A new SNJ survey has highlighted how racial discrimination and unconscious bias are everyday experiences for disabled children and their families from ethnic and marginalised communities. Parents say they, and their children, are visibly less well-treated, and their needs and culture are disregarded by schools, where there is also a lack of representation of non-white staff and leaders.
And this isn’t just parental perception. Practitioners from non-white backgrounds say they have themselves witnessed it happening to families, and experienced it themselves.
“As a SEND professional, I’ve witnessed and heard of Black and Brown families disrespected by all levels of staff. I’ve seen white children's behaviour treated with far more understanding and trauma informed approaches than Black and Brown children. I’ve also heard disparaging and stereotypical comments made by staff of all levels, including racist language used and/or ignored.”SEND Practitioner survey respondent
If you are white and think this doesn’t concern you, think again; this concerns everyone. And if you think this isn’t your community, it is. Whatever racial community parents belong to, we are all the SEND community. And if makes you feel uncomfortable, it should. Please don’t look away, but read on and see how you could help change attitudes and improve the lives of your fellow parents and practitioners.
About the research
Late last year, we at Special Needs Jungle launched our Intersectionality Panel to investigate the racial disparities and discrimination experienced by families from marginalised communities when trying to access SEND provision for their children and young people. The goal is two-pronged. The main panel, led by SNJ volunteers Marguerite Haye and Mala Thapar, is a longer-term project. Its aim is to investigate the systemic drivers of racial inequalities in SEND and the double discrimination when they intersect. If you're not sure what "intersectionality" means, check out the definition on our panel launch post here
The short-term goal was to feed into the SEND Review. To this end, we carried out a brief survey canvassing the experiences of families from these communities, which was also open to practitioners. The quantitative elements were analysed with help from Dr Pooja Sharma of the Council for Disabled Children, to whom we give many thanks.
Dr Pooja Sharma, Council for Disabled Children
"It is not enough to acknowledge the disproportionality of SEND and race, we need to work together to first understand why, and secondly, alleviate the racial disparities in education. This can only come from understanding the experiences of the families and young people themselves. Ethnic families are not ‘hard to reach’ – they actually have a lot to say, they just need the right people to listen to them."
Survey findings on racial bias and discrimination
"The recent report that shared the horrific and barbaric treatment of Child Q demonstrates how racism is pervasive. There is no regulator nor public establishment that advocate marginalised communities who have been victimised on intersectionality. Institutions such as LGO and EASS do not incorporate fundamental skillsets for dual discrimination and are ineligible to represent the populace; Thus, the “hard to reach” families have no support available, no direction and therefore left unprotected and subjected to perpetual exploitation."Marguerite Haye, Special Needs Jungle
Because the anticipated date for publication of the SEND Review wasn't far away, we began analysing the data after just a month, (but we have left it open). In that time, it was completed by 138 people. The report includes some background, but we didn't feel it required much analysis of the comments because the parents and practitioners spoke powerfully and eloquently for themselves.
"Yes, I believe my child is overlooked & I notice white children from the same school get preferential treatment over me and my child. A lot of the time, they assume I don’t have enough knowledge or know-how to complain or are surprised I even speak English. So until I complain we are ignored and fobbed off.”Parent
Many spoke of common experiences of schools making incorrect assumptions about their aspirations for their children, the parents' own language abilities and education level, and assumed they wouldn't accept that their child had learning needs.
“The unmet needs of Black and brown children are the direct result of cultural insensitivity at best, and at worst, institutional racism. The child is often labelled based on behaviours that are not understood outside the racial and cultural lines. Parents are often not in a position to challenge decisions due to lack of information and time (especially working parents) they are burned out from fighting on multiple fronts and thus their children are being left behind.”Survey respondent
Negative impacts of unconscious bias
Many parents also experienced the impact of unconscious bias, the frequent casting of black children and their parents as “aggressive”, and not understanding cultural differences with no interest in learning. They spoke of their children being subjected to harsher and unequal disciplinary measures, with schools being quick to exclude, rather than investigate any potential SEND that may be driving behavioural challenges.
“Assumption that less support is available at home and that they will be shunned by their community for having additional needs.”Parent
“In the three settings I’ve worked in, I believe the adults involved either don’t care or are closet racist. They don’t listen to the views of Black and Brown people (colleagues or families). Nor are they educating themselves outside of their role (books, talks, podcasts etc).... so exist in an echo chamber of white, middle-class, uninformed opinion. I have heard the most outrageous generalisations made go unchallenged—because other white people just accepted it at face value. People of colour are not in a position to "push back" lest we’re seen as having a "chip on our shoulder". No people of colour in any senior position. No people of colour with lived experiences of SEND asked/given opportunities to share our expertise, even when we’ve offered.”SEND Practitioner
“I feel like we miss out on the communication and understanding extended to others.”Parent
“There have been many times that schools have articulated that my child is not worth fighting for or that too much is being expected, despite displaying the [potential] to be able to do more. Or they have been quicker to place my child on a part- time timetable than his white counterparts, even though they have been part of the same incident.”Parent
“My child [was] mistaken for another. Deliberate off rolling. Forced to off roll three times. Headteacher described me as an angry black woman. Local send service not giving proper support due to worker also being a governor at our child’s school. Manipulating individuals to isolate son. Trying to turn other parents on to police me. Gaslighting and closing ranks.”Parent
Lack of diversity in positions of responsibility and power
A lack of practitioners from diverse backgrounds is also cited by parents as a problem. However, considering many Black and Brown practitioners are also subject to racism as evidenced here, is it any wonder people of colour don’t want to work in these professions?
Intersectionality Panel co-lead, Mala Thapar says “Representation matters because we all bring different perspectives to the table, and those perspectives are really informed by our experiences and our identities. So, it could be geography or education or family structure or race. Each factor needs to be considered and collaboratively”
“Racism and overwhelmingly white management staff perhaps believing that these children are less valuable, combined with shrinking LA High Needs budgets and a need to save money wherever possible.”Parent
Families from marginalised communities have come to expect to experience bias, discrimination and disparities in treatment as part of their every day experience. It is so endemic that many feel they cannot fight it – and indeed already have their hands full fighting for their child’s SEND provision.
“Disability Discrimination is widespread that is a given. Then there is a significant disregard of the family’s cultural or ethnicity-related needs in the design and delivery of their education & healthcare needs being met in the EHCP and in the school or healthcare setting. There are also significant issues with racial stereotyping & assumptions as well as direct discrimination against ethnic minority parents/ carers & children. The lack of equalities training and inclusive behaviour is so glaringly obvious among professionals it’s embarrassing to have to point it out.”Parent
“Ethnic communities are often referred to “hard to reach” but we are only hard to reach if you have not been looking for us. When you get desensitised as a person over many years and do not wish to be perceived as a “difficult parent”, but also you “feel” racism and know when you are being subjected to this. Even if it is not understood by everyone who are not affected by it, we know it as we “see it” as we have experienced it. The people in charge lose the opportunity to engage with the community, raise awareness and understanding of autism and mitigate against the production and effects of stigma. We do not want to be that angry / difficult parent and accused of being aggressive just because of the colour of our skin. We are parents fighting for equal rights like everyone else but with additional barriers and biases cultivated - being the colour of our skin. “Mala Thapar, SNJ Intersectionality Panel
Government plans to tackle racism
Coincidentally, yesterday the Government published a Policy Paper as its response to the controversial Sewell report on racism in Britain.
“At the heart of this government’s mission is a moral purpose. We believe in the potential of every individual to succeed. We want to see the state and society provide the right support, and to level up around the country so that everyone, from every community and in every corner of the UK, has opportunity. A person’s race, social or ethnic background must not be a barrier to achieving their ambitions.”Inclusive Britain: government response to the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities
It includes the following:
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi released a characteristically bullish blog post about what the government were doing to support children from ethnic communities in schools but he said nothing about how what they were going to do in SEND.
However, the Paper itself appeared to lay the job of fixing racial injustice for children with SEND at the door of the SEND Review. We know that when we discussed these issues with the SEND Review team prior to launching our panel, no work had been done in this area. The team promised to “make space” for discussions on the topic if we could present evidence and w hope that is what we have done today.
The parents who responded overwhelmingly believed that fixing the issue requires more people from ethnic communities as teachers and school leaders. They also wanted school staff to be open to learning more about the culture of the families with whom they work and to learn about their unconscious bias. But Unconscious bias training was exactly what the government scrapped at the end of 2020. Of course, knowing you have an unconscious bias (and everyone has one form or another) isn’t the same as overcoming it so work must include this aspect. Mental health counsellors have to go through the process of addressing their own trauma and bias as part of training, why not school staff who have such a massive impact on the lives of children?
“Training on these issues need to be included with Safe Guarding Training, it should be a statutory obligation”Parent
“Stop framing Black and Brown children's SEND experience as behaviour issues. Treat them as capable as any white child. Do not be threatened by people of colour knowing more on certain subjects. Do not expect people of colour to be the only people talking about racism (and for free!) etc, as it is traumatising.Parent
“Human Rights must be afforded to Black and Brown children too. Racism is a disease and it must be eradicated. "Marguerite Haye, SNJ Intersectionality Panel co-lead
The SEND Review must seek to develop a set of principles aimed at eliminating racial bias and promoting respect and dignity for people of ethnic communities.
We are therefore making the following recommendations that the SEND Review and consultation:
- Pay particular attention to including marginalised voices in SEND of both parents and children.
- Find out in greater depth what the experiences of ethnic and cultural communities are in relation to SEND
- Understand why they differ from the majority and how they have been marginalised
- Investigate why trauma is so prevalent in the experiences of SEND families from ethnic communities when it comes to dealing with schools and public bodies.
- Seek to reinstate the collection of racial statistics for Tribunals to enable better statistical analysis.
- Ensure transparency of existing data regarding ethnic communities and SEND that hasn’t yet been published publicly.
- Ensure that Equality Act duties are considered in all decisions made by the DfE in regard to SEND policy, implementation, and service delivery.
- Focus on increasing cultural competence. Diversity training and awareness of unconscious bias are key and should be standard practice for everyone working with families. It should be given as much importance as safeguarding training with the same emphasis on updating skills regularly.
- Look at training needs: When pupils’ needs are being identified, it is vital that those that know the child the best are involved as key members of the team so the assessment can be carried out through an intersectional lens. Assessors should be aware of their own competency when considering intersectionality and bias in relation to the child they are assessing.
- All assessments of SEND should include the duty to identify other factors that marginalise the child and/or family and steps needed to address these.
- Whole school policies should reflect inclusion and diversity not just the dominant culture of the school. Any policy setting out the norms or values of a school should be agreed with the community via a consultation period to ensure they do not discriminate against any marginalised groups.
- The importance of a diverse workforce in schools, local authorities, and government offices should be acknowledged and steps taken to identify how this can be increased.
- There should be a systematic move away from making “behaviour” the fault of the pupil / parents/ school. This leads to sanctions being relied upon rather than solutions being found. Exclusion is not a solution that will ever benefit a child.
- Ethnic and cultural diversity should be factored into all key decisions made about children with SEND at school level, local authority level, in charities and in government.
Marginalised groups are not responsible for fixing the issues that they face; we all are. It is imperative to listen to and to understand perspectives from different experiences without judgement, misconception, or further oppression.
Special Needs Jungle and our Intersectionality Panel hope this report will serve to help this area of work within the SEND Review and its consultation. Our team are open to further discussions with the Department for Education.
If you are a parent or practitioner from an ethnic community and you haven’t yet had your say for our survey, we have left it open for you to do so.
Read the report
- Finding the racial minority voices in SEND
- Launching the SNJ Intersectionality Panel focusing on disability, race, and cultural discrimination in SEND
- Racial discrimination and SEND: Why was I accused of harm?
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