Exclusive: Pupils with SEND left bullied and isolated

New report calls on DfE to help schools do more to tackle the problem in mainstream and special schools

Schools and DfE told to do more to step SEND pupils being bullied or socially isolated in schools

Ministers should develop stronger guidance for schools to tackle the bullying of pupils with special educational needs, according to a new report.

The report is based on research that found many pupils with SEND describe being bullied and socially excluded in both mainstream and special schools.

It warns there is widespread ignorance of disability issues among school children, including some of those with SEND who could also be reluctant to identify with their own disability.


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It calls on both school leaders and the Department for Education to do more to tackle bullying, create inclusive environments within schools and raise awareness.

The report, Special or Unique – Young People’s Attitudes to Disability also says ministers need to develop SEND-specific anti-bullying practice guidance.

It recommends that a new minimum standard for disability awareness is introduced into the PSHE curriculum.

Lead researcher Evan Odell from the charity Disability Rights UK said: “These findings show that, in some areas, little has changed for disabled children in the last 40 years or so.

“Schools, special educational needs coordinators and teachers have understandably emphasised the need for reasonable adjustments and classroom support for pupils with SEND.

“Now they need to deal with bullying and ensure disabled children have the same chance to develop social skills and share in the experiences that mark out the teenage years.” 

School leaders are being urged to encourage more interventions by teachers to address bullying and social exclusion in the classroom, and promote inclusive classroom environments.

The report also calls on leaders to support pupils, particularly those with SEND, to develop personal skills and coping mechanisms to mitigate the impact of bullying.

The report said: “Many of the young people with SEND we spoke to appeared unaware of the specifics of their disability or why they were receiving the support they did.”

The research also found that most pupils with SEND in mainstream schools distinguished themselves as being different from others with disabilities, regardless of what their own disability was.

The report, published by the DRILL Programme (Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning) is based on the findings of 11 focus groups with a mix of SEND and non-SEND pupils in mainstream and special schools, aged 12-14.

The findings include:

  • Pupils with SEND described being bullied and socially excluded within their school, and having relatively few friends.
  • Pupils without SEND expressed “neutral-to-positive attitudes about disabled people, but were not friends with disabled people”.
  • Pupils with SEND in mainstream schools were largely excluded from the larger social networks in their schools.
  • Pupils with SEND want their schools to be more proactive in facilitating their social and educational inclusion and in reducing bullying.
  • SEND pupils in special schools talked about being victims of bullying or witnessing bullying, but did not always describe this clearly. 

The report argues that supporting pupils with SEND to have a better understanding of their disability and the reasonable adjustments and support they can access, could improve academic outcomes and better prepare them for life with disability.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Schools should be safe places where children are taught to respect each other and staff. Any kind of bullying and harassment in schools is completely unacceptable.

“We are providing over £2.8 million of funding, between September 2016 and March 2020, to anti-bullying organisations to support schools to tackle bullying. This includes the Anti-Bullying Alliance, which has a particular focus on stopping bullying of those with SEND.

“Our new relationships, sex and health education guidance recognises some children are more vulnerable to exploitation and will help pupils understand how to treat others with respect and how to get help if they are suffering bullying online and face to face."

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