Do two thirds of young rioters have special educational needs?

17 January 2012

 "Two thirds of the August rioters have special educational needs—a rate well above the national average."

Charlotte Leslie, House of Commons, 16 January 2012

While last summer's riots may only have lasted a few days, the mark they left on the political landscape has been far more long-lived.

Yesterday the spectre of the riots was raised again during Education Questions in the House of Commons, with one Conservative MP suggesting that the identification of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) could help mitigate any future unrest.

According to Ms Leslie, some two thirds of those involved in the riots had SEN, well above the national average. So what is the evidence for this?


Following the violence and looting that erupted across several English cities between 9-11 August last year, the police made a number of arrests and successful prosecutions.

The Home Office and Ministry of Justice later used the data collected on offenders as they made their way through the judicial system to publish research into the backgrounds of those involved in the riots.

As it stood in October 2011, some 516 juveniles (those aged 10-17-years-old) had been found guilty of offences relating to the riots, of whom the Ministry of Justice had been able to find educational data for 386.

According to the MoJ, of these 386, some "66 per cent of young people were classified as having some form of special educational need (compared to 21 per cent of all pupils in maintained secondary schools)."

While we should be careful to note that the two thirds proportion does only apply to the sample of convicted juveniles for whom education data was available, rather than all the young "rioters" in general, it does therefore appear that Charlotte Leslie is largely correct to make the claim she does.

So what does this information tell us about the educational requirements of this group?

The legal definition of special educational needs encompasses any student with "a disability which prevents or hinders them" from learning, or who has "a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of the same age." Ofsted caused controversy in 2010 by suggesting that over a quarter of those with SEN may have been misdiagnosed.

Within the broad definition of SEN there are three separate categories: (in broadly increasing severity) school action, school action plus and statement of SEN. The Ministry of Justice data seems to suggest that those with the more severe forms of SEN are even more over-represented among the rioters than those in the school action category.


Leaving aside the distinction between the "rioters" and the specific group of young offenders studied by the Ministry of Justice, Charlotte Leslie is correct to identify that two thirds of juveniles found guilty of offences during the riots were classified as SEN, which is some way above the national rate of 21 per cent.

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