How do expectations influence disabled young people’s educational attainment?

Image of young man at graduation with words: How do expectations influence disabled young people's educational attainment?

Tania's note: The statistics speak for themselves:17% of all adults with a learning disability in England are in paid work. There will be many reasons for this figure, but one that's just been looked at by researchers is how much is expected of disabled children in education to start off with.

It's an interesting question, isn't it? We all want our children to do the best they can, but speaking for myself, when my sons were diagnosed with autism aged six and eight, any ambitious expectations I had melted away. All bets were off. While encouraging them to do their very best, and telling them how bright they are, we decided we would be led by them so we didn't add to their anxiety. What else could we do? We got them into the right school, who we trusted to use their expertise and high standards to help our boys succeed. For us, this worked, because the school is extraordinary at helping boys like them to believe in themselves.

But not every child is as fortunate with their school and parents are often, as we were, not sure what to do for the best. New research backs this up. Stella Chatzitheochari, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick has written for us about a study she has carried out, Disability Differentials in Educational Attainment in England, that shows the level of expectations of disabled children is affected by a number of factors, including their parents.

How do expectations influence disabled young people's educational attainment? by Dr Stella Chatzitheochari

Childhood disability is typically associated with poor educational attainment. However, there is often an implicit assumption that this association is simply due to individual deficiencies resulting from impairments. As a result, we still know relatively little about the different factors that contribute to disabled young people's educational disadvantage.

Our recent study, Disability Differentials in Educational Attainment in England explored the different academic and social influences that contribute to the educational outcomes of, and choices made, by young people with disabilities. More specifically, we adopted a social model of disability and sought to establish the extent to which the low rates of disabled young people attending university in England are merely a result of poor performance or whether disability-related stigma resulting in low expectations and school bullying also affects young people's educational trajectories.

This blog post outlines some of the key findings of our study (for a policy briefing, see Resources section below).

The Data

We analysed nationally-representative data from Next Steps, formerly known as Longitudinal Study of Young People in England. Next Steps is a longitudinal study that followed approximately 16,000 young people born in 1989/1990 from age 13/14 to age 19/20. The study included secondary school students with long-term physical and mental health conditions, and special educational needs, in mainstream English schools.

Key Findings

Stella Chatzitheochari
Stella Chatzitheochari

Our analysis showed that a significant group of young people with disabilities enter secondary education with poorer academic results than non-disabled peers, and never catch up.

The majority of disabled students in our sample did not achieve 5 or more A*-C grades, including English and Mathematics, that are typically required to continue to A Levels (26% of disabled students as opposed to 67% of non-disabled peers).

However, we also identified a group of disabled young people who “succeed but don't proceed”. Only 75% of disabled students who had done well at GCSE continued to A Levels, as opposed to 85% of non-disabled students.

We consequently explored a number of factors that may have affected disabled young people's decision not to continue to full-time education including their school engagement, the educational intentions of their friends, the percentage of students with special educational needs at school, their educational expectations, and whether they had previously been bullied at school.

The biggest influence on this decision was the educational expectations disabled young people held about themselves. Expectations accounted for more than a quarter of the reason that young people with disabilities were less likely to continue in full-time education, despite achieving the required GCSE grades. The contribution of other factors, including school bullying, was relatively small.

It is even more interesting to note that disabled young people had lower expectations about going to university compared to non-disabled peers with similar socio-economic background and academic performance. Moreover, their expectations were highly dependent on those of their parents. Again, parents of disabled young people were more likely to have lower educational expectations for them regardless of their actual school achievement.

Unfortunately, our data do not provide sufficient information to investigate what leads to suppressed expectations of parents of young people with disabilities. However, earlier research suggests that this may relate to parents' worry about their children's future. In this sense, parental expectations may be linked to the social barriers faced by disabled young people in England and to anticipated discrimination or stigma at the university or in the workplace. Furthermore, it is likely that parental expectations are associated with earlier expectations of teachers or healthcare professionals, which are not captured in our dataset.

A substantial part of the overall effect of disability on young person's educational outcomes remained unexplained. More research is needed into the variety of factors, including those driven by stigma and labelling, which result in disabled young people educational disadvantage. This is crucial to help the UK improve opportunities for people with disabilities and build a fair and inclusive society.


  • The government has a responsibility to support the academic development of disabled young people from early childhood
  • Further research is needed to understand the processes that hinder disabled children's learning in primary school
  • Parents of young people with disabilities should be supported to gain a further understanding of the impact of family expectations on young people's educational decisions.
  • Higher education institutions should consider ways of actively promoting themselves to highly achieving disabled young people
  • To better understand the overall impact of social barriers on attainment, more research is needed, moving from biological towards more sociological understandings of disability.

This blog post summarizes findings from Chatzitheochari, Stella and Platt, Lucinda (2018) “Disability Differentials in Educational Attainment: Primary and Secondary Effects”, British Journal of Sociology (Early view) DOI: 10.1111/1468-4446.12372.

About the author:

Stella Chatzitheochari, is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick.  Her research interests include childhood disability, social stratification, and stigma. Stella has been previously involved in an ESRC-funded project on the Trajectories and Transitions in the Cognitive and Educational Development of Disabled Children and Young People (ES/K00302X/1) and she has also acted as an advisor for the Department of Education's recent survey on Experiences of Education, Health, and Care plans.


  1. Childhood Disability and Educational Attainment. Warwick Social Sciences Policy Briefing 04/2018
  2. Animation on bullying experiences of disabled children and young people in England for students and teachers

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Stella Chatzitheochari, University of Warwick
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