Ethnic Disproportionality in the Identification of Special Educational Needs

Researchers at the University of Oxford analysed data from the National Pupil Database for all pupils in England aged five to 16, between 2005 and 2016, to find out which ethnic groups were disproportionally represented in groups of children with SEN, and which types of SEN this applied to.


A diagnosis of special educational needs (SEN) can help children access specialist resources and additional support, but there can also be negative consequences such as being limited to an inappropriate or narrow curriculum. US research has shown children from some ethnic groups are more likely to be identified as having SEN than those from other ethnic backgrounds but until now there have been few major UK-based studies.

The data showed moderate learning difficulties (MLD), where pupils may learn at a slower pace than their peers, was the most frequent type of SEN, with four per cent of pupils identified as having MLD in 2016. Social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) difficulties were identified in 2.8 per cent of pupils and autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) in 1.3 per cent.

The researchers' analysis found Pakistani pupils and black Caribbean pupils were over-represented for MLD compared with white British pupils, while Indian and Chinese pupils were substantially under-represented.

Black Caribbean and mixed white and black Caribbean pupils were twice as likely to be identified as having SEMH difficulties, while Asian groups (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and other Asian) were all substantially under-represented alongside the "white other" group. Black African pupils, who make up 3.7 per cent of all pupils in England - a much larger group than either black Caribbean at 1.2 per cent or mixed white and black Caribbean at 1.5 per cent - were not over-represented for SEMH. The researchers therefore warn against making generalisations about "black" pupils.

Black Caribbean and "black other" pupils were over-represented among those identified with ASD compared with white British pupils while Asian groups were under-represented. This was particularly the case for Indian and Pakistani pupils where the odds of identification were half those for white British pupils. White other pupils were also under-represented.

Pupils were more than twice as likely to be identified with MLD if they were entitled to free school meals and almost twice as likely if they lived in a deprived neighbourhood. Boys and summer-born pupils were significantly more likely to be identified as having MLD. After taking these factors into account, Pakistani and black Caribbean pupils were no more likely to be identified as having MLD than white British pupils with similar characteristics. However, the ethnic disproportionalities for SEMH and ASD remained substantial even after factors such as age, sex and socio-economic deprivation were taken into account.


The findings suggest some Asian pupils may not be receiving the access to specialist resources and support they need, while some black Caribbean children may be suffering an inappropriate or narrowed curriculum from unwarranted over-identification, particularly in secondary school. The researchers say local authorities, multi-academy trusts, schools and Ofsted should monitor this.

They also suggest local authorities and schools need to raise awareness of ASD among Asian communities. Meanwhile teachers need to be aware of the significant over-identification of summer-born pupils for MLD.


Do Some Schools Narrow the Gap? Differential School Effectiveness by Ethnicity, Gender, Poverty, and Prior Achievement, Steve Strand, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, August 2010

Evidence of Ethnic Disproportionality in Special Education in an English Population, Steve Strand and Geoff Lindsay, Journal of Special Education, July 2008

Special Education and Minority Ethnic Young People in England: Continuing Issues, Sally Tomlinson, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, August 2015

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