What's in a name? Plenty, says Maria Corby

6th February 2004 at 00:00
Looking at the delegate list for a conference, I'm amazed to see the names of everyone who was in my class at primary school; they all seem to be called Susan, Peter, Janet or John. It shows our ages I suppose. The girls at my school now have Victorian sounding names: Charlotte, Emily, Sophie or Alice, and our Year 8 class has a little posse of cowboys - Jake, Joe, Jesse, Luke and Matt. The Year 10 work experience kids who come in to help seem to need a K or a Z in their names. Or both. Heaven knows what their parents called them, but we know them as Kezzer, Chezzer, Kagger, Kizzy and Jazz.

Of course names are important, and I reluctantly admit that labels can be too. We've moved forward from calling the children I teach "educationally subnormal" but we still need to categorise children. Current terminology describes them as having "learning difficulties"; a broad term (which surely encompasses all of us) that is broken down into "moderate", "severe" or "profound and multiple". A high percentage at my special school have no medical diagnosis to explain their difficulties. This matters less to us as professionals, who try to meet the needs of each child, but can be important to parents. A label gives access to funding, sympathy, support groups, medication, books and information.

The public usually treats a child with an obvious disability sympathetically, and parents are able to explain to family and friends about the "condition". We have a child at school who has a label sewn on to the back of his coat saying "be patient, I have autism". This may be shocking but the parents were so distressed by the unkind comments and rude stares when their son behaved oddly in public that they felt the need to label him physically. Who can blame them?

This year our teacher assessments were analysed according to children's categories of need. I'm not sure how far it got us to learn how our ASD (autistic spectrum disorder) or MSI (multiple sensory impaired) pupils'

attainment compared to others with similar difficulties. When you are working with small cohorts, it's meaningless to be told: "Your Year 8 cohort of pupils with ASD are performing less well than others nationwide."

Our Year 8 ASD cohort consists of one child, Jesse James, and he's been away a lot this year. Probably cattle rustling, now I come to think of it.

Maria Corby is deputy head of a special school for pupils with severe and multiple learning difficulties. She writes under a pseudonym

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