How social class deepens inequalities experienced by disabled young people in England’s mainstream schools

By Angharad Butler-Rees, University of Warwick. [Reseach team: Stella Chatzitheochari, Angharad Butler-Rees and Melissa Chapple]

The SEND deficit for councils in England was £1.3 billion in March 2022, an increase of more than £450 million within a single year. With councils and schools strapped for cash, SEN pupils are often the first to suffer. There are countless stories of schools having to move budgets from SEN support to cover teachers’ salaries and soaring energy bills.

Official statistics tell us that only 18% of students with SEN in England attained a grade 5 or above in Maths and English, compared to 56% of pupils with no identified SEN. This disparity is only likely to increase with further cuts to school SEN support.

These differentials in educational attainment, as well as the lack of reasonable adjustments in workplaces and other forms of disability discrimination, mean that disabled young people in England are more likely to experience downward social mobility compared to their non-disabled peers. This means they’re more likely to hold jobs with worse conditions and pay than their parents.

But recent research reveals that there are also inequalities in educational and occupational attainment by social class: Disabled young people from middle and upper-class backgrounds are more likely to leave school with higher educational qualifications, whereas those from working-class backgrounds are more likely to struggle at school and face periods of unemployment in adulthood.

Exploring Social Class Inequalities in Learning Support and School Experiences of Disabled Young People

In recent research, we have tried to better understand class inequalities among disabled young people in England. To achieve this, we interviewed 35 mainstream school students aged 15-16 who were autistic, dyslexic and/or had a physical disability. To fully understand issues surrounding provision and barriers to learning, we also provided participants’ parents with the opportunity to be interviewed.

Interviews with young people revealed pronounced inequalities in school experiences. Some participants had very positive experiences - feeling well supported in the classroom and included in their peer groups. Others were less positive, facing inadequate support, bullying and discrimination.

It came as no surprise that accessing support was often a long-term battle for parents. Like previous research, we found that geographical location, SEN funding, as well as knowledge and stigma surrounding different conditions were pivotal factors, influencing disabled young people’s school experiences.

Social class and disposable income key to different experiences of disabled pupils

But social class was also key - young people from higher social class backgrounds generally reported more positive school experiences and relationships with teachers. In several cases, this was the result of a long-term battle, with parents sharing information about their fights to secure young people’s rights to learning and inclusion.

With schools and councils faced with spending cuts and tightening budgets, parents are increasingly forced to fill the gaps themselves, for example, by paying for a learning support assistant, assistive technology, dyslexia tuition. This had serious financial and well-being consequences for middle-class families. But, at the same time, it ultimately improved young people’s school experience by providing a more secure learning environment that mitigated the impact of earlier negative experiences. Indeed, several middle and upper-class young people often saw an increase in their grades and confidence as they went through school, because of encouragement and adequate learning support.

Working-class parents similarly went to great extents to try to secure in-school support, but their efforts were often unsuccessful, due to a lack of financial resources and discrimination from local authorities and/or schools. They often reported feeling powerless. As a result, a number of working-class young people in our study did not receive any support whilst at school. In other cases, young people experienced the withdrawal of their support due to spending cuts and tightening budgets. This had a knock-on effect on their self-esteem and school attainment, often leading to a downward trajectory.

Daniel, an autistic student from a working-class background noted: “Year 7 and 8 I got the support I needed, and then Year 9 is when it started dropping off. As it went on, I got no support. . . in Maths I went from top set to third set. . I feel very let down since I was doing so well with my support and then when it all stopped, everything just collapsed.” (Daniel, autistic)

Without access to support, disabled young people like Daniel were unable to fully participate in the classroom or in wider school life. Such lack of inclusion reinforces notions of disability and difference, affecting a young person’s self-esteem and personal well-being, and increasing the risk of disengagement and behavioural difficulties. We found that this also affected peer relationships, rendering some young people more susceptible to bullying. 

Towards a Better Understanding of Disability Inequalities

Learning support enables disabled young people to reach their full academic potential while promoting inclusion and wellbeing. Interviews with young people and their parents once again demonstrated the unacceptable lack of SEN provision in several mainstream schools in England. Parents often must fill in the gaps, which results in class inequalities in access to learning support and, consequently, educational attainment and self-perception. Middle and upper-class families were relatively successful in filling these gaps. In contrast, working-class young people were often left without support and protection.

These disparities may be implicated in the inequalities in attainment in adulthood outlined above—and with growing cuts to SEN funding, they may become even wider. In the current political climate, greater attention needs to be given to supporting the advocacy efforts of families of disabled young people from working-class backgrounds, sharing knowledge, networks, and resources to enable families to challenge discrimination in education successfully.

Not all disabilities are perceived equallly

Of course, social class is not the only source of differentiation. Our research finds that some conditions/impairments are more stigmatised than others – for example, it was telling that autistic young people had the hardest time at school regardless of parental social class, with several middle- and upper-class families being unsuccessful in securing in-school support and taking out legal cases against schools and local authorities. In contrast, there were no parallel cases of parents of dyslexic young people having to take out legal cases against the school or local authority to secure support.

Not every disabled child will have the same set of opportunities. Inequalities like the ones outlined above are likely to widen over the life course. We think it’s crucial for research to depart from the unidimensional view that sees disability as synonymous with disadvantage, and to document inequalities between disabled young people. Our research team seeks to understand how different characteristics (e.g. class, gender, geographical location, type of disability) contribute to experiences and trajectories of disabled young people in order to arrive to policy-relevant recommendations.

If you are interested in learning more about the impact of disability and social class on young people’s school trajectories, you can read our recently published paper here.

Should you want to learn more about our research project, please get in touch at

Follow us on Twitter! @DisTransitions

New research opportunity - get involved!

The Disabled Transitions research team are starting a new study. They are recruiting research participants in the West Midlands who are aged 18-30 from a socially disadvantaged background, have a physical disability, and are currently not in employment, education, or training. Taking part would involve a one-hour interview face-to-face, online or over the phone. Participants will be given a choice of a £20 Love to Shop' or high street supermarket voucher, as a thank you. If you are interested in taking part or would like to find out more, please contact Dr Angharad Butler-Rees at or phone 02476 522 034.

Click to enlarge

About the Authors

Angharad Butler-Rees, Dr Stella Chatzitheochari, Melissa Chapple

Angharad Butler-Rees

I am a Research Fellow in Sociology at the University of Warwick, working on the Educational Pathways and Work Outcomes of Disabled Young People in England study. I have a longstanding interest in disability rights, social justice, and inclusion.

Melissa Chapple

I am a research assistant at the University of Warwick currently working on the Leverhulme-funded Educational Pathways and Work Outcomes of Disabled Young People in England project. I am also a research associate within primary care and mental health at the University of Liverpool.

Stella Chatzitheochari

I am Reader in Sociology at the University of Warwick. I am currently Principal Investigator of the Educational Pathways and Work Outcomes of Disabled Young People in England project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Also read:

Don’t miss a thing!

Don’t miss any posts from SNJ - simply add your email address below. You must click the link in the confirmation email you’ll receive to activate your free subscription.

You can also keep up with us by following our WhatsApp Channel!

Want more? Be an SNJ Patron!

SNJ is a non-profit company and everyone who writes here does so voluntarily. We need your support to help us with costs by donating once or as a regular patron. Regular donors get an exclusive SEND update newsletter as thanks! Find out more here

Stella Chatzitheochari, University of Warwick
Follow me

We LOVE to hear what you think... please take a minute to add your views here, so your comment is seen by all!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.