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New insights into disabled young people who 'succeed but don't proceed' at school

Social factors including low expectations and experiences of bullying are creating barriers to higher education for young people with disabilities in England, according to new research from the University of Warwick and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

The study, Disability Differentials in Educational Attainment in England: Primary and Secondary Effects, investigates the relationship between disability and educational attainment. Dr Stella Chatzitheochari from Warwick’s Department of Sociology, and Professor Lucinda Platt of LSE, explore the academic and social influences which contribute to the educational outcomes of, and choices made by, young people with disabilities.

It is the first study of its kind in the UK.

It finds that a significant group of young people with disabilities enter secondary education with poorer academic results than non-disabled peers, and never catch up.

However, the research also finds that the 26 per cent of young people with disabilities who do achieve 5 or more A*-C grades including English and Mathematics are less likely to stay on to take A-Levels, and less likely to proceed to university, than young people without disabilities.

While bullying was found to play a small role in the decision not to pursue full-time education after GCSE, the study finds that the educational expectations held by the young people and their parents, regardless of their actual school performance, have a considerably stronger effect.

  • Young people with disabilities were more likely to enter secondary education with lower educational attainment than non-disabled students, and less likely to achieve good grades at GCSE: only 26 per cent achieve 5 or more A*-C grades including English and Mathematics (a Level 2 award) compared to 67 per cent of non-disabled young people.
  • Only 75 per cent of disabled students who have done well at GCSE continue in full-time upper secondary education, compared to 85 per cent of non-disabled students.

  • The biggest influence on this decision was the educational expectations of young people, with disabled young people 15 percentage points more likely to have low expectations about going to university than non-disabled students of similar backgrounds. Even when they are achieving academically at similar levels there remains a 10 percentage point gap.

  • Much of the remaining gap is accounted for by the parental expectations. Parents of disabled young people tend to have lower educational expectations for them regardless of their actual achievement. The researchers argue that this is potentially a result of anxiety for their children’s future and concerns about discrimination and lack of support at university and in the workplace.

  • Disabled young people who continue to A-levels are 5 percentage points less likely to secure a university place than non-disabled peers. Most of this can be attributed to differences in A-level grades.

Dr Stella Chatzitheochari, from Warwick’s Department of Sociology, said: “Childhood disability is typically associated with poor educational attainment, but relatively little is known about the factors that contribute to this.

“In this research we wanted to move beyond the ‘medical’ model which implicitly assumes that poor attainment is inherently linked with disability, and explore social factors influencing young people’s decisions about their education

“Bullying was one factor affecting whether these young people stayed in full-time education, but we found that educational expectations had a stronger effect on whether a young person choose to continue to A-levels. We found that disabled young people’s expectations are influenced by those of their parents, who held lower expectations for them regardless of their educational attainment.

“This can result from both informal and institutional labelling, and also from a wholly understandable parental desire to protect disabled children from anticipated discrimination or stigma at university or in the workplace.

“While a substantial part of the overall effect of disability on young people’s educational outcomes remains unexplained, our analysis does identify a number of important factors influencing educational achievement. More research is needed into the multitude of factors and social barriers that perpetuate disabled young people’s educational disadvantage.”

18 April 2018


The research focused on young people with disabilities in England, defined as long-term physical, mental, and emotional conditions that influence school attendance and ability to complete school work. The researchers also included young people with special educational needs.

Dr Stella Chatzitheochari (University of Warwick) and Professor Lucinda Platt (LSE) used data from the Next Steps study, formerly known as the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England. This study followed 16,000 young people from age 13/14 to age 19/20 and can be linked to records on school performance as recorded in the National Pupil Database

The research is the first study to differentiate between primary effects: those which affect academic performance, and secondary effects: those which influence choices about whether to stay in education.

The study was conducted as part of the ESRC’s Secondary Data Analysis Initiative research project, Trajectories and transitions of disabled children and young people, ES/K00302X/1


The full paper is available at:

Click here to download a policy briefing on the findings.




University of Warwick:

Sheila Kiggins

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02476 150423/ 07876 218166


LSE Media Relations team

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