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Children with special educational needs far more likely to be unhappy at school, study finds

Dr Matt Barnes and Dr Eric Harrison conducted new research for the Department for Education


Children with special educational needs (SEN) are significantly more likely to be unhappy with their secondary school than those without SEN, according to a new study by researchers at City, University of London.

Almost one in five UK secondary-school children with SEN (19 per cent) report being unhappy with their school, compared to just 7 per cent of children without SEN.

Dr Matt Barnes and Dr Eric Harrison, of the Department of Sociology at City, conducted the research for the Department for Education.

Their study provides important new evidence on the links between secondary school children having SEN and their subjective and psychological wellbeing.

The report states: “The findings show that children with SEN tend to have lower levels of subjective wellbeing than children without SEN when talking about their school and their school work – and also with their friends (an important element of school life).

“Higher proportions of children with SEN are also deemed to be ‘unhappy’ with these aspects of their lives… Yet children with SEN show relatively little difference to those without SEN when talking about their family and their appearance.”


The research was required because of a lack of research on the wellbeing of students with SEN.

Dr Barnes and Dr Harrison analysed data from two sources – the Understanding Society survey (USoc) and the National Pupil Database (NPD). The data was linked to allow the researchers to use administrative data from schools alongside children’s responses to a survey.

The data on wellbeing comes from USoc. In the survey, children assess their satisfaction with various aspects of their lives by scoring their happiness, which provides information on subjective wellbeing. They also complete the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, revealing their psychological wellbeing.

The data on whether students have special educational needs or not comes from the NPD.


“Clearly there is evidence that how children think about their wellbeing in relation to school is an issue for a number of children with SEN,” the authors state in their report.

“Given that having SEN means a child requires additional support with their educational needs, it is perhaps unsurprising that the biggest difference between children with SEN and without SEN is for their views on their school work.”

The analysis suggested a potentially complex interaction between SEN and a number of other factors that can impact on children’s wellbeing, including their gender, family background, peer relationships (particularly bullying) and engagement with education.

The report notes that previous research shows that children with SEN are disproportionately more likely to be boys, from more disadvantaged families and to be bullied.

“The distinct experiences of children with SEN inside and outside the educational system raise pressing issues for policy and research,” it states.

The researchers say the study should not be generalised to the whole SEN population, including younger children in primary schools, as their report only covers secondary school children.

Download the full report from the Department for Education website

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