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Classroom Practice - Why labels are a dead end, not a short cut

Categorising learning difficulties helps teachers to feel in control, but each student is unique - and requires a bespoke strategy

Categorising learning difficulties helps teachers to feel in control, but each student is unique - and requires a bespoke strategy

You've all been lied to. And the truth? Well, you're not going to like it, but here goes: labels for special educational needs mean nothing.

Cue a collective sharp intake of breath as the supposed foundation stone of SEN teaching crumbles into rubble.

For years, SEN labelling - be it dyslexia, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder or the plethora of other SEN issues - has been accepted as being key to understanding what each child needs from their teachers. This assumption was never based on evidence, but we educators didn't ask too many questions.

That is because labels give us a point of reference, a safety net to fall into when someone - peer, colleague, line manager, parent or carer - asks us how we are managing a child's difficulties. Labels give us an air of authority as professionals. They also provide a degree of commonality across all subjects - enabling us to talk generally about the day-to-day challenges a dyslexic child will face, for example. Labels make us feel assured, confident, in control.

And yet it is all a lie. In reality, labels do more harm than good in the education of SEN students.

First, they tend to provide a justification or excuse for a student's failure to reach targets, rather than a way of improving attainment. Comments such as "Oh well, he is autistic" or "She has done well considering she is dyslexic" are all too common. SEN should not be an excuse for underachievement. Expectations should be equally high for all students, and to ensure that this happens, teachers need to forget about SEN labels and focus on each child without prejudice.

Second, at the heart of the labelling strategy is the belief that those within a certain SEN box are all the same, with the same needs. We may start to think that a dyslexic child requires a generic kind of intervention based on the reasoning: "Well, don't all dyslexic children need.?" or "Surely, if they are on the spectrum, they need."

This is the wrong approach. Two students plucked from any single SEN box could have vastly different requirements. It is the equivalent of saying that all students who wear glasses should have exactly the same educational needs. That would be ludicrous, but it is what we do with SEN labels.

So what is the alternative? Should we ditch labels altogether? Not exactly. They still have a role to play, but only as a guide in a bespoke strategy. This strategy must be needs-based not label-based, and should include the use of the differentiation tactics employed when teaching non-SEN students.

Overcoming barriers to progress

Let us consider what is arguably the most common SEN issue in schools: students who are unable to access the mainstream curriculum because their reading age is too low or they have processing issues. Does it really matter if a child has a label of dyslexia, dyscalculia, developmental coordination disorder or even an autistic spectrum disorder? No. What matters is that teachers, support staff and, above all, parents or carers understand what the barriers to progress are, and what needs to be done to overcome them. Admittedly, differentiation is more difficult for SEN than for non-SEN students, but there are ways of making the process much easier than you may expect.

Special educational needs coordinators (Sencos) have a key role to play. Their first job is to demystify SEN by providing training and information on how to develop strategies that will identify and meet a child's specific needs.

The Senco also needs to have regular conversations with the feeder school, parents and carers, and any other agencies that may have been working with the child and their family. From these, they can build up a picture of the student's difficulties, their learning needs - which interventions have worked for them in the past and which have not - and the way forward.

Teachers need to pay close attention to this information. Using the training provided by the Senco, they should develop and constantly add to a profile for each SEN child. They can do this by regularly talking to pastoral and support staff, and other teachers within the school, to create a constant loop of feedback about what is working and not working for each child (building on the work the Senco has already done).

In addition, examination assessment packages can be useful for gauging processing or handwriting issues. The results can be used to help a child access assistance in examinations - for example, extra time, the use of a laptop or supervised breaks - and can usefully inform teachers' classroom practice.

Having a subject-wide strategy can help, too. While labels are of limited use when it comes to SEN, departments and subject-specific meetings should share solutions for common problems. It may be that students from several different SEN groups will have similar needs and could therefore benefit from a similar intervention.

For example, a child with processing issues (and these children could be filed under any number of existing SEN labels) may need handouts or homework to be written into their planner for them. They may also need extra time to give an answer when they are asked a question. A skilled teacher, well versed in effective techniques, will leave a gap during which they ask different questions of other members of the class, before returning to the original child. The precise solution for a problem will depend on what works for each student.

It is up to subject leaders to take a lead role in coordinating a subject approach to seeking out and sharing these needs-based solutions.

Stay in the classroom

It is important that any solution used does not take a student away from the classroom teacher. In the minds of many teachers and parents, interventions for SEN take place outside the classroom.

But evidence from social mobility charity the Sutton Trust and grant- making charity the Education Endowment Foundation suggests that by far the most effective methods of improving attainment fall within the remit of class or subject teachers ( These include feedback; meta-cognition and self-regulation; peer mentoring and peer working; well-structured and well-targeted questioning; and small group work.

There is no need to remove a child from a class to achieve these interventions. Indeed, removing a student can damage their self-esteem and confidence - two things that are key to attainment.

As all the above demonstrates, the lie of the SEN label has meant that, for too long, SEN students have not been getting the teaching they require. Yes, forcing students into SEN categories is easier and some limited success can come of it, but in reality labels serve only to hinder SEN students. It is time we treated these children like everyone else - by recognising that they are unique.

Garry Freeman is director of inclusion and Senco at Guiseley School in Leeds, in the North of England, and an associate of Leeds Metropolitan University

In short

  • Special educational needs labels tend to hinder, rather than improve, teaching.
  • Using labels lumps children with different requirements together and allows excuses to be made for poor attainment.
  • Teachers should adopt a needs-based approach instead. This could mean that the same strategy is used for children from different SEN categories.
  • Special educational needs coordinators (Sencos) are crucial to the success of this strategy. They should provide training and advice, and should have extensive knowledge of each child.
  • Subject leaders should coordinate a strategy of seeking out and sharing subject-wide solutions for specific needs.
    • What else?

What are the pros and cons of labels? Join the debate on the TES Connect forums. bit.lySENLabels

Wrongly diagnosed: the schools accused of using special educational needs as a cover for poor teaching. bit.lySENConcern

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