It’s time to end the “double impact” of poor experiences at the intersectionality between Race and SEND: A Call to Action!

Today, we are delighted to welcome a new columnist, Frances Akinde. Frances is a former special secondary headteacher and NASENCO who has worked across the breadth of education settings. She currently works both as a SEND inspector and advisor for an LA and as a neurodiversity consultant. Frances co-founded the BAMEed SEND hub as part of the BAMEed Network. See her full bio at the end.

I recently spoke at the Schools Week 14th Festival of Education, as part of SNJ’s, SEND strand. My talk focused on ‘Exploring the intersectionality between Race and SEND: A Call to Action’.

My passion for this topic firstly comes from personal experience as a parent trying to navigate and support my own five sons through the English education system. Secondly, more than two decades of professional experience as a Black educator across a range of settings (including primary, secondary, alternative provision and specialist) has led both to a passion for inclusion, and a drive to raise awareness of the systemic racism that sadly still exists within education.

I originally decided to train as a SENCO in 2015 due to the barriers we faced as a family trying to access support for two of my children. The negative experiences around this led me to believe that the only way that I was going to get the right support and know what that should look like, was to become a SEN specialist myself.

SNJ’s Intersectionality and SEND research

I came across SNJ’s report on intersectionality and SEND published in March 2022. The report entitled ‘Intersectionality in SEND: Families’ experiences in Schools’ (pdf), outlines and analyses the responses to four questions posed to families of children and young people with SEN needs.

The questions were:

  1. What have you experienced in SEN education that you believe is because of racial/ cultural stereotyping/discrimination as a parent/professional
  2. In what way do you believe your child has been treated differently because of their origin/race when it comes to SEND identification, provision, and family participation?
  3. Question: In your opinion, what practical steps are needed to improve the experience of disabled children & parents within your community?
  4. Is there a message you would like to include for the SEND Review team?

The survey received 138 submissions from families from a range of different ethnic and cultural communities. The majority identified as White (51), then Black British or Caribbean (34), Asian or Asian British (16) and mixed or multiple ethnic groups (14). The opening to the introduction of the report read:

Special Needs Jungle has long recognised that distinct issues, concepts, values, and practices come together to create the context in which ethnic and marginalised communities experience the SEND system. It is also SNJ’s position that experiences, other than those of white families, are seldom given the platform to enable transparent, solution-focused conversations to be held.

I read on: “Acknowledging intersectionality in SEND illustrates how multiple modes of advantage and disadvantage, discrimination and privilege, affect children’s access to services. These factors also impact a family’s ability to advocate for their child. This intersection is fundamental in predicting outcomes for children. When you consider we have a SEND system that already fails children who are otherwise advantaged, it is easy to see how those at the margins lose out even further”.

Frances Akinde is a Black woman in her 40s with clear-framed glasses. She is smiling.
Frances Akinde

The intersectionality research resonated

This was the first time I’d read a report that was not commissioned or authored exclusively by a Black-led organisation but nevertheless, really seemed to have a good understanding of the issues that families of children from UK ethnic minority backgrounds face, particularly those in the SEND system. It provided evidence of the experiences of the families themselves, in their own words.

The findings resonated with me and sadly reminded me of my own experiences. 

‘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.’  

SNJ Report: The casual bias and daily discrimination faced by disabled children and their families from ethnic and marginalised communities - Special Needs Jungle

Why wasn’t this impactful intersectionality research central to the SEND Review?

“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
  “In the 3 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 & 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.” 
“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.”
“I feel like we miss out on the communication and understanding extended to others.”
From the research (click to enlarge)

I first met Tania from SNJ at the Schools and Academies show (SAAS) in London, in March 2022, where she chaired a panel discussion I participated in about the newly-published Green Paper. During our discussion, I learned that SNJ’s report didn't appear to have been considered in the Green Paper, despite Department for Education officials enthusiastically accepting SNJ’s offer to provide evidence for the consultation.

This meant the report’s recommendations for the SEND Review, specifically around how the DFE could make eliminating racial bias and promoting respect and dignity for people of ethnic communities a priority, were sadly overlooked.

The report was clear that:

“It is the job of educators to ask the right questions, no matter how uncomfortable or alien these may at first seem. How can a governing board write equitable and fair policies for all its pupils, if it doesn’t involve representatives from its marginalised communities?’ 

SNJ report Page 8

It’s not just in compulsory education

At the same time, a study for BERA, written by Professor Denise Miller, published in the same year, found that “higher education students with overlapping intersectional identities (that is BAME and SEND) are much more likely to encounter specific forms of interpersonal and micro-aggressive discrimination simply because of their BAME identity.

Reading these insights inspired me to contribute my own article to this research, published by Teaching Times in January 2023. In my article, Double Jeopardy: When Race Meets Special Educational Needs - TeachingTimes. I wrote:

“We must address the structural barriers and discriminations that are at the heart of inequalities in education. If these issues are not addressed and actions not enforced at government level, students from marginalised backgrounds who are also SEND, will continue to face disadvantage and discrimination. We know that inequalities experienced in school continue into adulthood.”

Double Jeopardy: When Race Meets Special Educational Needs Frances Akinde, TeachingTimes

We are all making the same points that cannot continue to be ignored. Action must now follow to:

  • Remove structural barriers that create educational inequalities.
  • Remove inequality and discrimination, which have no place in education.
  • Further work on creating equity in education, by continuing to raise our collective voices around these issues.

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Frances Akinde
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