Children and young people with a learning disability
There are approximately 193,707 children of school age in the UK who have a learning disability.
Special educational needs (SEN) can affect a child or young person’s behaviour, reading and writing, concentration levels, ability to understand things, or their physical ability (Gov.uk 2016). SEN covers more than just learning disability, and not all children and young people with SEN have a learning disability. However, much data related to children and young people is not available specifically for those with a learning disability, and so this page mainly refers to children and young people with SEN.
Most children with special educational needs (SEN) go to mainstream schools, with less than 10% attending special schools in the UK (Department for Education 2015; DENI 2016; StatsWales 2015; Scottish Government 2015).
Data on special schools is collected differently in country in the UK. The latest figures show that:
- In England in 2015, 8% of pupils with SEN attended special schools (Department for Education (2015)
- In Northern Ireland in 2015/16, 7.2% of pupils with SEN attended special schools (DENI 2016)
- In Wales in 2014/15, 4% of pupils with SEN attended special schools (StatsWales 2015)
- In Scotland in 2015, 4.5% of pupils with additional support needs attended special schools (Scottish Government 2015)
Some schools discriminate against pupils with SEN or medical conditions
The Children’s Commissioner (2013a, 2013b) found that a small number of schools act in a discriminatory way towards pupils with SEN or a medical condition by:
- Excluding them from school
- Teaching them separately from their peers
- Banning them from extracurricular activities
- Reducing their access to the curriculum
- Singling them out for negative treatment
- Preventing them from attending school because their needs cannot be met
Pupils with SEN are more likely to be illegally excluded than their peers with no SEN
(Children’s Commissioner 2013a, 2013b). Children with SEN may be sent home for minor incidents, without notice, and without this being recorded as an exclusion. Parents or carers are often unaware that this is illegal (Children’s Commissioner 2013a, 2013b).
2.7% of schools have sent home pupils with statements of SEN because their classroom support, carer or teaching assistant was unavailable.
This is a form of illegal exclusion, however 39% of a representative sample of 1000 school teachers in England said they did not know whether it was legal to send children with a statement of SEN home when their carer or teaching assistant was unavailable (Children’s Commissioner 2013a, 2013b). For more information about exclusions and the law, please see the Children’s Commissioner’s Report on Illegal Exclusions.
Teacher training does not always adequately prepare teachers to teach pupils with SEN
Research by the Children’s Commissioner (2013a) and the Salt Review (2010) found that training does not always adequately prepare teachers to teach pupils with SEN and that appropriate provision is not always offered.
According to the Children’s Commissioner (2013a), best practice in terms of including SEN pupils in schools (and avoiding their exclusion) can be achieved when:
- Teachers are trained to teach children with the full range of SEN that they may encounter
- Teacher training resources on SEN, diversity and inclusion are promoted by the Department for Education (for example, online).
Only 10% of children with special educational needs (SEN) go to mainstream schools
Children with special educational needs are twice as likely to be bullied as other children
Pupils with SEN are more than twice as likely to be eligible for free school means than pupils without SEN
Money, children and young people
Children and young people with a disability are more likely to live in poverty than those without a disability (Contact a Family 2012). A lot of data on money and poverty is not broken down into different disability types, and so the research in this section refers to all children and young people with a disability or special educational needs (SEN).
Pupils with SEN are more than twice as likely to be eligible for free school means than pupils without SEN. In January 2015, 28.2% of pupils with SEN were eligible for free school meals, compared to 12.8% of all pupils (DfE 2015).
Raising a child with a disability involves extra costs, such as a specially adapted car seat or bicycle. Such items cost significantly more than standard high-street items that are suitable for children without a disability (Contact a Family 2012).
For more information about poverty, children and young people, visit our research and statistics page on money and benefits.
Friendships and bullying
Pupils with a learning disability or SEN tend to have fewer friends and participate in fewer social and recreational activities than their peers without a learning disability (Solish et al. 2010).
To find out more about the friendships of children and young people with a learning disability, and the ways they might be supported, please visit our research and statistics page on friendships and socialising.
Children with special educational needs (SEN) are twice as likely as other children to be bullied regularly
Bullying is a repeated behaviour that is intended to hurt somebody either physically or emotionally.
Children and young people with a learning disability are at an increased risk of bullying. A recent review of research on bullying and disability found much variation in reported rates of bullying between different studies, but the majority of studies have found that children and young people with a disability – including those with a learning disability or SEN – are more likely to be bullied than those without a learning disability (Rose 2011; Fink et al. 2015).
A recent study by the Institute of Education (IoE 2014) found that even after controlling for other factors that might influence the likelihood of a child being bullied, at age 7 a child with SEN is twice as likely to be bullied as a child with no SEN.
Research has highlighted some key things that schools can do to help prevent the bullying of students with SEN or a learning disability:
- Have a school policy against bullying
- Create an inclusive school ethos and atmosphere
- Raise awareness of disability amongst all students in mainstream schools
- Support students to make and maintain friendships
- Involve parents and carers as well as students in bullying prevention schemes
- Provide training for teachers on bullying prevention
- Provide training for teachers in mainstream schools on SEN and learning disability
(Andreou et al. 2015; McLaughlin et al. 2010)
A review of international bullying programmes for all young people found that school-based bullying prevention programmes are most effective when they are intensive, long-term, and involve increased playground supervision, firm disciplinary methods, and the involvement of parents (Ttofi and Farrington 2011).
- Andreou, E., Didaskalou, E. and Vlachou, A. (2015) ‘Bully/victim problems among Greek pupils with special educational needs: associations with loneliness and self-efficacy for peer interactions,’ Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 15(4): 235-246.
- Children’s Commissioner (2013a) “They go the Extra Mile”: Reducing Inequalities in School Exclusions. Available online
- Children’s Commissioner (2013b) Always Someone Else’s Problem: Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s Report on Illegal Exclusions. Available online (accessed 24/05/16).
- Contact a Family (2012) Counting the Costs 2012: the Financial Reality for Families with Disabled Children across the UK. Available online (accessed 25/04/16).
- Cooper, S-A., Smiley, E., Morrison, J., Williamson, A. and Allan, L. (2006) ‘Mental ill-health in adults with intellectual disabilities: prevalence and associated factors,’ The British Journal of Psychiatry, 190 (1): 27-35.
- Department for Education (2015) Special Educational Needs in England (January 2015) National Tables. Available online
- Department of Education Northern Ireland (2016) Annual Enrolments at Schools and in Funded Pre-school Education in Northern Ireland, 2015/16. Available online
- Department of Health (2013) Our Children Deserve Better: Prevention Pays (Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer 2012). Available online (accessed 11/05/16).
- Emerson, E. and Hatton, C. (2004) Estimating the Current Need/Demand for Supports for People with Learning Disabilities in England. Institute for Health Research, Lancaster University. Available online (accessed 03/06/16).
- Emerson, E. and Hatton, C. (2007) ‘The mental health of children and adolescents with intellectual disabilities in Britain,’ British Journal of Psychiatry, 191: 493-499.
- Emerson, E., Hatton, C., Robertson, J. and Baines, S. (2016) ‘Exposure to second hand tobacco smoke at home and child smoking at age 11 among British children with and without intellectual disability,’ Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 60(3): 274-281.
- Fink, E., Deighton, J., Humphrey, N. and Wolpert, M. (2015) ‘Assessing the bullying and victimisation experiences of children with special educational needs in mainstream schools: development and validation of the Bullying Behaviour and Experience Scale,’ Research in Developmental Disabilities, 36: 611-619.
- Gore, N., Emerson, E. and Brady, S. (2015) ‘Rates of breastfeeding and exposure to socio-economic adversity amongst children with intellectual disability,’ Research in Developmental Disabilities, 39: 12-19.
- Gov.uk (2016) Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). (accessed 03/06/16).
- Haveman, M., Heller, T., Lee, L., Maaskant, M., Shooshtari, S. and Strydom, A. (2010) ‘Major health risks in aging persons with intellectual disabilities: an overview of recent studies,’ Journal of Policy and Practice in Intellectual Disabilities, 7(1): 59-69.
- IoE London (2014) Research Summary: Are Disabled Children and Young People at Higher Risk of being bullied? Available online
- Jones, L., Bellis, M. A., Wood, S., Hughes, K., McCoy, E., Eckley, L., Bates, G., Mikton, C., Shakespeare, T. and Officer, A. (2012) ‘Prevalence and risk of violence against children with disabilities: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies,’ Lancet, 380(9845): 899-907.
- McLaughlin, C., Byers, R. and Vaughan, R. P. (2010) Responding to Bullying among Children with Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities. A report for the Anti-Bullying Alliance by the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education. Available online (accessed 10/05/16).
- Office for National Statistics (2015) Annual Mid-year Population Estimates: 2014. Available online:(accessed 03/06/16).
- Public Health England (2015) The Determinants of Health Inequities Experienced by Children with Learning Disabilities. Available online (accessed 10/05/16).
- Rose, C. A., Monda-Amaya, L. E. and Espelage, D. L. (2011) ‘Bullying perpetration and victimization in special education: a review of the literature,’ Remedial and Special Education, 32: 114-130.
- Salt, T. (2010) Salt Review: Independent Review of Teacher Supply for Pupils with Severe, Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties (SLD and PMLD). Available online
- Scottish Government (2015) Pupil Census 2015 Supplementary Data. Available online
- Spencer, N. (2013) ‘Reducing child health inequalities: what’s the problem?’ Archives of Disease in Childhood, 98: 836-837. Available online (accessed 11/05/16).
- StatsWales (2015) Pupils with Special Educational Needs by Sector and Year. Available online
- Ttofi, M. and Farrington, D. P. (2011) ‘Effectiveness of school-based programs to reduce bullying: a systematic and meta-analytic review,’ Journal of Experimental Criminology, 7: 27-56.