Beware 'must-have' syndromes

17th October 2008 at 01:00

Syndromes - don't you just love them? With each new school term, a new syndrome seems to be identified, as some burrowing psychologist unearths yet another species to confuse us and explain why we are failing yet another raft of pupils.

In the old days, children were Good or Bad, Clever or Daft, Present or Absent. Not any more. Of course, definitions were far too black and white then, so some grey areas had to be explored, or invented. Now it's: Good, or suffering from a Conduct Disorder; Clever, or having a Learning Disorder; Present, or experiencing some form of school-based Anxiety Disorder.

"Wee Johnny" now has to be diagnosed with some excuse for his a) stupidity, b) truculence and c) inattention. Various behavioural traits have pushed him, not into some form of special establishment, but into a complex netherworld where he exists on some vaguely-defined spectrum, possibly with some specific (but never specified) Learning Disorder.

Disorder: how that word has changed. It used to be what some children caused, rather than an attribute. Such labels are worn proudly now, like Blue Peter badges or designer fashion logos. Diagnoses are eagerly sought by parents to explain away their offspring's lack of ability to function properly. Yet I haven't heard of a Badly-Parented Syndrome, or an Overly-Indulged-Since-Infancy Disorder.

Of course, there are serious and recognised conditions which used to be attributed to a tiny percentage of pupils - things like Tourette's or Asperger syndromes, which in themselves are fascinating and complex. But it is the burgeoning nature of certain conditions, plus the huge increase in numbers of those who would appear to qualify, which frighten me.

ADHD, in particular, and its recent partners - ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) and CD (conduct disorder) - have spread like a rash, it would seem. If we look at the United States, where a seeming pandemic has resulted in frightening numbers of children given powerful medication just to get them through the school day, then we have to fear (or expect) the same to happen in Britain.

But we also have to ask: are certain conditions spreading, or is it that behaviour which has always existed is now being re-classified? Surely those who exhibit classic signs of "real" disorders will suffer because resources are being spread very thinly to accommodate children who - it seems to me - would qualify as "disordered" for very spurious reasons?

In my lengthy teaching career, I have met children whose reading was poor but were not dyslexic, whose performance was not blighted by bullying or whose limitations in certain areas were recognised as such without attendant "excuses". Nowadays, though, it seems certain syndromes are as much "must-have" as iPods or mobile camera phones. As their numbers rise, so will the levels of litigation where schools and local authorities are sued for failing to recognise or adjust to the fact that a particular syndrome was not diagnosed early enough., or that the proper educational provision was somehow lacking.

I have this horrible feeling now that there are those who, like botanists of old seeking out new plant species, look to discover yet more syndromes and disorders to further baffle those of us who are merely trying to teach. SOD IT - syndrome overload disorder in teachers. I fear it is on the rise.

Michael Coyle teaches English in Glasgow.

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