The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Dabell

Most able, most appropriate?

What's in a label? For John Dabell, much less than teachers might assume. He explains why it's time to focus on pupils' potential rather than on pigeonholes.

We are pretty good at giving ourselves labels. Ask someone who they are, and they will label themselves a teacher, a father, perhaps a Chelsea supporter. Labels are useful for bringing order to our world and, in some cases, providing us with a sense of belonging to a group.

But in schools, our proclivity for labels may have gone too far. Pupils walk around with a burden of badges, tags and markers. On supply one day, the class teacher had left me a few notes on some ‘key characters’ in the group. Among them was Conrad, ‘a diabetic, less able kinaesthetic learner with ADHD, Tourettes and dyslexia who sits on the SEN Triangle Table.’

While the teacher's notes were well-intentioned (and rarely received when on supply), they ultimately raised more questions than they answered. 

  • I wasn’t convinced that Conrad was ‘kinaesthetic’, given that learning styles have been proven to be a myth. Who had decided to label him so?
  • ADHD? Conrad was no fidgetier than his peers or the teaching assistant shuffling around besides him.
  • Dyslexia? I saw no evidence of this. In fact, I suspected that Conrad had been misdiagnosed. Academics at the University of Durham and the University of Yale have argued that we should drop dyslexia as a term because it remains ‘scientifically problematic in several respects’. The DfE’s behaviour guru, Tom Bennett, has described dyslexia and ADHD as ‘crypto-pathologies’ that disappear when we teach children properly.

Unwittingly, the teacher had given me a deficit view of a pupil who deserved much better.

Designer labels

When we give a pupil a label, we can then design individual education plans, tailor teaching and provide extra learning support. Labels can help us to exchange information quickly and clearly, reducing any ambiguity as to what a pupil’s needs are and how they can be met. They can be useful to parents who want to broaden their knowledge, seek help and take action in order to support their child.

In some cases, labelling can also allow for teachers to concentrate their research efforts on how to work with a specific group of pupils who share similar learning characteristics.

But labels are seldom thought through this well. Some schools will group by ability simply because it's 'what they have always done' or because they think they 'know what's best' for their pupils, but often the very systems we have in place to help us will prove to be hindrances. 

Are labels more trouble than they're worth? Are they really necessary?


In the 2017 GL Assessment report, ‘Hooked on labels and not on need’, more than half of the 810 teachers surveyed agreed there was a widespread misdiagnosis of special education needs among children, with most saying that was due to ‘parental pressure’.

Special needs expert and former chief executive of nasen, Lorraine Petersen, has described how some parents ‘are looking for a label even though their child may not require one. They feel that the label will give the child and/or the family additional support that they may not get without the label. For instance, access to benefits, support with examinations, additional health and/or social care support or a place in a specialist setting.’

Some schools will group by ability simply because it's 'what they have always done'

As early as 2007, Lauchlan and Boyle had warned us not to rely on labels, which they feared would lead to ‘stigmatisation’ and lower expectations of what a labelled pupil can achieve.

We could qualify this slightly: Taylor, Hume and Welsh (2009) investigated the relationship between being identified either as having dyslexia or as simply having SEN and a child’s self-esteem. They found that those children labelled as having general SEN had ‘significantly lower’ self-esteem than those who had been labelled more precisely, as general SEN ‘offers very little in the way of an explanation for the child’s academic difficulties and because targeted interventions are not as available for those with a less specific label.’

'Talent and intelligence are malleable, every pupil more complex than a single label could possibly represent'

Ability grouping

The ability labels we staple to pupils – ‘more able’, ‘less able’ – are essentially meaningless. They can allow teachers to adopt a pack mentality, teaching to a special group of learners that doesn’t in fact exist. After all, talent and intelligence are malleable, every pupil more complex than a single label could possibly represent.

Who is qualified to make assessments of a pupil’s ability? Some teachers will say they have a refined ‘professional judgement’, but this can be wide of the mark and stipulated on unreliable data, assumptions and bias. Some pupils’ trajectories are set in stone from the early years and Key Stage 1, where senior leaders see grouping as ‘expected practice’.

The UCL Institute of Education report, ‘Grouping in early years and key stage 1: “a necessary evil”?' concludes that ability grouping ‘works against the government’s stated aims of reducing attainment gaps and allowing all children to flourish in the Great Meritocracy.'

To describe a pupil as ‘low ability’ now, in the present, is to assume that they have a lesser capacity to learn than those would be judged ‘more able’. These low expectations, manifesting in the pupil being ‘moved down’ to a lower ability group, can compound their sense of failure and have a detrimental effect on their wellbeing and motivation.

All pupils have the potential to do remarkable things

According to a study of the construction of lower attainment groups in secondary schools (Mazenod et al, 2018), ability grouping creates a culture that inhibits learning opportunities for some students and can leave them stuck at a level of learning they have potential to advance from. The authors note that ‘teachers tend to have lower expectations of students in lower attainment groups’, and that in such groups ‘opportunities for autonomous learning’ are fewer and further between.

The solution is to recognise that all pupils have the potential to do remarkable things – some days they can be ordinary, some days extraordinary, and other days a shade in between. To teach without labels is to recognise this fluidity and focus on raising all pupils’ attainment. It is to avoid the ‘disaffection, polarisation and construction of failure’ that comes all too naturally with ability grouping.

Potential for change

Moving on from our reliance on labels is easier said than done, but nothing could be as imperative. Even if a labelled pupil goes on to surpass all expectations and achieve remarkable success as an adult, the legacy of the label never truly disappears.

Our perceptions as teachers needs to change so that we see all pupils as showing potential and promise. This does not mean waiting for Ofsted to get with the times, in the hope that it updates the school inspection handbook to remove (or at least, clarify) its references to the ‘most able’ and ‘lower-attaining’ pupils.

If we want to change the discourse, we need to do it ourselves.

More from Optimus

How to stretch the more able: go off-piste, define differentiation and avoid time-wasting marking

SEND: the S is not for special

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