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Experiences of self and belonging among young people identified as having learning difficulties in English schools



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Young people identified as having special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEN/D), remain some of the most marginalised learners in the English education system. These young people are one of the most likely groups to face exclusion from school and evidence suggests that discrimination against disabled adults and children, in England, is on the rise. Within research debates on education, the voices of those identified as having SEN/D remain on the margins.

Six story-telling case studies were undertaken, exploring the experiences of young people identified as having learning difficulties in a mainstream, mainstream faith and special school in England. Specifically, the way in which the young people described themselves and experienced a sense of belonging was examined. An ethical and robustly inclusive methodology using arts-based methods was developed to empower the young people to share their experiences on their own terms. Embracing the potential of video voice, self-portraiture and life-mapping as ethical, participatory and inclusive research methods, this study has captured multi-sensory narrative data. Offering a detailed description of how the methods operated inclusively contributes to the field and, supports other researchers to undertake inclusive research alongside young people identified as having learning difficulties.

The voices of the six young people are examined to show the ways in which they demonstrate a resistance to othering discourses in society, through describing themselves and articulating their sense of belonging. The young people’s reflection on difference and disability demonstrated that their knowledge of disability and specific ‘diagnoses’ was limited. Moreover, the way in which they described themselves and their peers reinforced a dichotomy of ‘normal’ and ‘other’. Hence, I argue within this thesis for the further development and dissemination of a social model of learning difficulty. This model rejects the notion of essential difference and offers an understanding that learning difficulty, similarly to disability, can be viewed as socially constructed. Based on the young people’s reflections on belonging, I also problematise the use of special educational needs (SEN) labels within school settings arguing that, discussions around the use of labels must involve the voices of young people. In relation to SEN labels, I also examine the geographies of SEN/D using the young people’s reflections to underline how nurture or inclusion units can have the potential to both offer refuge and reinforce notions of difference.





Singal, Nidhi


disability, education, special educational needs, Autism, schools, England


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
My thanks to the School of Humanities and Social Sciences for generously awarding me a three-year PhD bursary.