Free article: Deconstructing the link between SEND and poverty

Published: Saturday, 18 June 2016

DfE statistics show a clear link between SEND and children living in poverty. Suzanne O’Connell outlines some of the reasons for this, and recommendations for action, in a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report.


  • There is a strong link between poverty and SEND, according to the JRF report.
  • The factors that appear to lead to this include parents’ ability to navigate the system and access to provision.
  • Recommendations are made with implications for every level of the education services.

Of the pupils who are eligible for free school meals (FSM) in England, 28.7% are identified as having SEND. In Northern Ireland, almost half of pupils eligible for FSM have SEND. The report Special educational needs and their links to poverty, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) earlier this year, looks at the links and the factors that play a key role.

Children from low-income families are more likely than their peers to be born with inherited SEND and are more likely to develop some type of SEND in childhood. Once in a SEND category they are less likely to move out of it while at school.

The report is critical of the impact that autonomy of schools is having on pupils with SEND. It suggests that it has led to a fragmented system and that parents – particularly those with children with SEND – are struggling to understand it and navigate it. The authors comment that low-income families may find it even more difficult to find their way around the multiple providers, and the local offer may not be of much assistance. Twenty-five per cent of local offers are incomplete or unfinished.

Navigating the system

More affluent parents might pay for assessment themselves, such as those for dyslexia, but poorer parents are less likely to take this option. However, lower-income pupils are more likely to be identified as having some kinds of special needs, such as moderate learning difficulties and social, emotional and mental health needs.

The report proposes that over-identification led to the reclassification of behavioural, emotional and social difficulties as social, emotional and mental health needs. It is likely that this change of name may mean that some pupils needing extra support may not receive it.

Access to quality provision

The variations in provision across the country have been well publicised by Ofsted and Michael Wilshaw. Early years provision is less likely to be judged outstanding in the most deprived parts of the country, and such provision can be vital where there is ‘poverty of stimulation’ at home. The differences in the quality of education low-income families can expect continues through the years.

The school admission process is complicated and there are concerns that an increasing number of independent admission authorities are doing their best to ensure an intake that is favourable to their outcomes. For example, oversubscription criteria can discourage low-income parents of SEND pupils from applying to some schools. Uniform policy, in particular, has been shown to discriminate, and some schools will openly suggest that they cannot meet the child’s SEND.

Perhaps the most obvious way in which access is denied to low-income families is through the catchment system. It is well known that houses in the catchment area of popular schools can command a higher price. Estate agents use this openly as a means of selling properties. The report’s authors suggest that the impact of this is reflected in the percentage of children attending different types of schools. Converter academies have, on average, 6.7% of pupils with SEND compared with an average of 9.4% in sponsored academies.

‘Pushed-out learners’

There is an increasing sense that some pupils are not wanted in our schools. The report describes these as the ‘pushed-out learners’ who are more likely to drop out of school, face exclusion and end up NEET (not in education, employment or training).

Transition points can be particularly difficult, and children with SEND can find the transfer from primary education, with one class teacher, to secondary school a particular challenge. Children with SEND are six times more likely to be excluded than others. Seventy-four per cent of all excluded pupils have some form of SEND.

Confusion and a vague approach to assessing standards below ‘working at the expected standard’ are also unlikely to help the case of pupils with SEND. Although the Rochford Review highlights the issue, the progress of those below the standard still does not receive the level of priority it should.


The JRF report suggests that pupils with SEND should be given the same level of priority as those who are disadvantaged. The pupil premium may not have led to the equalling out of educational attainment, but it has focused schools on this group of students. According to JRF a similar approach might help pupils with SEND too.

Throughout the tiers of government departments, SEND pupils must be given greater priority to address some of the challenges that this report has highlighted. Ofsted inspectors should have the necessary skills to review SEND provision and spending during inspection. There should be reviews of SEND admissions to ensure that there is equitable access, and regional schools commissioners should have a wider remit to enable them to review schools’ SEND information reports.

Implications for schools

In the meantime, the responsibility remains with schools to do their best by their SEND pupils. Current government strategies and priorities may not place them high on the agenda, but schools can. In particular, every school has a duty to monitor its own trends in terms of exclusions and drop-out rates to ensure that their pupils with SEND, particularly from low-income families, are not losing out.

A positive recommendation from the report is that secondary schools, as well as primary schools, should consider the benefits of making a nurture room or facility available, particularly during transition points. This approach, which recognises the emotional needs of pupils, can provide the caring, personal environment that pupils might initially miss.

What should be avoided is the moving on of children who do not fit a school’s ideal specification. There is little encouragement currently to cater for the neediest. Government policy may not have helped to safeguard the interests of those with SEND. At least the current white paper suggests that greater responsibility will need to be taken by the mainstream school for those who are moved to alternative provision.

They might not shout the loudest or move the school up the league tables, but SEND pupils are an important part of the school community who deserve as much care and attention as others.

Further information


Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

About the author

Dr Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance writer specialising in education. Prior to this she taught for 23 years and was a headteacher of a junior school in Nuneaton for 11 years.

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