Finding the racial minority voices in SEND

with Mala Thapar, parent to a teen with autism

The word “inclusive” is often used in the SEND sector, and, just as often, it fails to materialise. For families from ethnic backgrounds, it's even less likely to be their experience of additional needs within education.

The SEND Review needs to hear -- and act on -- the different needs and experiences of all voices, not just those who find participating easy. The same goes for health, care and local authority policy-makers.

In today’s post, I'm joined below by Mala Thapar, the parent of a disabled 17-year-old autistic son. Mala has lived experience of this long-standing issue of the inequalities faced by ethnic communities and has written about her observations for us at SNJ. Read on...

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Where are the tribunal statistics for ethnic groups within the SEND community?

Extensive national research has found that disabled children and young people from ethnic backgrounds face stereotypes, assumptions and prejudice from wider society and communities. There is also experience of insignificant uncaring institutions, negative discriminatory racial and cultural stereotypes, due to their racial background.

Table of data
Source (spreadsheet download) Click image to enlarge

In May 2021 a report was published: Special educational needs and disability: an analysis and summary of data sources which revealed that Travellers of Irish heritage, and Black Caribbean pupils, had the highest percentage of pupils with an Education, Health, and Care Plan (EHCP) in January 2020 (5.0% and 4.7% respectively). Indian pupils had the lowest 9 percentage of pupils with an EHC plan in January 2020 at 2.1%, compared with 3.3% of all pupils nationally.

SEND Tribunal Tables – the missing ethnicity data

We discovered by looking at the data of the Special Educational Needs, where the number of appeals broken down by child's ethnic origin from September to 2020 which exposed that no details had been recorded since September 2017 - as can be seen on the table in this spreadsheet:e

In a previous SNJ article, 95% of decisions in favour of parents, but nobody wins at the SEND Tribunal, we wanted to know the ethnic group data for the remaining 5% who did not prevail but the breakdown isn't there. The Government publishes ethnicity data for other statistics, except for these specific tribunal stats. There is no data on this since 2017, and no valid reason to omit it, even though the Government says it wants to make ethnicity data collection more “consistent”.

Upon contacting the Ministry of Justice, we received this extract with what is classed as an “explanation” under a Freedom of Information (FOI) request: 

“MoJ hold the statistical data for appeals that are registered by local authority for each year. We do not hold electronically the precise number of the whole population, or the precise number within the population from the BAME community. Under the Record Retention and Destruction Schedule, MoJ are only permitted to keep appeals for up to a period of three years following disposal of an appeal, therefore we may not have access to the appeal records due to compliance with GDPR.”. 

So the FOI request was never properly answered, which could give an impression the justice system is withholding information. The MoJ stated that it no longer collects racial stats on appeals, but without any tangible reason.

The mysteries surrounding absent information should be especially if it is a national cluster of excluded information and controversial as to why the actual full set of data has not been made available.

Mala Thapar
Mala Thapar

Why is it important?

It's clear from data analysis that disadvantaged children from disadvantaged areas are less likely to have their needs identified than disadvantaged children in more affluent areas; expectations are lower from the outset. The Education Policy Institute analysis "Identifying children with special educational needs and disabilities" noted:

It's more probable that ethnic community parents of children with SEND are less likely to apply for an EHC Needs Assessment and less likely to appeal a refusal. We need to see these statistics too.

Ethnicity effects on SEND identification are a complex subject with multiple competing interpretations. Several possible explanations can be offered for the patterns of over- and under- representation found in our analysis:

▪ Bias in the assessment process indicating over- and under-identification
▪ Rational parental response to historical discriminatory bias in identification
▪ Selective migration resulting in different family health and cognitive endowments 
▪ Differential parenting behaviours and home learning environments
▪ Differential experiences of deprivation between ethnic groups

Bias and parental response to historical bias or the current threat of bias could plausibly form a part of the explanation for the disparities experienced by ethnic groups that have taken the brunt of racial discrimination. Historically and prior to the mainstreaming of most children with SEND following the Warnock Review in 1978, Black Caribbean children were over-identified with SEND and segregated from other children in schools for the ‘educationally subnormal’, to the clear detriment of their educational and broader life outcomes (Coard, 1971).

Identifying children with special educational needs and disabilities (p67)

In education, the response the SEND child receives could vary depending on the setting and also the child's, and the teacher's, individual perceptions. Misunderstanding cultural differences can compound systemic racism, so having two protected characteristics (race and disability) rather than just one is a double-edged sword.

Voices are not being heard because of institutional racism, whichever way it's covered up. Disability, coupled with ethnicity, can mean double the victimisation, bullying, and/or disempowerment. Ethnic communities are often referred to as “hard to reach” but are only hard to reach if there are insufficient efforts made. Cultural stigmatisation and unnecessary family pressure are just additional strains placed on parents that are unjustified and unfair.

Believe me, people of colour don't want to be "that" angry or difficult parent. We're more likely to be accused of being aggressive just because of origin or skin colour when we are just a parent fighting for our child's legal rights and entitlements like everyone else.

Additionally, there has not been any media coverage, as far as I am aware, that solely focuses on SEND and culture in autism. While there is more awareness about autism, it doesn't cover cultural differences and how it affects specific communities.

The report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities 

Another important consideration is the race disparities report issued by the Government. This followed the Black Lives Matters protest last year due to the heinous killing of George Floyd. The information published, led by Dr Tony Sewell, who publicly declared he "does not believe Britain is institutionally racist”, within his 258-page report also concluded the same. This caused a public outcry from a range of academics to grassroots organisations requesting the report to be amended, or for Dr Sewell to stand down. The relative point being made within the findings there was no mention of disabled families within this “report”, but since the race report was published, Sewell stated that the commission did find evidence of ‘persistent discrimination’ despite the narrative.

The footnote on page 63 of this report stated: 

“The Commission has not had a focus on special educational needs in the report due to existing government activity. In September 2019, the Department for Education (DFE) launched a new review to improve support for children with additional needs. The review aims to improve the services available to families who need support, equip staff in schools and colleges to respond effectively to their needs as well as ending the ‘postcode lottery’ they often face. The review is due to be published in 2021.” No reference to tribunals – again. 

Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities:The Report
Footnote on p63 of Race Disparities report. Click image to enlarge

This report did not make any references to overt racism targeted to specific SEN/disabled communities. However, it clearly exists and has never been addressed nor even spoken about. We would like to see an effort to address the structural inequality and systematic racism faced by ethnic disabled families.

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What we need now

With institutional racism being highlighted in the UK, there is also obvious racial discrimination in other sections of society and the missing stats are dubious and prominently open to doubt.

This is even more vital right now, with the SEND Review still ongoing. If these voices are not heard, how can their needs properly be considered? Different communities have different approaches

The Government is planning new laws to enshrine a legal duty of care on online companies to protect users from harm, including people targeted by abusive comments, threats, and harassment. There must be more transparency, and this is a huge issue for disabled people of colour, and no one has raised this until now. 

The next steps to consider include:

  • For the SEND Review, minority voices must urgently be sought out to be heard. They may not be banging at the door, but they are there and are not too hard to find. There needs to be greater diversity on the steering group for race, culture, and disability.
  • The missing statistical details need to be published with no excuse or loophole to hide behind so we can see the characteristics of who applies for an EHCP, who is refused, who appeals, and who gets an EHCP. This is vital.
  • Publish all previous, present, and future information to promote transparency
  • Respond as to why this information was withheld and report the findings with reasons
  • The race report must elaborate on SEND with careful review of the findings and make the relevant updates to the report in its entirety.

If any of the issues in this post struck a chord with you, and you would like to get involved with some research we are planning and a panel on race, please get in touch via SNJ

Also read:


  • SEND Community Alliance Join us
  • Become an SNJ Squad patron
  • Books SNJ recommends
  • Neurodiversity Celebration Week

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Marguerite Haye
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