Black Children and Special Education

Black children in the UK are labelled as having so called “special educational needs” at a much higher rate than other children. I believe that this is a manifestation of racism and anti-blackness In this video entitled Black Children and the School System, I will present clear evidence to support this conclusion in this discussion. As usual, I will bring all of my sources which will be clearly stated, they’ll also linked in the video description and in the accompanying blog article on So you can follow up with your own research.   

Video Outline: 

  • First, we’ll demonstrate that Black children are disproportionately labelled as having special needs, and that this has been the case over generations now
  • We’ll then briefly discuss the negative outcomes associated with children who are deemed to have special educational needs
  • Then we’ll investigate what special educational needs actually means, showing how Black children are labelled with a specific group of these so called needs. 
  • After that we’ll consider whether socio-economic class and the specific national and cultural background makes a difference to the disproportion
  • And finally we’ll see some evidence from the US showing teacher bias against Black children 
  • My overall aim in this particular discussion is to contribute to understand the problem we face. It’s only when we understand fully, that we will be in a position to conceptualise solutions to them.

In early 2018, the BBC aired a fantastic documentary called Being Blacker in which they followed a well-known Brixton based record shop owner called Blacker Dread. One thing that stood out for me was how his youngest son who had been having some problems at school was labelled a problem child by the professionals – with an alleged condition called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. His mother Mary relocated him to Jamaica and by the time the documentary went to visit him there – he was regularly scoring over 90% in his exams and came across as an eloquent, charming and good-natured young boy. But if the school authorities had their way, things could’ve ended very differently for him. 

The rapper Akala who is half black and white had a somewhat similar at school which he recounts in an interview for the Independent newspaper, he said:

“I was one of the smartest kids in the class … But I was put in a special needs group because of a teacher who thought I was too bright for a working class brown boy. Fortunately, my mum was already sending me to Pan-African society on Saturdays, so I’d learned to be prepared for this kind of discrimination. I had this armoury that could pick up on it and nip it in the bud and keep me in school.”

In other interviews, Akala explains that it was a chance visit to the school by some folks from the Saturday school which alerted his mother to what had happened, and they managed to get him out of the special needs class. Again, this was probably a lucky escape. I know from other interviews Akala has done that during his youth he was on the peripheries of street crime and violence. But for many boys, this labelling and sorting by teachers and school authority figures would put them on a trajectory headed toward educational failure and crime. 

Statistics on the Disproportionate labelling of Black and mixed children as having special educational needs

The data show this labelling of Black and mixed children, especially boys, is very common. The Times Educational Supplement published an article in December 2017 called “A black Caribbean FSM boy with SEND is 168 times more likely to be permanently excluded than a white British girl without SEND. Why?” This article helps shed some historical and statistical light on these experiences:

It is argued that the education system tends to marginalise children who do not conform to majority norms. The growth and consolidation of special educational provision in the 1960s and 1970s coincided with the arrival of immigrants from the Caribbean and South-East Asia. Statutory categories were developed for children with “limited ability” and those who “showed evidence of emotional instability or psychological disturbance and required special treatment to effect personal, social or educational readjustment”. From the outset, these labels of “educationally subnormal” (ESN) and “maladjusted” were disproportionately applied to disadvantaged minority ethnic pupils. The Inner London Education Authority reported in 1967 that “misplacement” to educationally subnormal (ESN) schools was four times more likely for “immigrant” children and was largely due to behavioural problems. In 1968, a third of children in ESN schools were classified as “immigrants”, compared with 17 per cent of children in mainstream schools, and three-quarters of them were of Caribbean descent. For the past half-century, whenever relevant data has been broken down by ethnicity, black Caribbean students have been over-identified as having SEN, and pupils with SEN have been disproportionately excluded. (Emphasis added)

To illustrate that last point, a Telegraph article on 23rd October 2013 entitled “Boys ‘much more likely to be labelled with special needs” reported the following:
Black children were far more likely to be diagnosed with special needs, with numbers standing at 24.1 per cent. This compared with 22.3 per cent of Pakistani pupils and 20.6 per cent of white pupils, while the proportion was as low as 11.6 per cent among Chinese children and 12.3 per cent of those from Indian families;”

The subjective label of Special Needs
So more black children are being labelled as having special educational needs and this has been the case for 50 years. But what exactly does special needs actually mean? From the UK Government website, we read:,example%20because%20they%20have%20dyslexia
Special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) can affect a child or young person’s ability to learn. They can affect their:

  • behaviour or ability to socialise, for example they struggle to make friends
  • reading and writing, for example because they have dyslexia
  • ability to understand things
  • concentration levels, for example because they have ADHD
  • physical ability

To me, a lot of these indicators seem very subjective. I mean, if a child has difficulty making friends or socialising, why does that indicate something up with them, necessarily? What if it’s the other children and even adults who are ostracising them, bullying them, etc? As is the case with so called mental illnesses, what we could be seeing here is problems that children are having with their environment which are then assumed to have a cause that can be found within the child. 
These descriptions also muddy the waters by lumping medical issues with social issues. Professor Steve Strand is a researcher who has put out some excellent analysis of race and education system in the UK over the years. I’m going to look at his 2018 study called “Ethnic disproportionality in the identification of Special Educational Needs (SEN) in England: Extent, causes and consequences.” This study explains that within the umbrella term of SEND, there are Needs that can be said to be physiological in origin, and those that are determined by a child’s perceived problems huge difference. The study focuses on 3 main types of needs, Moderate Learning Difficulties, Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) and Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD). 

Strand points out that

“Some forms of SEN have a clear biological basis, for example sensory impairments, physical needs, or Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties (PMLD). These categories are often contrasted with categories like MLD and BESD which are defined in terms of the student’s actions within a context, mainly the school and classroom. These needs are socially constructed in the sense that students’ behaviour is interpreted in terms of expected patterns or norms. 

Exactly. So a child is behaving in a manner that is deemed unacceptable by someone else and is then labelled as having a special need. This is very very different from, say, a child having a specific brain lesion or a congenital condition affecting the body which then hinders their cognitive function for example. 

Referring to the non-physiological needs, Strand then tells us the following:
‘Judgemental’ categories like MLD and SEMH are not the only SEN evidencing disproportionality as we saw above, but they are those where the disproportionate identification of  Black students is greatest (Skiba et al, 2008, p269).

So it’s the subjective social needs that are applied to Black children disproportionately, much more disproportionately than the clearly medical ones. 
BESD/SEMH make up the vast majority of those who end up in Youth prisons. Going back to the “Understanding the educational background of young offenders” – 1.3.1..  

What impact does socio economic class have?

Whenever looking at these kinds of statistics, you should always try and factor in lots of different factors that might help explain a disproportionality. So in this case, we should ask whether the socio-economic status of the children makes a difference. I.e. Are Black Caribbean children disproportionately labelled as having SEND because they are more likely to be of low SES? If so, this would suggest that the issue is more of a class issue than a racial one. 

Well Strand’s study found that the disproportion for Mild Learning Difficulties does indeed disappear once socio-economic factors are taken into account. What this means is that children who can be identified are being poorer, are more likely to be labelled as having Mild Learning Difficulties. Now this still requires the follow up question, why are Black children more likely to be living in lower SES. But that’s a question for another time. 

Some caution is needed here because the socioeconomic disadvantage is referring to children being eligible for free school meals. There’s some dispute over whether this is as solid an indicator of poverty as it’s claimed to be. However, this added layer of analysis is important because it suggests that socio-economic status may be a more important factor than race in children getting labelled as having special needs – apart from when it comes to Black children. The disproportionality when it comes to so-called Social Emotional Mental Health needs does not disappear after controlling for these socio-economic factors. In other words, the disproportionately is a racial one. 

What about African children? 
Another important factor to consider is whether black African children face the same disparities. Black African children are actually much less likely to be excluded than black Caribbean children. Where 4.4% of black African children were temporarily excluded in 2015-16, a whopping 10% of black Caribbean children were. There’s a bigger disparity when it comes to permanent exclusions. And in both cases, while the black Caribbean rate is higher than that for white children, the black African rate is lower the white children’s rate.

Going back to the special educational needs issue, there seems to be a similar pattern. A paper entitled “Special Educational Needs and Immigration/Ethnicity: The English experience” gives the following information:

Once the influence of socioeconomic disadvantage, gender and age had been taken into account, the likelihood of pupils from different minority ethnic groups having SEN showed interesting patterns. This can be demonstrated (Table 6) by the use of odds ratios. Compared with the likelihood of White British pupils having SEN, the percentage of Black children was not substantially different. Indeed, there was a lower likelihood (odds Ratio) of Black Caribbean pupils (0.85:1) and Black African pupils (0.47:1) having Moderate Learning Difficulties than White British pupils. However, Black Caribbean pupils were still 1 times more likely to be considered to have Behaviour, Emotional and Social Difficulties.

How can we make sense of the differences between Caribbean and African children? Well, part of it is probably down to the fact that Africans are generally fairly recent immigrants to the UK and thus benefit from the so called migrant bonus. This is the well-observed pattern of migrants being highly motivated to succeed in their new countries.

On the Caribbean side, I think it’s likely that their experiences are partly a legacy of the racism that was experienced by many of their parents and grandparents which damaged the socio-economic life chances. What I’d expect to see is that future generations of Black African children born to parents who were born and raised here would experience similar treatment to their Caribbean peers as the immigrant factor fades. 

Comment on the Caribbean root of the Black community in Britain. What they went through to pave the way for the rest of us that followed. They are carrying battle scars of decades of struggle, and they deserve our respect and defference, not our denigration. 

Genuine behavioural problems do exist but teacher bias is key
So why the disparities? You have to suspect that the it is the teachers biases and prejudices that leads them to label and stigmatise black children int his way.
I think a lot of teachers simply don’t know how to relate to black children, especially boys. But I also think that often, they have pre-judged black boys as being trouble and interpret their behaviour using that prism, regardless of whether the behaviour is genuinely disruptive or not. In 2016, a study at Yale University gave a potential insight into this practice at work:

“Researchers led by Yale professor Walter Gilliam showed 135 educators videos of children in a classroom setting. Each video had a black boy and girl, and a white boy and girl. The teachers were told the following: ‘We are interested in learning about how teachers detect challenging behavior in the classroom. Sometimes this involves seeing behavior before it becomes problematic. The video segments you are about to view are of preschoolers engaging in various activities. Some clips may or may not contain challenging behaviors. Your job is to press the enter key on the external keypad every time you see a behavior that could become a potential challenge.’While the teachers were asked to detect “challenging behavior”, no such behavior existed in any of the videos. Yet when asked which children required the most attention, 42% of the teachers identified the black boy.The participants’ conscious appraisal of whom they believed required the most attention closely mirrored the independent results of an eye-tracking technology used by the research team, which noted that preschool teachers “show a tendency to more closely observe black students, and especially boys, when challenging behaviors are expected”.

When I posted this in a community posts few weeks ago, some guy was adamant that this must mean that Black children are indeed more disruptive. Why else would teachers of all races label them. They’re obviously just mining their experience. This is a similar point to the one made about the Police targeting Black people with their stop and search. “Black people are more likely to be up to no good n the experience of the Police, so of course they’ll target Black people” we’re told. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The targeting of Black people is said to be justified by their disruptive behaviour. But when they are targeted even where there is no disruptive behaviour on show, this is justified because Black people are allegedly more disruptive. 

Disruptive behaviour as a perfectly rational response to destructive environments
But even where children’s behaviour is genuinely disruptive and troubling, we should always ask whether they are really the ones to focus on. Such behaviour could be perfectly rational and normal responses to their environment. To go back to Blacker Dread, areas like Brixton have huge interrelated social problems with crime, gangs, unemployment, drug use, inter-generational poverty, high concentrations of single parent households, etc. It’s obvious that schools in these areas will reflect these problems and that many children will have trouble. If you change the environment or put the children into better environments more conducive to pro social behaviour, you improve children’s behaviour and performance. All of this nuance gets lost if you simply label children as having a SEND.

You can make a similar argument about any one of the supposed deficiencies of Black people that are used to excuse our mistreatment, whether they are cultural, biological, mental, etc. I’ll repeat a quote from Dr Amos Wilson’s Blueprint for Black Power which we should always keep in mind when having these discussions: (page 128) Conclusion

  • First, we’ll demonstrate that Black children are disproportionately labelled as having special needs, and that this has been the case over generations now
  • We’ll then briefly discuss the negative outcomes associated with children who are deemed to have special educational needs
  • Then we’ll investigate what special educational needs actually means, showing how Black children are labelled with a specific group of these so called needs. 
  • After that we’ll consider whether socio-economic class and the specific national and cultural background makes a difference to the disproportion
  • And finally we’ll see some evidence from the US showing teacher bias against Black children

One thought on “Black Children and Special Education

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