Labelling In Education: Supportive Or Stigmatising?

We have to make sure students don’t carry related stigma into their adult lives, diminishing opportunity
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I loathe the idea of being labelled. To me, it feels limiting, as if whoever has labelled me can only see one facet, ignoring everything else that makes me ‘me’. It’s bad enough if the label appears accurate, it still fails to consider all the elements which make me unique, and if that label is an oversimplification, my discomfort would lead me to rally against it. Yet in education, we label all the time and, many teachers would argue, with good reason. Labels allow us to better provide for the needs of particular students, but do they really help us to focus on those individual needs? Can they encourage assumptions which ultimately force students into categories which aren’t specifically individualised for them? Worse still, how often do labels disadvantage students by focusing on their weaknesses, rather than their strengths?

There is a human instinct to categorise to help make better sense of things, but there’s a boundary dividing when this is helpful for us and when it might be helpful for the people we’re choosing to label. It’s about how we perceive others and how we see ourselves. A label defines that perception. Through labelling, we’re contributing to someone’s identity, itself ‘a social process, constructed and reconstructed in everyday social interactions’. However, labels don’t necessarily mark the facets an individual would have chosen to describe themselves. For that reason, we have a responsibility to only use them in the best interests of the individual. Labels are only ever an indication, not an absolute.

Yet as a teacher, I recognise how frequently we use labels and how they can seem to help us better cater for the student with whom we’re working: the KS2 result-based LPAG, MPAG and HPAG (lower, mid and higher prior attainment group), SEN (special educational needs), EAL (English as an additional language), PP (pupil premium) - a myriad of classifications designed to better signpost need. For classroom teachers, they can inform and improve teaching practice, assisting young people both academically and personally. For students with undiagnosed learning needs, labels can reassure. Not knowing why things are going wrong can be difficult. In these circumstances, a diagnosis of a particular learning difficulty can help, answering questions and ensuring interventions to better support that student. Expert professionals can be called upon to strategise in the interests of the child’s need. Labels also bring those needs to the fore, ensuring greater specialist programmes of support and better awareness amongst the school community and beyond. Financially, without such identification, some students might not get access to the resources that would help them make real progress. As Boyle suggests ‘no label equals no money therefore no support’.

How we categorise must, however, be precise. A less helpful label is the general term of SEN. Without consulting an IEP (Individual Education Plan), the SEN acronym we use tells us little. A student’s cognitive ability is assessed through CAT scores, frequently used by schools to supplement information from KS2 SATS which can be inconsistent. CAT scores are generally good gauges of current cognitive ability, which, alongside other measures, can be used as an indicator of future exam performance. However, adolescent brains are networks ‘in progress in which individual differences in maturation relate to level of intellectual functioning’ demonstrating how ‘verbal and non-verbal IQ can rise or fall in the teenage years’. CAT scores do make an important contribution as signposts, as many of the labels we use do, but infrequent testing of students doesn’t give us a clear enough picture of a student for all of their educational journey, not even for the secondary part of it alone. Labels can become too historic to be useful.

Labelling is not new, but the questions of how, why and who we label need to be revisited to ensure we’re effectively catering for an individual’s needs. Such classifications can be important, but they belie a tendency to let scientific considerations dominate. They have an important place, but we know that social considerations and those of cultural economy need also to be factored in. The discussion about labels matters because when we hear a word which suggests a weakness or difference, we don’t automatically assume the positive. So if we must label (and there are clearly some benefits), the labels themselves must tell us something that will make a difference. Any diagnosis must be specific.

Labels might not stop at school if we don’t manage them properly. We have to make sure students don’t carry related stigma into their adult lives, diminishing opportunity. Categorising need for the purposes of better provision is essential, but focusing on a perceived weakness can prohibit us from being suitably aspirational. We must show caution and compassion. Ultimately, we mustn’t allow individual categorisation to let us lose sight of the individual.


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