Repeat performance: Special education, lower attainers, race and class

Sally Tomlinsonpost by SALLY TOMLINSON
Department of Education, University of Oxford

National governments believe that higher levels of education and skills are necessary for successful international economic competition and all young people are expected to invest in their own human capital, learn new skills and compete with each other in stratified education systems and uncertain job markets. As education systems have expanded so too have the ‘industries’ dealing with those who have difficulty in learning to required levels, fail to achieve to constantly raised qualification levels, or acquire one or more of the ever-changing labels bundled into the ‘special education needs/disability’ category. Race, minority status, and social class have continued to play a significant role in the segregation of students in special schools, included but separated in mainstream schools via units, lower sets and streams, or excluded into forms of alternative education. Over the past fifty years research in the UK, USA, Australia and other European countries has long indicated that minority and /or working class students were more likely to be over-represented in categories of learning disability and difficulties, and emotional and behavioural disturbance. They are also more likely to be living in poor, deprived areas and attend schools struggling with poorer resources but criticised for not raising attainments.

A history of responses to children of the poor in England has also indicated that any benevolent humanitarian agenda, including current ritual political claims to alleviate educational disadvantage, masks an agenda of social and economic control. In the 19th century workhouse schools aimed to eliminate what was considered an hereditary tendency for children to become criminal or poor, and as historian John Hurt wrote “to remove the threats of social pauperism at the least possible expense to the propertied classes”. Among the undesirables in Victorian England were women who produced children out of wedlock which contributed to the “degeneracy of the (British) race”. Lower class women, especially if Black, single parents or teen-age mothers have continued to be regarded as likely to produce children with low school attainments and possible delinquency. People in colonial countries were mainly regarded as intellectually and culturally inferior and were not regarded as a social problem until their children began attending schools designed for white majorities.

Information from the 1960s indicated that ‘immigrants’ (Black and Asian minorities) were over-represented in special schooling, and Caribbean children four times more likely to be in schools for the ‘educationally subnormal’. From the 1980s and 1990s schools for the ‘maladjusted’, later renamed as EBD (emotionally and behaviourally disturbed, then BESD (Behaviourally, emotionally and socially disturbed), Guidance Units, Pupil Referral Units and other forms of alternative education and exclusion, became places for the relegation of lower class and minority, especially Black, students. From 2002 the pupil level annual census provided data to analyse the disproportionate placement in categories of special education and also to discover ‘attainment gaps’ between white and minority groups in mainstream education. The repeat performance of studies which showed poor students were likely to be lower attainers and that Black Caribbean and mixed white and black students were three times more likely to be identified as having moderate learning difficulties and behavioural and emotional disturbance than other groups, was matched only by repeated political hand-wringing over this expansion of numbers of troublesome working class and minority students and the expense entailed in dealing with them. By the 2000s the expansion of a SEN industry and the resulting expense was also exacerbated by middle class demands for resources for their children who had difficulty in learning in increasingly competitive school environments. Anxiety over those who ended up not in education, employment or training (NEET) now embraced even the middle classes anxious that their children with learning difficulties might not attain well enough to find or keep work. The latest 280 page Code of Practice for SEN/Disability, which does not mention ethnicity or class, is intended to reduce identification and the expense of dealing with young people who are troublesome to mainstream education, and ‘personal budget’ for parents are expected to create a private market in services.

Explanations for the poorer attainments, placements and exclusions of working class and minority students are still firmly related to student, family and cultural deficiencies. Teachers in mainstream, expected to credential children to ever higher levels, have little choice but to acquiesce in arrangements which may stigmatise and disadvantage many young people. A recent resurgence of debate about the contribution of genetic inheritance to low cognitive ability, reinforced by developments in neuro-science and behavioural genetics, is indeed a repeat performance of 19th and early 20th century eugenic debates and appear to have some influence on current political understandings. It is certainly worrying to read in a recent publication by a research Professor who has met the former Secretary of State for Education and his advisers that children with special educational needs should be given an education which “takes account of their genes and their particular learning profile”, and that eventually the genotyping of DNA variants will allow all children to have “a Learning Chip, a reliable genetic predictor of the heritable difference between children in terms of their cognitive ability and academic achievement.” This may appear to be a brave new world but it is likely to repeat the same hierarchies by class, race and ethnicity.



Asbury, K. and Plomin, R.(2014) G is for Genes: The impact of genetics on education and achievement Chichester. Wiley Blackwell

DfE (2014) Special Educational Needs and Disability; Code of Practice 0-25 years. London. Department for Education

Hurt, J.(1988) Outside the Mainstream: History of Special Education, London. Batsford.

Tomlinson, S.(2013) Ignorant Yobs? Low attainers in a global knowledge economy London. Routledge