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Ethnic disproportionality in the identification of SEND

In January, I attended the BAMEed Network conference, ‘Creating the future with everyone on board’. The second workshop I selected was one facilitated by Frances Akinde, Amjad Ali and Priya Bhagrath on addressing the barriers caused by the intersectionality between race and Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). One of the papers I read as a result of the session is the focus of this post.

The research

This post explores the paper, ‘Ethnic disproportionality in the identification of Special Educational Needs (SEN) in England: Extent, causes and consequences’, written by Steve Strand and Ariel Lindorff.

After I read the paper, I sought to gather the content that had stayed with me. This personal set of notes isn’t intended to be a thorough summary or a replacement for reading the paper yourself. Think of it as a gateway to getting curious.

The summary

The data is taken from a variety of sources including school census data from 2016 in comparison to previous years and two longitudinal analyses across primary and secondary UK contexts. 

The data suggests that there are both under and over-representations when examining the relationship between race and SEND. Disproportionalities remain substantial even after accounting for ‘age, sex and economic deprivation’ (p.4). There are a variety of possible interpretations of the reasons for this, including socioeconomic disadvantage, lower expectations, teaching environments, stereotyping and prejudice. Whatever the causes, the result is a potentially narrowed curriculum, restricted opportunities, and stigmatisation for those affected.

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Ethnic disproportionality in the identification of Special Educational Needs (SEN) in England: Extent, causes and consequences


Steve Strand and Ariel Lindorff, 2018


'This issue is increasingly salient as the minority ethnic population in England continues to grow (p.2).


Pupils aged 5-16 in England


2003 school census: 14.2%


2016 school census: 30%


'There is a danger that ethnic disproportionality, if not addressed, may through inadequate or inappropriate provision perpetuate the same unequal outcomes in the future' (p.1).


MLD: Multiple Learning Difficulties


Black Caribbean and Pakistani pupils are over-represented.


Indian and Chinese pupils are under-represented.


SEMH: Social, Emotional & Mental Health


Black Caribbean and Mixed White & Black Caribbean pupils are substantially over-represented.


All Asian Groups are substantially under-represented.


ASD: Autism Spectrum Disorder


All Asian Groups (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Other Asian) are substantially under-represented.

See alt text below

What might explain these statistics?

'The over-representation for MLD can be accounted for by socio-economic factors, but the ethnic disproportionalities for SEMH and ASD remain substantial even after pupil background controls for age, sex and socio-economic deprivation' (p.4) - across data from early years and secondary.


'A frequently proposed explanation... is an inappropriate interpretation of ethnic and cultural differences including teacher racism, low expectations and a failure of schools to provide quality instruction or effective classroom management' (e.g. Artiles et al, 2010; Waitoller et al, 2010)' (p.2).


'An alternative hypothesis is that disproportionality reflects the substantially greater socioeconomic disadvantage experienced relative to the White majority. In England in 2016, 14% of White British pupils were eligible for a Free School Meal (FSM) but this doubles to 25% of Black African, 28% of Black Caribbean and 29% of Mixed White and Black Caribbean pupils' (p.2).


'There are positive outcomes of being identified with SEN, such as access to specialist resources and additional support.


However, there are also possible negative outcomes, particularly for needs such as MLD and SEMH, which might include an inappropriate or narrowed curriculum, restriction of opportunities because of lowered expectations, or feelings of stigmatisation/labelling on the part of identified pupils' (p.1).

The reflection and action

Working on professional development programmes for leaders, I have already begun to raise awareness of this data; encouraging reflection on what changes their own setting’s data might point towards. I’ll learn more about this area of research and continue to integrate it into my work.

As you read these notes and then the full paper, you may find it helpful to consider your own actions. Some reflection questions have been provided below for you to select from. You may like to think of reflection questions of your own to suit your role and context. You may find it helpful to discuss your reflections with colleagues and leaders in your setting.

  • What challenges me about what I’m reading and why might that be?
  • What resonates with me about what I’m reading and why might that be?
  • How might I explore these factors within my own setting?
  • What does the data in my setting tell me about disproportionalities of SEND across different groups of pupils (perhaps with a specific focus on SEMH given the substantial disproportionalities there)? How will I ensure acting on the findings can be prioritised?
  • How might the processes, systems and practices contained in my setting’s SEND policy be contributing to over and under-representation? 
  • How might I seek to understand staff’s expectations and assumptions for different groups of pupils? How can these begin to be addressed through dialogue and professional development?

As you learn more about this area of practice, you might like to connect with the BAMEed SEND group as part of the BAMEed Network.

Sharing your thoughts

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post, the paper, and your subsequent reflections.

My writing commitment: I’m learning to honour my thoughts. I’m learning that my words can be shared before I’ve connected all the dots or learned everything there is to know. My writing can be a snapshot of a single moment in continually-evolving time.

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