Panel 1: "Research and education: race and disability"

Flipped webinar (9/Jul/21): 'Intersectional Approaches to Disability and Race' (here)

The impact of the COVID-19 educational policy response on neurodivergent children

Dr Armineh Soorenian

Independent researcher

I will use an intersectional perspective to explore whether the pandemic-related policy responses involving the education of neurodivergent children in the United Kingdom were inclusive, in terms of race, ethnicity and class. In doing so, I will investigate the extent to which policies on remote learning homogenised neurodiversity, focusing, for example, on the needs of White neurodivergent pupils.


During the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability of schools to provide remote yet inclusive education, allowing neurodivergent pupils to engage ‘meaningfully’ with and benefit from lessons and resources, was a concern for both parents and education professionals. In periods of lockdown, schools were closed to all pupils, with the exception of the children of key workers and those designated as having Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) via an education, health and care (EHC) plan. According to an Ofsted report (2021a), however, many children were unable to access schools, even though they fit the criteria to attend. Ofsted documented that a proportion of parents had told them that they had been forced to leave their jobs to care for their children with the closure of essential services. Other parents reported a deterioration in their child’s progress, with some young people experiencing mental health difficulties, such as anxiety, depression and sleep loss, as a result of the disruption caused to their education.


In contrast, another Ofsted report on remote education (2021b) documented that a large proportion of schools in England felt that they had done well at mitigating loss of learning through the provision of remote education. Yet according to the same report, 59% of parents who had a child labelled with SEND, questioned by YouGov, said that their child had not engaged with remote learning, compared with 39% of parents who had children without such a label. The main reason given for the disengagement with the remote curriculum was that children with complex sensory needs had found it difficult to work exclusively with a screen. The situation appeared to be aggravated by lack of access to teachers, school friends, social workers, and other support staff, as well as the safe space and additional services that schools provided. Essential support, such as assistance with speech and language therapy and physiotherapy, were either lost altogether or subject to longer waiting times. Schools reported being concerned about the wider learning gaps for pupils labelled with SEND, and the more severe social and emotional impact of the disruption within this group. The report highlighted that more work needed to be done to engage children labelled with SEND during the closure of services (Ofsted, 2021b).


To try and address the loss of routine and familiarity, some schools had tried practices such as supplying assisted reading technology and other aids and offering training to parents to enable the use of the assistive equipment their children needed. While three-fifths of the teachers surveyed were confident in providing a ‘high-quality’ remote education where needed, not all schools were at the same stage of development (Ofsted, 2021b). This implied a wide variability in the provision of remote learning opportunities, specifically in the quality of support offered to neurodivergent children. The situation was likely to be worse still for migrant, refugee and Black neurodivergent children due to the intersectionality of their identities.


Evidence from Public Health England (2021) suggests that children and young people of colour experienced a higher rate of mental health and wellbeing difficulties during the pandemic. Access to the internet, laptops and other essential equipment was problematic in deprived communities, further marginalising pupils of colour. From March to November 2020, there were reports of a lack of social connectedness, mainly for primary school children and those children without access to the internet. The situation appeared to continue even after the return to school. Many children and young people found it difficult to reconnect with friendship and peer groups.


Data from a survey conducted by Co-Space in January 2021 suggests that a larger proportion of children were identified as having possible/probable emotional and mental health and hyperactivity issues when they were from households with lower annual incomes, compared with children from households with higher annual incomes (Co-Space, 2021). During the first lockdown, for example, ‘disadvantaged’ students eligible for the Pupil Premium were less likely to say they had developed a routine for learning, received help from their family, or understood the school work they had been set (Public Health England, 2021).


Furthermore, children and young people (aged 6 to 18) labelled as having SEND displayed more mental health symptoms and higher levels of behavioural, emotional and attentional difficulties through the pandemic (ibid). Disabled young people aged 16 to 24 felt more anxious than their peers during the period of April to September 2020.


A proportion of secondary aged pupils had difficulties with pre-existing mental health needs during the early lockdown, continuing after the return of schools in Autumn 2020. There is qualitative evidence to show that the stress experienced around going back to school was a definite trigger for some young people who then started to self-harm again or have suicidal thoughts (ibid). A number of children and young people reported that accessing counselling at school was more difficult after the first lockdown due to longer waiting lists, being unable to attend sessions when self-isolating, and not being able to have regular appointments. There was therefore considerable disruption to their mental health support.  


Overall evidence suggests that some children and young people, specifically those with certain characteristics (including those labelled with SEND, those with pre-existing mental health needs, and pupils of colour) experienced increased negative effects on their mental health and wellbeing as a result of remote learning policies when compared with their peers. The return to school in September 2020, which ran up to January 2021, was also problematic for certain groups of children. A general decline in wellbeing was detected, with common reasons for anxiety reported to include keeping up with school work, uncertainty over the future, getting good grades in exams, or being worried that exams may be cancelled (Public Health England, 2021).


From this brief analysis, it is clear that the pandemic highlighted that young people positioned as neurodivergent pupils of colour have always experienced a myriad of educational and social inequalities. Neurodivergent pupils of colour are not only confronted by the same barriers as both these separate groups, but inevitably face their own additional set of difficulties resulting from the intersectionality of their identities. They were marginalised further during COVID-19 with little policy consideration of their needs. Certain children labelled as having SEND, already at a disadvantage in education, were left even further behind their peers. Existing weaknesses in the system were exacerbated by the policy responses to the pandemic, thus COVID-19 created an additional layer of exclusion for neurodivergent children, with additional characteristics such as race and ethnicity left unexamined. There is therefore an urgent question that needs to be addressed, that of how multiple forms of inequality and identity, including race, class and disability, interrelate across different contexts and over time.