Exploring EP Referral Data as a Tool for Social Justice and Anti-Racist Practice

ep research sharing ep practice Feb 12, 2024
Ethnically diverse children playing tug of war

by Jenny Knight, Trainee Educational Psychologist, University of Manchester


As the United Kingdom becomes increasingly ethnically diverse, especially within the under-eighteen population (Alexander & Shankley, 2020; Statistics, 2022), there is a growing understanding of the need for Educational Psychologists (EPs) to practice in a way that is actively anti-racist and culturally responsive (Sakata, 2021; Williams, 2020). This is reflected by the Health and Professions Council (2023) standards which state that practitioners must respond to the needs of the community and reduce barriers to services as part of an increased focus on diversity and inclusion.

Equity of access is identified as a key part of social justice within EP practice (Kuria & Kelly, 2023) and is especially important within stretched services (Ratheram, 2020). However, how much consideration is given to equity when making decisions about an EP’s caseload? Can we really claim to uphold the value of social justice if we are unclear about who we are helping and whether this reflects the needs of the communities we serve?


Referral Analysis within an EPS

This case study aimed to explore referral data as a method of understanding access to an EP service (EPS) in a diverse city in England. This involved analysis of EPS referral records from 2019-2022 along with scrutiny of the referral paperwork and an interview with members of the leadership team. The referral data analysis included scrutinising the completeness and accuracy of the referral information, a comparison of ethnicity demographics within the EP referrals and local population and exploration of special educational needs (SEN) referral patterns across young people with different ethnic heritages.


Key findings

Due to high levels of missing ethnicity data (ethnicity completed for 65.5% of school commissioned work and 36.4% of statutory work), it should be noted that patterns identified with the data can only be suggested.  

Within the EP referrals there was under and over representation of certain ethnicity groups when compared to the local population demographics. As graph 1 shows, young people from Asian ethnic heritages were significantly under-represented; and those from White ethnic heritages were significantly over-represented in referrals when compared to the local demography.


Graph 1. The The proportion of EP referrals by ethnicity compared to the population demographics (2020-2021)

proportion of EP referrals by ethnicity compared to the population demographics

Note. For example, for every 100 Asian heritage young people that would be referred if the referrals were proportionally distributed only 53 would be based on the current data and only 63/100 black heritage young people. Whereas White heritage young people are 1.5 times more likely to be referred in comparison to the proportional distribution.


Patterns of identified special educational need within referrals varied across young people from different ethnic backgrounds. For example, a high proportion of referrals for young people from Black Caribbean and mixed White and Black Caribbean heritages were referred for social, emotional and mental health needs compared to the rest of the referral population (see graph 2).   

Referral data provides a starting point for critical reflection to hypothesise about mechanisms underlying these findings.


Graph 2. Patterns of special education need across EP Referrals

patterns of special education need across EP Referrals


Areas for consideration and exploration from EPs within the service...

  • Hypothesising around why ethnicity information was often missing when other parts of the referral form were completed. Maybe a lack of perceived importance or school staff lacking skills and confidence to discuss ethnicity with parents/carers?
  • What are the barriers for young people and families from ethnic minority heritages accessing the EP service?
  • Is there a need for developing school staff understanding of SEMH needs and behaviour as communication of an underlying need or area of difficulty?
  • How are assumptions and prejudice impacting understanding of SEN and particularly SEMH needs? Conversely, how are education settings potentially contributing to the prevalence of SEMH needs within students of Black Caribbean heritage?
  • How do SENCOs make decisions about their priorities for EP involvement? How is that process influenced (e.g. degree of parental engagement, language barriers, staff perceptions, understanding of EP roles)?

As this research was completed for a university assignment, there were limitations on time and resources. However, findings illuminated patterns arising from the current model of service delivery and served as a call to action for service development. It also demonstrates that, even with limited resources, it is possible for an EPS to begin their journey to using data to support and develop culturally responsive practice.


Next steps in the process

Developing a socially just and culturally responsive EP service is an ongoing, cyclical process but this research demonstrates the utility of referral data to guide this ongoing work. It is useful in making inequalities apparent and providing a starting point for critical reflection within an EPS. However, there is a need for this reflection to translate into action if it is to have an impact.

There are many ways referral data could be utilised as part of EP practice, which include:

EP service Level

  • Identifying and reducing barriers to accessing EP services
  • Co-construction of EPS with marginalised communities
  • Whole service level analysis to feed into service delivery
  • Developing cultural competence within EP team

Developing school practice

  • Training around identification of SEN
  • Developing cultural competence in schools
  • Develop confidence in talking about aspects of identity and culture

Individual EP Practice

  • Use of referral data in planning meetings to support EPs and SENCOs
  • Working with and empowering marginalised communities
  • Development and enactment of culturally responsive practice


Reflective questions and areas to explore…

  • How does your service monitor the demographics of the students it supports?
  • Are there patterns of inequality of access within your casework and how do these patterns compare the demographics of the communities you work within?
  • In planning meetings, how do we support SENCOs to make culturally responsive decisions in relation to EP referrals?
  • What might the barriers be to accessing your service? What might the steps be to reducing these?
  • Sakata’s (2021) Self-reflective framework for EPs to develop culturally responsive practice is a useful tool, see https://repository.essex.ac.uk/30973/1/E-Thesis%20SAKATA%201809033%20TV.pdf P234-237



Alexander, C., & Shankley, W. (2020). Ethnic inequalities in the state education system in England. In C. Alexander, W. Shankley, B. Byrne, O. Khan, & J. Nazro (Eds.), Ethnicity and Race in the UK (1 ed., pp. 93-126). Bristol University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv14t47tm.11

Health and Care Professions Council. (2023). Standards of Proficiency. In Practitioner Psychologists.

Knight, J. (2022). Examining Educational Psychology Referrals by Ethnic Group Within One Organisation [Unpublished University Assignment].

Kuria, E. K., & Kelly, C. (2023). Exploring social justice principles within an educational psychology service. Educational Psychology in Practice, 1-16.

Ratheram, E. M. (2020). Exploring Educational Psychologists' Work with Children, Young People and Families from Minority Cultural and Linguistic Communities [Unpublished Thesis]. The University of Manchester (United Kingdom).

Sakata, E. (2021). How can Educational Psychologists Develop Culturally Responsive Practice? A Delphi Study [Unpublished Thesis]. Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust/University of Essex. http://repository.essex.ac.uk/30973/1/E-Thesis%20SAKATA%201809033%20TV.pdf

Statistics, O. f. N. (2022). Ethnic group, England and Wales: Census 2021. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/ethnicity/bulletins/ethnicgroupenglandandwales/census2021

Williams, A. (2020). The Whiteness of Educational Psychology: Colonialism, Post-Colonialism and Racialisation in the Theory, Training and Practice of Educational Psychology. Educational Psychology Research and Practice, 6(1), 1-8. https://doi.org/10.15123/uel.8911v




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