Children with special educational needs twice as likely to be bullied, study finds

20 June 2014

Primary school pupils with special educational needs are twice as likely as other children to suffer from persistent bullying, according to new research published by the Institute of Education (IOE), University of London.

The study, the largest of its kind to be carried out in England, analysed information on more than 19,000 children and adolescents born in the early 1990s and 2000s.

Researchers from the IOE’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies and the London School of Economics examined the prevalence of bullying at ages 7 and 15 among children with different types of cognitive and physical impairments.

Seventeen per cent of children and teenagers had special educational needs, of whom 4 to 5 per cent had a ‘statement’ outlining what additional support they should receive at school. Children with statements of need are generally those with the most severe learning difficulties.

At age 7, 12 per cent of children with special needs and 11 per cent of those with a statement said they were bullied ‘all of the time’ by other pupils, compared to just 6 per cent of their non-disabled peers.

As disabled children are also more likely to have disadvantaged backgrounds, it has previously been difficult to determine whether it was their disability, their family’s disadvantaged socio-economic position, or some other factor, that led to the bullying. However, the authors of this sophisticated new statistical analysis were able to single out the effects of disability alone from other bullying risk factors.

Although there was a clear link between special educational needs and bullying at age 7, the picture became more complex in the teenage years.

Fifteen-year-olds with statements of special educational needs were significantly more likely to be frequent victims of threats or acts of physical violence and theft, even when other factors that increase the risk of bullying were taken into account. They were also more likely to be excluded by a group of schoolmates or called names – a form of victimisation that is often referred to as “relational bullying”.

The researchers also looked at whether children with a longstanding limiting illness or chronic condition, such as type 1 diabetes, vision problems or mental health issues, were more likely to be bullied.

Ten per cent of seven-year-olds with such a condition reported being bullied all of the time, compared to 7 per cent of non-disabled pupils. Adolescents with a chronic illness or impairment were more likely to be subjected to relational bullying, but no more likely to experience physical bullying.

Their analysis of information gathered by two nationally representative cohort studies, the Millennium Cohort Study and Next Steps (formerly the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England), showed that 11 per cent of seven-year-olds and 6 per cent of 15-year-olds had a chronic illness or impairment that limited their day-to-day activity.

Stella Chatzitheochari, one of the study’s authors, said: “We know that being bullied contributes to social inequalities later in life – people who were victims in childhood often grow up to have low self-esteem, anxiety and depression, and perform less well in the labour market than their peers. These findings suggest that bullying reinforces the inequalities experienced by disabled people, putting them at a double disadvantage.”

Philippa Stobbs of the Council for Disabled Children noted: “We know that bullying remains the single biggest concern raised by children with special educational needs and disabilities. The fact that this continues to be so is unacceptable. This is the first time we’re able to demonstrate with absolute certainty just how pervasive this problem is for disabled children and young people across the country.”

More about this research

Research briefing: Are disabled children and young people more likely to be bullied? Findings from the Millennium Cohort Study and Next Steps (PDF)

Working paper: Bullying victimisation among disabled children and young people: Evidence from two British longitudinal studies, by Stella Chatzitheochari (IOE), Samantha Parsons (IOE) and Lucinda Platt (LSE), is the latest working paper from the IOE’s Department of Quantitative Social Science.

For more findings from this project, visit


Further information

Meghan Rainsberry
020 7612 6530
075 3186 4481

David Budge
020 7911 5349
078 8141 5362

Notes to editors:

  1. The researchers controlled for a wide range of personal characteristics other than disability that are believed to put children at a greater risk of being bullied, including gender, month of birth, ethnicity, cognitive ability, and weight (at age seven only). As disabled children are also more likely to be disadvantaged, the researchers also considered housing tenure, family size, parents’ education and employment, whether the child lived in a lone-parent home, parenting style, the quality of the relationship between mother and child, and mother’s mental health. The risks varied depending on the type of disability, however those children with statements of special needs were the most deprived group overall.
  2. The question on bullying asked of seven-year-olds in the Millennium Cohort Study did not differentiate between different types of bullying. However, the questions asked of 15-year-olds in Next Steps distinguished between different forms of physical and emotional aggression (referred to as ‘physical bullying’ and ‘relational bullying’).
  3. This research is part of a project being carried out by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, the National Children’s Bureau and the Council for Disabled Children. This project was funded under the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Secondary Data Analysis Initiative (SDAI). The SDAI aims to deliver high-quality high-impact research through the deeper exploitation of major data resources created by the ESRC and other agencies.
  4. The Millennium Cohort Study has been tracking more than 19,000 children in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through their early childhood and plans to follow them into adulthood. It covers such diverse topics as parenting; childcare; school choice; child behaviour and cognitive development; child and parental health; parents’ employment and education; income; housing; and neighbourhood. Surveys of the cohort have been carried out at the ages of nine months, and 3, 5, 7 and 11 years. The MCS was commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council, whose funding has been supplemented by a consortium of government departments. More at
  5. Next Steps (formerly the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England) has been following the lives of about 16,000 young people born in 1989-1990. The study began in 2004 when the cohort members were aged 13-14. Following the first survey, the cohort members were visited every year until 2010, when they were aged 19-20. The next survey is due to take place in 2015 at age 25. The study has collected a wide range of information across different areas of the cohort members’ lives, including education, employment, economic circumstances, family life, physical and emotional health, and social participation and attitudes. Next Steps is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. From 2004-2012, the study was managed and funded by the Department for Education. Visit
  6. The Millennium Cohort Study and Next Steps are managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS), which is based at the Department of Quantitative Social Science, Institute of Education. CLS is also responsible for running two of Britain’s other major cohort studies: the 1958 National Child Development Study and the 1970 British Cohort Study. Further information at
  7. The Institute of Education is a world-leading university specialising in education and the social sciences. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 7,000 students and 800 staff. In January 2014, the Institute was recognised by Ofsted for its ‘outstanding’ initial teacher training across primary, secondary and further education. In the 2014 QS World University Rankings, the Institute was ranked number one for education worldwide. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the publications that the IOE submitted were judged to be internationally significant and over a third were judged to be ‘world leading’. The Institute is part of the University of London.
  8. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. It also develops and trains the UK’s future social scientists. Its research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. Most importantly, it makes a real difference to all our lives. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government

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