What’s in a label?

Posted on 22nd Jul 2016 in Choosing a school, SEN legislation, Dyslexia

Bambi Gardiner tells a parent’s story of facing difficult schooling decisions – and how a lack of resources for dyslexic pupils prompted her to take action

Is a ‘label’ a problem? Let’s face it, deciding to move your child from a mainstream school to a special needs school could be quite a big label. But is a label always a bad thing?

Giving your child a ‘label’ as dyslexic, dyspraxic, autistic, or any other special educational needs (SEN), causes many a sleepless night for parents. Whilst many SEN children sit at the more extreme end of the spectrum, countless others find themselves right at the other end. They may not have major behavioural issues or physical disabilities to deal with, but they have learning differences all the same. Differences for any child can feel extreme.

For many of these children, being ‘labelled’ can provide relief, knowing there is a reason they find certain things tricky. They can learn to understand what leads them to behave in a certain way or why they find certain tasks more challenging. They may also begin to understand why they see the world in a different way and the benefits this may bring. Our daughter’s reaction to being diagnosed as dyslexic with a slow processing speed was ‘So, I’m not actually stupid then?’. That was with a supportive family, good school and nice friends around her. But, kids are kids and are not always kind. It is not the label that is the issue, but the (mis)understanding that comes with it. No-one ever has a problem with their child being ‘labelled’ sporty, funny or bright.

Most of our children will start life in a mainstream school. The decision to change to an SEN school can be a difficult one to make. You will be looking at taking your child out of his or her friendship group, away from an environment they know and into a potentially unknown academic world. Ultimately, it is us, as parents or guardians, who know our children best. It is also our responsibility to make that decision. It is not one to leave to the ‘experts’ as they most likely do not really know the intricacies of your child. 

So, when you are being told by teachers in Year 2, Year 3 and Year 4 that you need to “relax” and “not worry” or “they all develop at their own pace”, should you listen to them or to your inner voice? The easy option is to listen to the teachers. We did. The implication was that our daughter would catch up and that, with some effort and focus, she would be fine. 

But, if you put a penguin and a hawk together and try to get them to fly, the penguin will still be sitting on the ground, no matter how hard it flaps its wings, long after the hawk has soared away. Sometimes the desire and effort just won’t overcome physical or mental limitations.

Our own daughter would have undoubtedly benefitted from some time spent in a specialist dyslexia school. Academic life would have slowed down and teaching methods would have been more creative to meet her needs (providing we found the right school for her). That is not knocking the excellent help she has had at her school but the bottom line is that she spent her entire school life, right there, at the bottom. Day in and day out that is a tough place to be. Maybe we could have found a special school that would have enabled her to realise that gaining 12 A* GCSEs would not make her into an amazing person because she already was one? Perhaps she would have had much higher confidence levels because she was spending time with people who, to be blunt, were struggling even more than her? 

We didn’t take the decision to move our daughter; we were too worried about her being happy (which she seemed to be). By the time we reached the point that she was not happy because of the academic pressure, it was year 8 and really too late to change. Or was that just an excuse?

She struggled through her GCSEs. Even with a superb LS department to help her, life was tough and her self-confidence was certainly affected. She is now in Lower Sixth and will have navigated her way through school with far better than expected results and everything will be fine. However, I do question whether she would have found life easier had we given her even a couple of years of space and time to be in a different school. Perhaps a SEN school would have slowed the pace so she could have the time she needed to grasp the basics. She had to work incredibly hard to achieve results that others would not have been so thrilled with and she certainly worked much harder than many of her peers.
At one point I was told by a department head that ‘Mrs Gardiner, we are dealing with a Mini engine here. It is not going to suddenly turn into a Rolls Royce.’ Well that stopped me in my tracks. How dare he insinuate that my daughter had a very low academic ability? What’s more, that she always would have, no matter what we did. That turned out to be not entirely true. 

This throwaway comment fired my determination to develop resources that would meet her unique learning style. She was, and is, capable of learning the same information as an ‘A’ student, but she needs information packaged in a different way. A lack of resources led me to start Oaka Books, where we are passionate about creating revision resources to help struggling readers. I am so proud of my daughter for going on to achieve 2 As, 3Bs and a C. She was the student who progressed most in her year from mocks to exams, and this is down to the highly visual revision tools. Not too shabby for a Mini! 

The reality is that this one teacher, who dared to poke a stick at the lioness in me, was absolutely right. But hindsight is a wonderful thing. Although we constantly hear the drum being banged for keeping SEN children in mainstream schools, the reality is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution and there never will be.

In researching this article, it became very apparent that for our SEN children, no matter how slight or extreme their differences, the best choice of school is very much a personal one. As parents, we need to make ourselves aware of our child’s issues early on, not sweep them under the carpet. We need to take our responsibility as parents on board and challenge what we are being told by the ‘experts’. We need to arm ourselves with knowledge and understanding of what options are available and what help we can get for our child as early as possible. We need to understand and embrace that our children are different. We need to be prepared to be their lion or lioness. We need to not be afraid of a label.
Hawks may be great at flying but they don’t swim. Our penguin is swimming brilliantly thank you very much.

Bambi Gardiner is the founder of Oaka Books, publisher of Topic Packs for struggling readers and visual learners in KS1, KS2 and KS3. For more information please visit www.oakabooks.co.uk.