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Old SEND terms were awful. But are ours better?

It’s shocking to revisit the old official terminology around SEND, but it shows we may not have come as far as we think

send language

I loved primary school but there are a couple of unpleasant memories that persist, like the time I got told off in front of the whole class for wearing a tracksuit (in a school with no uniform).

Our headteacher was great but had a couple of habits that made him quite scary.

When you were in trouble in assembly, for example, you were sent to the back of the hall where you had to press your nose against the wall.


Quick read: School failings leave dyslexic pupils feeling ‘stupid, unvalued and guilty’

Quick listen: How misbehaviour can be a sign of language disorder

Want to know more? Look beyond the label


You never knew when the next bit would happen, but you knew it was coming. He would approach, silently, and whisper about how much bother you were in. Terrifying.

At other times, he would turn the volume up to 11 and shout that you were an “IMBECILE, BOY!”

The word “imbecile” has grated ever since and I never use it.

Blast from the past

But that word and those memories came flooding back recently when I was reading the Wood Report from 1929.

This fascinating and horrifying historical document arose from a committee whose job was to “consider the problems presented by the mentally defective child”, as well as working out “how many mental defectives are there?" and "what is the best way of dealing with mental defectives?"

Perhaps the most shocking part is the state-sanctioned categorisation of human beings as:

“Idiots: the lowest grade of defect. They are incapable of any scholastic education.”

“Imbeciles: imbeciles stand above idiots, but they cannot be taught to read beyond words of one syllable, to spell more than a few 2 and 3 letter words, or to do simple mental addition and subtraction beyond the smallest units.”

“Feeble-minded: superior to imbeciles, but with such a marked lack of sense of right and wrong, of responsibility and social obligation, together with such strongly marked antisocial propensities as to cause the individual to be a grave danger.”

derogatory language

The language may be shocking to you, but we were a deeply racist, homophobic and misogynist society, so it is no surprise that we were also ableist.

The official and unofficial lexicon of disablism remains extensive and, to my shame, I recall using those words as a child. “Idiot” is in common usage but a colleague has convinced me to stop using it, and reading the Wood Report reminds me why.

As a profession, we don’t engage in such official, widespread labelling any more, but we must still guard against using limiting language to describe children.  

We can inadvertently write children off by describing them as “nightmares” or exclaiming that they are “unteachable”. Just as with the offensive terms above, the labels describe the whole person and help no one, except perhaps the teacher for the 30 seconds when they’re letting off steam.

I even don’t like the common description of certain students “having challenging behaviour”. Again, this implies an innateness that is not really there.

Reading material that is more up-to-date than the Wood Report reinforces why this is a problem.

A complex SEND picture

There is recent research indicating that more than half of autistic people have four or more co-occurring conditions, including conditions for which there is a higher chance of there also being behaviour difficulties such as developmental language disorders or ADHD.

The research also notes that “over 95 per cent of children had at least one co-occurring condition/symptom” which suggests that co-occurrence is the norm rather than the exception.

Approximately 60 to 80 per cent of children with ADHD have at least one other condition such as a speech, language and communication need or a literacy or motor difficulty, and this also brings with it an increased chance of behaviour issues.

Given the gross over-representation of children with SEND in the annual statistics of children receiving fixed-term and permanent exclusions from schools, we would clearly be better off considering each child’s situation for what it is and decide on the best way to approach it, informed by everything we know about that child, to do what we can to improve their behaviour.

Jarlath O’Brien works in special education in London and is the author of Better Behaviour: a guide for teachers  

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