses and quoting them in speeches, but denying others a sight of them, a practice that has quite rightly been ruled out of order by the UK Statistics Authority.  
Meanwhile, the SSAT had briefed a journalist on The Times with sensational tit-bits from the research, so readers of that paper were left scratching their heads. The story quoted Professor Carpenter as saying that there had been a 29 per cent increase in pupils with profound learning difficulties between 2004 and 2009. “Much of that rise was due to the better survival rates in premature babies” he said.
But a 29 per cent increase on what? Percentage increases are meaningless without the base. Is this the same as the “two pupils in every primary classroom” with the new form of attention deficit disorder?
I tried to track down the 29 per cent figure. The Salt Review on the provision of teachers for children with special needs quotes it, citing as a reference a January 2009 review published by the DCSF (as it then was) of Schools, Pupils and their Characteristics.
I've read that, but can find no reference to a 29 per cent increase. But it does quote the actual number of such children, just over 9,000, of whom only 1,390 are in primary schools (The great majority attend special schools). As there are (in round terms) 17,000 primary schools in England, that’s less than one child with profound learning difficulties for every ten schools. Certainly not two in every class. 
So is Professor Carpenter suggesting a broader problem linked with increasing rates of prematurity? The Times goes on: “More than 80,000 babies are born prematurely in the UK each year, and 95 per cent of those born after gestation of 28 to 31 weeks survive.”
But Hospital Episode Statistics for England show that prematurity rates have not changed since they were first measured in their present form in 1994-95. About 7 per cent of births are technically premature (before 36 completed weeks) with no evidence of an increase. That’s 50,000 babies in the UK, incidentally, not 80,000. (The vast majority suffer no long-term consequences, either mental or physical.)
What about the very premature? The figures show that in 2009-10, 4,050 babies were born between 28 and 31 weeks. They represented 0.8 per cent of all births; another 0.5 per cent of births occurred before 28 weeks. Data for 1999-2000, a decade ago, recorded identical figures - 0.8 per cent of all births in England occurring between 28 and 31 weeks, and 0.5 per cent before 28 weeks.
So there’s no evidence of a general increase in prematurity, and although the numbers surviving after very short gestation periods may be increasing they are far too small to constitute an “avalanche”.
I wish I could work out what Professor Carpenter is getting at. Perhaps when his research is published I will.