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Learning difficulty or learning disability: does terminology matter?


The term learning difficulty whether moderate, severe or profound is often used in educational contexts and by educational professionals, (for example by the Department for Education, Ofsted and schools).

Whereas the term learning disability is more likely to be used in health and social care contexts and by health and care professionals. Often the terms are used interchangeably by parents and professionals.

Whatever the terminology used, this should not affect a child or young persons ability to access services because services should be needs led rather than service led.

Children and young people will be assessed by services using their own eligibility criteria and if it is apparent that a child or young person has a need or needs that could be met by a service, they should be able to access that service according to their individual needs and not whether they have a particular label or diagnosis.

That said, in some instances it may be helpful to refer to a child or young persons learning difficulties as a disability or disabilities so that there is a shared understanding of needs between the young person, their family and educational, health and social care professionals.

To that end we have devised a decision making framework with guidance to support a process where a child or young person who may previously had their needs described as a learning difficulty, may now benefit from having those needs referred to as a disability.

The decision making guidance can help all those involved with a child or young person consider why and when a change of terminology may be beneficial, who should be involved in making these decisions and how and where this decision should be recorded. In general:

  • Decisions about describing a child or young person as having a disability should be made at any point where it becomes apparent that they have significant, lifelong learning impairments.
  • Points of transition are also ideal times to consider this, eg. following an annual review when a child has started school, the annual review prior to moving from primary to secondary school, or at the year 9 annual review when attention focuses more intently on preparing for adulthood (PFA) outcomes.
  • Evidence for any changes to needs described in a childs education, health and care plan (EHCP) should be triangulated; from at least three sources and submitted with annual review paperwork to have any amendments made to the EHCP.
    The three sources of evidence could come from, eg.
    • parent/ carer
    • school staff
    • a professional who has had involvement with the child or young person
  • It should be noted that whilst needs may be described as learning disabilities in the body of the EHCP, the Ofsted code (category of need) on the front of a Plan will continue to refer to difficulties eg. Severe Learning Difficulties (SLD)

Important note: this guidance is not intended for children and young people with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ ADHD) or an Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) (without significant learning difficulties and/ or difficulties with social and adaptive functioning, ie. life skills).