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Black Caribbean pupils much more likely to be identified as having behaviour problems

school.jpgBlack pupils of Caribbean heritage are more than twice as likely to be categorised by their teachers as having behavioural, emotional and social difficulties compared to their white British classmates, according to research being presented to the British Educational Research Association today.

In findings which will re-ignite the debate over the over-representation of some black children among those identified as having special educational needs, Professor Steve Strand of the University of Warwick will reveal that some wide disparities between ethnic groups persist even when the powerful effects of poverty are taken into account.

More than one in 20 black Caribbean pupils was identified as having behavioural, emotional and social difficulties in 2011, Professor Strand’s data shows, compared to one in 40 among white British children and only one in 200 among British Chinese youngsters.

The conclusions come from a new study of data from more than six million five- to 16-year-olds in state schools across England, being presented to the BERA’s annual conference in Manchester.

Professor Strand analysed the official “school census” statistics from 6,168,630 pupils in years one to 11, looking particularly at the incidence of pupils categorised as having special educational needs (SEN).

He focused on the two most commonly-identified types of SEN: moderate learning difficulties (MLD) and behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD).

He discovered that black Caribbean pupils and children from British Pakistani families were more likely than white British pupils to be identified as having MLD. However, once the effects of poverty were included in the calculations, this over-representation disappeared.

But in the second category, the position was different. Children from black Caribbean families were more than twice as likely - and those with one white parent and the other of black Caribbean ethnicity almost twice as likely - to be identified with BESD. They were around 1.5 times more likely to be so even when the greater rates of poverty in these two ethnic groups were taken into account.

This was not the case, however, for all black pupils. Those classed as black African were less likely than White British pupils to be classed either as having moderate learning difficulties or behavioural, emotional and social difficulties, even without taking into account the fact that greater numbers of them live in poverty in Britain. Once poverty was considered, they were much less likely to feature in these two categories than white pupils.

In fact, many ethnic minority groups – including Indians, Bangladeshi and Chinese - were less likely to be identified as having moderate learning difficulties, and much less likely to have behavioural, emotional and social difficulties, than white British pupils.

Concerns about the over-representation of some ethnic minority pupils in special education date back more than 40 years in Britain, with a similar debate having taken place in the United States. Other studies have shown black pupils as more likely to get into trouble with their teachers, sparking a debate over whether this is a true reflection of bad behaviour – which some argue is provoked by cultural factors - or, alternatively, of the existence of prejudice among teachers.

Professor Strand’s paper does not answer this question categorically. He states that the differing findings for black Caribbean and for black African pupils suggest a more complicated position than the figures solely being explained by a form of institutional racism, or of low expectations of black pupils in general among teachers.

The fact that many black African families arrived in Britain in the 1990s, while most black Caribbean children are from families who arrived in the UK in the 1950s, says Professor Strand, may mean that black African children benefit from the “immigrant paradigm”, whereby recent arrivals devote themselves to education as a route out of poverty to a greater extent than those whose families have lived here for a longer time.

Professor Strand adds that schools need to monitor their SEN identification processes with care, and that local authorities where large numbers of pupils from particular ethnic groups are being categorised with SEN should carry out detailed investigations.

The study also found that, among all children, those born later on in the academic year were more likely to be identified as having MLD than their older classmates. Those born in the spring term were 28 per cent more likely to be categorised as having MLD than those with autumn birthdays, while for summer-born children there was a 65 per cent higher incidence of MLD than the autumn-born group This effect was not seen, though, for the BESD category.

Professor Strand said teachers needed to consider whether they were taking proper account of a child’s age when making the identification.

“Disproportionate identification of ethnic minority students with special educational needs (SEN): recent national data from England” is being presented by Professor Steve Strand of the University of Warwick at BERA on Tuesday, 4th September.

Further information from:
Warwick Mansell, BERA press officer, 07813 204245,

Kelly Parkes-Harrison, Press and Communications Manager, University of Warwick,, 02476 150868, 07824 540863

Notes for editors:
1 Poverty makes a child much more likely to be identified as having special needs. For both MLD and BESD, children identified as being eligible for free school meals (FSM) were more than twice as likely to be categorised in either category as those not eligible. Children eligible for FSM who also live in areas which are classed as poor were more even more likely to be identified in these two categories. Poverty is more prevalent in several ethnic minority categories than among white British pupils: while 14 per cent of white British pupils are eligible for FSM, the figure rises to 29 per cent of black Caribbean; 34 per cent of Pakistani; 42 per cent of black African; and 47 per cent of Bangladeshi pupils. Any analysis of SEN identification rate by ethnic minority, then, needs to take account of the effects of poverty and consider whether there is an effect even after deprivation is considered.

2 Professor Strand produced an “adjusted odds ratio” for different types of SEN identification by ethnicity. This calculates the number of pupils in each ethnic group expected to be identified with a particular type of SEN for each white British pupil so identified, once a variety of factors including poverty, gender and when in the academic year a child was born have been taken into account.

3 The annual conference of the British Educational Research Association is being held at the University of Manchester from Tuesday, September 4th to Thursday, September 6th . More than 600 research papers will be presented during the course of the conference. The conference programme can be accessed via the BERA website:

The British Educational Research Association (BERA) is a member-led charity which exists to encourage educational research and its application for the improvement of practice and public benefit. We strive to ensure the best quality evidence from educational research informs policy makers, practitioners and the general public and contributes to economic prosperity, cultural understanding, social cohesion and personal flourishing.
BERA’s website is