A Postcard from Home

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Say ‘social isolation’ and we immediately think about the impact of COVID and the lockdown: it is raised as an issue for adults, has had a particular impact on teenagers and young adults and, for young children, parents have been reporting the impact in terms of loss of routines and difficulties in managing behaviour.

So, will everything return to normal, or ‘new normal,’ as the restrictions ease, children are back at school and we are allowed to socialise more, even if within a new and different set of restrictions?

New research from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies and the London School of Economics raises much deeper questions about long-term underlying social isolation for children and young people with SEN and disabilities. The research tracks social isolation from teens to 20s and into adulthood for people identified as disabled in childhood.

The research draws on three major longitudinal studies and compares measures of social engagement and social support experienced by disabled people and their non-disabled peers in their teens, 20s and 50s. The research highlights the greater social isolation experienced by today’s disabled youth and teenagers compared with their non-disabled contemporaries.

Just picking up on the findings about the teenage group, the researchers analysed disability, friendships, trust in others and experience of bullying as a teenager. They found that, at age 14, disabled teenagers were more than three times more likely than their non-disabled peers to report that they ‘never’ spent time with any friends outside school, and 1 in 7 disabled teenage boys said they did not have a close friend.

Disabled teenagers were significantly more likely to have been picked on by other children ‘most days’. In general, teenage girls, disabled and non-disabled, were more likely to self-harm than teenage boys, but self-harm was significantly higher among disabled teenage boys than their non-disabled peers. Disabled teenage boys were also more likely to report not having someone to help them feel safe, not having anyone they feel close to and not having someone they trust and could turn to if they had a problem.

All teenagers were asked if they had been victims of crime. More than four in 10 of all teenagers had been called names or shouted at in a public place, and a third of all boys had experience of physical violence against them. But disabled teenage boys were more likely than their non-disabled peers to have experienced being hit with a weapon or having a weapon used against them.

The findings make for a hard read.

And the origins of this isolation are early. The same research team, looking at early childhood in one of the longitudinal studies, identified poorer early experiences of school, with slower progress, increased likelihood of bullying, higher levels of difficult behaviour and greater difficulties in forming friendships for disabled young children compared with their non-disabled peers.

There is other research highlighting the social barriers that exist because disabled children often spend more time with adults than their non-disabled peers. In an earlier postcard I could see the seeds of that social isolation, in the detail of classroom interactions between staff, a young disabled child and her peers.

Recent research by ALLFIE highlighted a range of social barriers experienced by disabled young people in their school and, last year, the Education Select Committee heard directly from young people:

…that poor support can result in them being isolated in school, unable to access the curriculum and find it hard to make friends. As adults, the training and employment opportunities were found to be poor, deriving from a fundamental lack of ambition for young people with SEND across the country.

The new research highlights the long-term problems we are generating if we don’t change the way we view social interaction in schools and settings. A report from the European Agency for Special needs and Inclusive Education, provides a wider evidence base for the importance of educational inclusion and its link to social inclusion beyond school.

It feels as if the new research has come at an opportune moment: not only are we dealing with the greater isolation of disabled children in the return to school following lockdown, but we have a Review of SEN and disability in the light of the implementation of the Children and Families Act, the Cabinet Office developing an all age disability strategy, and we are heading into a Comprehensive Spending Review.

Whatever we decide to do at a strategic level, we need to make sure that the way that we do it addresses the underlying life course problems we are generating for disabled people. There could be no more important moment to focus on two key schools’ duties: to make sure that children with SEN engage in the activities of the school with children who don’t have SEN; and to set out, in their Information Report, the steps the school is taking to prevent disabled pupils from being treated less favourably than other pupils.

Hope to see you soon,