by Peter Imray on the 1st DECEMBER 2016

I recently posted new definitions of Severe Learning Difficulties (SLD) and Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties (PMLD) written by Andrew Colley and myself on the SLD Forum, asking for comments and views. I was hoping that I would get some intelligent responses that would enhance the definitions and so it proved. The piece below is a summation of the comments along with the revised definitions of the two groups’ learning characteristics.

There have been a couple of ‘concerns’ over the fraught issue of labelling, that is, the fear that putting a label on a child will merely encourage teachers to teach to that label, to not see beyond the label; that knowing the individual is much more important than knowing about the label; and at the more extreme ‘ableist’ end, that there is no such thing as a child with autism or Down’s or SLD or PMLD, there is only the child. Yes, we understand these concerns, but they are clearly concerns that have no faith in the teaching profession as being thinking, sentient beings. Of course one child with autism or Down’s or SLD or PMLD is not the same as every child with autism or Down’s or SLD or PMLD. Why would they be? It’s like saying that one child with glasses is the same as every child with glasses. Why would they be? I do not know of any good teacher who does not have a clear understanding that all children are different and all children are themselves, individual, unique. BUT, some children share common learning characteristics and it is extraordinarily useful for teachers to know that children with autism are likely to have difficulties with …………… and children with PMLD are likely to have difficulties with ……………To not know this and to not be prepared for this because we don’t like the idea of ‘labels’ seems to me to be both unprofessional and unnecessary. Further, these are defining learning characteristics, they do not define the child, any more than the wearing of glasses defines the child. Good teachers will not be limited by the label; they will see it as a starting point. Inexperienced teachers may initially see it as an end point but will soon learn, as all inexperienced teachers learn, to see the child behind the label. Poor teachers may well however, only see the label. To base a pedagogy on the failings of poor teachers seems to us irresponsible, crass and immensely disrespectful to the vast majority of teachers who understand that to regard someone has having PMLD or SLD does not and never will, define the child. And so we come full circle; if we’re going to have the terms, they might as well be concise and make sense!

As for the definitions themselves, there were several questions over our over egging the ‘multiple’ of Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties, so that it appeared as though the learner had to have multiple physical difficulties. We agree that this is not the case, that is, it is perfectly possible for someone to have a profound learning difficulty without necessarily having attendant and multiple physical difficulties. We have altered the definition accordingly. There was also a question mark over the suggestion that children with PMLD might use formal language. We agree that that this, though possible, is very rare and again, have altered the description. Lastly there were several posts which questioned the use of the P scales as markers of academic ability because the Rochford Review had recommended that they cease as a statutory measure of assessment. However, their cessation as a statutory measure does not mean that we should cease using them as a common language of approximate cognitive developmental levels. The Rochford Review (rightly) accepted that they were not fit for purpose as a comparative measure of attainment, but they were never designed for that in the first place, so this is hardly surprising. There is however, an extremely strong case for continuing to use the P scales as broad markers and to make them more internationally known, simply because they do provide that common language.

Here then are the two definitions re-defined, with the considerable help from the SLD Forum, and considerable thanks from Andrew and me.

Pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD) are on a spectrum that indicates that they have profoundly complex learning needs. In addition to profound learning difficulties, pupils are likely, but not axiomatically, to have other significant difficulties such as physical disabilities, sensory impairment and/or severe medical condition(s). Pupils require a high level of adult support, both for their learning needs and also for their personal care. They are likely to need sensory stimulation and will need a curriculum which recognises that all learners will to a greater or lesser degree, have difficulties with object permanence, contingency awareness, declarative communications, making choices, learning by imitation and following instruction. Some pupils communicate by gesture, eye pointing or symbols and a very few by very simple single word language. They will be working academically, consistently, and over time, within P-scale range P1-P3, perhaps reaching some elements of P4, throughout their whole school careers to the age of 19 and beyond. (Imray and Colley, in print)

Pupils with severe learning difficulties (SLD) are on a spectrum which indicates that they have significant intellectual and cognitive impairments and may also have difficulties in mobility and coordination. Pupils may use objects of reference, sign, symbols and/or language to communicate, though all will to a greater or lesser degree have severe communication difficulties, which will affect both expressive and receptive communication skills. Other difficulties will be experienced to a greater or lesser degree in understanding abstract concepts, maintaining concentration and attention, retrieving both short term and long term memory, utilising sequential memory, exercising working memory, processing information, retrieving general knowledge, thinking, problem solving, and generalising previously learned skills. They will be working academically, consistently, and over time, within the P scale range P4-P8 for all of their school careers to the age of 19 and beyond, though some may reach into the opening levels of a neuro-typical academic curriculum such as the UK or Australian National Curriculums or a US Standards Based Curriculum. (Imray and Colley, in print)

(November 2016)


Imray P and Colley A (in print) Inclusion is Dead: Long Live Inclusion. Oxford. Routledge.

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