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'To label or not to label – the debate should be about teaching, not diagnosis'

Rather than questioning whether a label is valid, teachers should debate how useful a label is in teaching, says Jon Severs

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Rather than questioning whether a label is valid, teachers should debate how useful a label is in teaching, says Jon Severs

I was midway through watching The Voice (I know, I shouldn't, but, you know?) when the message came through: "Oi! Stop putting out endorsements for diagnosis-led teaching!"

It was from a very good friend of mine — we go way back to university — who is an assistant headteacher in a special school. The article he was referring to was an interview with Professor Barry Carpenter about foetal alcohol syndrome. 

And thus we started that dance of the educationally interested around the tricky issue of the use of labels in education; a dance that was in full swing this weekend after this blog from government behaviour tsar Tom Bennett. 

Now, I'm not a teacher, so everything that follows should be read through that filter. But I do go to schools every fortnight and I do speak to teachers daily. 

Pathway to funding

My view is this: if you attach funding to a label, people will use the label. There is little point telling teachers and parents that something does not exist if fitting a diagnosis is the only way they can secure funding to support a child who has a need for it, regardless as to what you might "call" that need. Talk to any parent of a child with special educational needs and disability and they will tell you that a diagnosis is the master key that unlocks the doors of support. 

Lobbying to change that state of affairs is certainly needed, and teacher support on that would be incredibly useful. But really, the diagnosis debate is one that will be played out by the ones diagnosing. In teaching, I think the debate needs to be slightly different: "What value does this label have for my teaching?"

This was the area that I was discussing with a few Send practitioners and experts over the weekend: these labels exist in schools as a result of the above, whether we like it or not. So what role should they play?

Like my friend mentioned at the start of this article, I too think that a child should be assessed as an individual and the plan for teaching that child should be based not on a label, but on that individual assessment. Literacy and SEND specialist Jules Daulby, who now works with the Driver Youth Trust, puts it much better than me here. And Simon Knight, former deputy head at Frank Wise School and now director of education at NET, has also written extensively for Tes about assessment of, and differentiation for, need. 

Potential benefits? 

However, if a label can provide some context to that assessment, if it can lead a teacher to resources and extra help, and if that label is used not as a template but as a nudge to be considered, then I think they do have a place. In the case of the Professor Carpenter article referred to above, the label used was also an essential tool to raise awareness about a specific set of needs that could be written off as nothing in schools, but in fact require support.

Jules adds that labels can inform research; act as a code for teaching professionals to respond to a specific set of behaviours; and “can often be explanations for students and parents as to why they are ‘different’ – this can be empowering and have a positive impact if the label informs the correct support package”.

As a tool to bring professionals together, raise awareness so that needs are spotted and to give a steer to support, labels — when used judiciously — clearly have some benefits. 

Are those potential benefits numerous or valid enough to warrant the labelling of a child and the potential downsides that can come from that? Lower expectations, stigmatisation and templated teaching are just as few of the possible challenges.

I don't know the answer, but I would very much like to read that debate among teachers rather than yet another about the validity of diagnosis, which as Jarlath O'Brien wrote here, is mostly best left to the medical profession. 

Jon Severs is commissioning editor at Tes

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