Inclusion Now 64

Segregated Education: Linking poverty, class, race and disability

Lani Parker is Capacity Development Officer for the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), and leads ALLFIE’s new Stronger Voices project.

Lani Parker, smiling towards camera

It is well known that Disabled people in the UK are statistically more likely to be in poverty than their non-Disabled counterparts. This includes families with Disabled children. Research shows that in 2019, life cost on average £583 a month more for a Disabled person. Families of Disabled children, on average, face extra costs of £581 a month. For almost a quarter (24%) of families with Disabled children, extra costs amount to over £1,000 a month.

What is less talked about are the links between segregated education and poverty. Segregated education is both a cause and a consequence of poverty. This issue needs to be highlighted and action needs to be taken. The team at the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) have just launched a new and exciting 3-year project aiming to highlight and tackle this, through building the capacity of the Disabled people’s movement. We aim to fight alongside you for different kinds of visions of education, not based on separation but on inclusion and community.

Defining Poverty

The Child Poverty Action Group suggests that 27% of children are living in poverty in the UK. Trust for London defines “poverty” as living on less than £141 per week after housing costs if you are an adult. Alongside this, they describe “destitution” as somebody who lives on less than £70 per week after housing costs. Many people with asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants’ status live in destitution as they are unable to access work or suitable benefits. On a wider scale, the impact of Covid-19 and the cost-of-living crisis means many more people will and do struggle to afford the essentials they need to have a reasonable standard of living[1].  This project has therefore become increasingly urgent.

Poverty is a result of the various ways in which people are systematically denied resources. In order to challenge this and make much needed systemic change within the education system and beyond, we need to understand how these systems are upheld, make the connections between disability, race and class, and understand the historical context. For example, poverty often results from structural discrimination in terms of access to resources such as housing and well-paid work. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) points out that Black and global majority Disabled people are more likely to be in poverty, and what they call ‘deep poverty’, than white and non-Disabled groups[2]. JRF finds a number of connected factors that mean that children labelled with special educational needs and Disabled children, particularly those who have been segregated, are more likely to live in poverty. A disproportionate number of children eligible for free school meals labelled with special educational needs or are Disabled.

But it is also important to think about poverty beyond money. It has a huge impact on many aspects of life: how you relate to society, how you relate to yourself, what opportunities are open to you and what you think you’re worthy of. As Darren McGarvey points out, “Poverty is more like a gravitational field, comprising social, economic, emotional, physiological, political and cultural forces.” (Poverty Safari, 2018)


Segregated education is a way to dehumanise and isolate young people. It is strongly connected to structural forms of oppression, including ableism, racism and classism. It’s not surprising that this is the case, as segregation has historically been and continues to be a tool to keep inequalities in place.

There are numerous ways to segregate children, including special schools, pupil referral units, special units within mainstream schools, lowered expectations and reduced support. As we at ALLFIE delve deeper, we are finding more and more ways in which children are segregated.

Much of the education system is based on ideas of intelligence that have their roots in eugenics. Historical categories such as ‘educationally sub-normal’, were based on ableist and racist ideas about intelligence and this was used to justify segregation in special schools. Although an important struggle was won to abolish this category, the structure of ableism and racism still means that Black Caribbean, African and children from a traveller background are more likely to be labelled with social and emotional needs, and more likely to be excluded. In addition, 7 out of 10 children who are excluded from school are Disabled. This ableism, racism and classism determine the distinctions made between those who are deserving and those who are not, which have profound impacts on people’s feelings of belonging, dignity and safety. They also often set off a chain of social and economic exclusions later in life, which deepen poverty and trauma. If you do not have strong and varied social networks, it is difficult to survive and challenge the conditions of poverty.

Linking segregation, poverty and social justice

The economic system in which we live relies on scarcity and restricting resources. We are currently living in a pandemic and a cost-of-living crisis that will further entrench the already widening inequality gaps that exist here in the UK. As I write this article, the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, costing an estimated £8-20 million (although this has not been verified), has just taken place and the government has announced £55 billion tax cuts for the super-rich, yet more and more people are being thrown into poverty, increasingly inhumane anti-migrant policies are being introduced, and austerity-plus policies are on the cards. This shows how the current structure of society upholds and reinforces inequalities, including the idea of stratification on grounds of class, race, ability, gender and immigration status. This is visible in schools through streaming and setting policies, unequal resources for different schools, unequal access to well-funded schools, and the private school system.

Segregated education is at risk of worsening in the current economic climate. Schools are saying they are unable to meet rising energy costs despite the government’s announced support, and may have no option but to increase class sizes, cut subject choice and reduce additional support. This will have a huge impact on a child’s ability to learn, and their ability to be part of the school environment.

Visions of Inclusion

When we think about inclusion in an educational setting, we need to take every child’s needs into account. Educational settings should foster a sense of safety and belonging for every child, not only offering respect and dignity, but also giving access to the resources children need to reach their full potential and to be an integral part of the community. This means we need a complete overhaul.

ALLFIE’s new project will support Disabled People’s Organisations to work on this overhaul. Not only will we evidence links between segregated education and poverty, but we will look at the wider context and other oppressions as well. We will support DPO’s to influence local antipoverty plans, build organisations’ capacity to provide support and challenge laws, look underneath the surface at where we need to go and go there together. There will be ongoing reflections and new learning processes created. This article is some of our first thoughts and we will be relying on our collective voices to shape the project over the course of the next three years.

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ALLFIE’s Social Value in Education Researcher, Kariima Ali, highlights the Intersectional experiences of Disabled Black and racially minoritized students: A new research project

“Intersectionality has been underutilised in inclusive education research. In this blog I stress the importance of thinking with intersectionality when challenging ongoing inequalities and injustices experienced by Disabled people within the education system. In particular, how the intersections of ableism/disablism, racism and other intersectional oppressions play out in practice which further increases social injustice in other areas of society.”

[1] The Joseph Rowntree Foundation states that in 2022, with the rising cost of living, a single person needs to earn on average £25,500 a year to reach the minimum acceptable standard of living. As of April 2022, a couple with two children needs to earn £43,400 between them. Joseph Rowntree foundation

[2] In 2019/20, the poverty rate for the Bangladeshi ethnic group is 53% while it is 48% for the Pakistani ethnic group. This is in sharp contrast to the white group, where it is 19%. Poverty rates for the Black/African/Caribbean/Black British ethnic group have largely stayed just over 40% for the last 25 years.     There is also a useful blog about poverty and deep poverty and cost of living crisis