In the intricate landscape of special educational needs (SEN) in UK schools, the moment a child is diagnosed marks a critical juncture. It paves the way for tailored support, ranging from assistive technology to specialised teaching programs and access to professionals like educational psychologists. However, recent research examining UK government data reveals a persistent gender gap in SEN identification, shedding light on a nuanced disparity that warrants attention.
A study conducted by researchers, drawing on government data, underscores a striking gender discrepancy in SEN identification. Of the approximate 1.5 million children in English schools enlisted for SEN services during the academic year 2022-23, merely 0.5 million were girls. This pattern echoed across the nation, with girls constituting only 34% to 36% of students accessing SEN support in most regions.
While it’s acknowledged that certain disabilities exhibit a gender skew, with prevalence higher in boys, the research posits that gender bias in assessment processes and referral mechanisms also significantly contribute to this disparity. Moreover, it highlights the adeptness of girls at concealing the challenges they face, potentially leading to underreporting of SEN in female students.
Delving into specific types of special educational needs, the research unravels a consistent trend where boys are more likely to be diagnosed across the board. Notably, boys accounted for a staggering 75% of those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Additionally, they were approximately twice as likely as girls to receive diagnoses for speech, language, and communication disorders, as well as mental health disorders.
A longitudinal analysis of SEN identification rates between 2015 and 2022 revealed some shifts. The proportion of girls identified with autism spectrum disorder rose from 17% to 25%, indicating progress. Similarly, there was an uptick in the proportion of girls identified for specific learning difficulties, from 38% in 2015 to 44% in 2022. However, these positive trends did not extend uniformly across all disability categories, maintaining a persistent imbalance.
Biological factors, such as neurobiological differences between genders, may contribute to the vulnerability of boys to certain disabilities. Yet, the research underscores the substantial influence of social factors and gender bias in referral systems. Past studies have suggested that teachers, who play a pivotal role in the diagnostic referral process, might be inclined to refer boys more frequently due to disruptive behavior that garners attention, while girls might slip under the radar.
The research also introduces the intriguing concept of the “camouflage effect” in the context of autism, where girls may adeptly mask or hide their challenges, leading to delayed diagnosis or under-identification. Critically, assessments used for diagnosis are often based on male characteristics, potentially overlooking the nuanced presentation of autism spectrum disorder in girls.
The implications of this gender gap are profound. Recognizing that girls have higher rates of mental health disorders, including anxiety, emphasizes the urgency of rectifying the under-identification of SEN in female students. Importantly, for categories such as visual impairment or intellectual disabilities, where data on gender differences is sparse, the situation becomes even more disconcerting.
The limited number of girls identified with disabilities raises concerns about the potential consequences of delayed or missed diagnoses. Early detection is paramount in providing timely services that support the development of students with SEN. A lack of recognition and support could exacerbate challenges and adversely impact the long-term outcomes of these girls.
Addressing this issue requires heightened awareness and proactive measures within the educational system. Implementing standardized criteria for SEN diagnosis across schools and fostering awareness of the nuanced differences between girls and boys in need of support is crucial. This approach aims to mitigate subjective judgments influenced by biases, ensuring equitable support for all students navigating the complex terrain of special educational needs in UK schools.