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For many education professionals, ‘labelling pupils’ is something to be avoided at all costs – but as Talit Khan notes, there are times when doing so can actually help…

Love them or loathe them, you’ll find ‘labels’ being used on a daily basis in every school. The issue to focus on, however, is whether we let those labels define who we are and what’s projected through them.

We shouldn’t be talking about removing, replacing or verifying labels, but rather how we can move forward and support pupils’ accomplishments within the current education system. Surely the ultimate goal is for every child to achieve more than they think they can?

‘SEN pupils’; ‘LAC child’; ‘high achievers’; ‘high ability’; ‘mixed ability’; ‘low ability’; ‘slow learners’ – just a few of the terms commonly employed in everyday ‘teacher speak.’ Rather than focusing on the labels themselves, however, we should be concentrating on the shift in mindset that needs to happen so that an all-inclusive education can be delivered.

The foundations of how we teach children shouldn’t be based on a grouping system, but on effective delivery of succinct information for the purpose of learning. Differentiation, for example, is a key aspect of teaching, but we don’t use a label for this.

So why do we find ourselves compelled to describe children via labelling in order to teach them? The only reasonable answer is that we believe it’s easier to define pupils by categorisation and capability.

If this becomes the focal point of our teaching, it diminishes the prospect of a SEND child being given the chance to reach their potential. Some labels are therefore not useful at all – in fact, they can be more problematic than we think.

Beneficial terminology

In most of the schools I’ve worked with, unless a SEND-aware headteacher or inspiring teacher has made teaching and learning a focal point for all pupils, there’ll be a massive gap in the education of the most vulnerable children. If we hear that “John is dyslexic and Najma is on the spectrum,” does it really matter if that type of language and the terms ‘dyslexia’ and ‘autism’ are used to describe and support children with identified SEND? I’d argue that it doesn’t matter at all, just so long as the child and his or her parents are comfortable with it. It’s our understanding of what those ‘labels’ actually mean, and how we plan to use them in order to support the child that really matters.

An identified (named) specific learning difficulty can provide a child, their parents and teachers with a conclusive answer to many questions that might have arisen due to confusion and a lack understanding of the problems experienced by the child. Some labels can therefore be useful in explaining a child’s learning requirements and during teaching preparation.

Any terminology which proves to be beneficial for teaching and learning purposes ought to remain within our vocabulary. The suitability of a label to help support a child with SEND should be the deciding factor in whether we apply it. It shouldn’t be used to form an opinion on an individual, but rather to facilitate their learning.

If an individual acquires a label that identifies some form of SEND, it can further help that individual in terms of how resources are allocated to them. Statutory obligations towards children with SEND – or indeed a ‘label’ – may mean that they’re entitled to additional support and help in securing LA funding and services.

We need to stop using disadvantageous labels to administer ‘quick fixes.’ If a given label isn’t useful in adding value to upskill teachers or support staff, and doesn’t lead to improved learning for a child with SEND, then we can legitimately question its importance. If, however, it raises awareness and facilitates educational progress, we should keep it.

Talit Khan is an independent SEND consultant; for more information, visit or follow @Talat1703

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