Education: Dyslexia goes independent

Many bright children have literacy problems, and fee-paying schools are coming to the rescue.
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The Independent Online
WHEN A highly academic school such as Westminster provides a specialist teacher for dyslexics, it is probably safe to assume that society's understanding of the condition has reached a critical level.

The Dyslexia Institute (DI) can congratulate itself that its relentless campaigning, aided by high-profile personalities such as its outgoing president, the actor Susan Hampshire, herself a severe dyslexic, has enabled the general public to realise that dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that has nothing to do with a person's intelligence. Indeed, it can often be a sign of creativity and above-average intelligence. Richard Rogers, the architect, and Jeremy Irons, the actor, are testament to that.

Ever more independent schools are working in partnership with the DI, buying in screening, assessment and teacher-training packages. While some independent schools may be concerned about the effect these pupils have on their standing in league tables, the majority are keen to publicise some degree of specialist provision. In crude economic terms, with at least one child in a class of 25 likely to be dyslexic, provision is likely to increase recruitment.

According to Dr Steve Chinn, chairman of the Council for the Registration of Schools Teaching Dyslexic Pupils (Crested) a lot of innovation in teaching dyslexics has come from the independent sector. Small classes and the more highly structured teaching methods that many independents favour are also seen as crucial in educating dyslexic children.

Although hundreds of independent schools advertise dyslexia provision, only 90 are registered with Crested, which grades their level of provision. Dr Chinn said: "We send out a consultant to verify the claims schools make. We want to give sound guidance to parents searching for the right support. We are also trying to establish minimum standards."

Dr Chinn stated that specialist teachers of dyslexia should be qualified as associate members of the British Dyslexia Association, and that specialist units should be well resourced with up-to-date technology.

Everybody knows that dyslexics have problems with spelling, that they get letters the wrong way round, that they are slow and inaccurate readers and have a poor concentration span for reading and writing. They can also be number-blind, have difficulty carrying out instructions, have trouble with sounds in words, and be clumsy and disorganised. In addition they may have poor memories.

Alexander Faludy, a 15-year-old who can barely write his name or peel a banana, but can expound at length on the rationalist argument for God or the influence of Classicism on the work of Andrea Palladio, hit the headlines when he became the youngest person to win a place at Cambridge University this century.

Alexander comes across as an eccentric but eloquent and confident child. His parents, both English teachers, believe that it was a scholarship to Milton Abbey, a small, boys-only boarding school in Dorset, which saved the day. Previously he had suffered years of bullying and failure on the part of state schools to recognise his specific difficulties and abilities.

About 30 of the 200 boys at Milton Abbey are dyslexics and, according to Jonathan Hughes-D'Aeth, the headmaster, make a "hugely positive" contribution to school life. Thirty per cent of staff in-service training is spent on teaching methods for and attitudes towards dyslexics.

Mr Hughes-D'Aeth stated: "We have recognised dyslexia for the last 25 years. Many boys come here believing they are failures, but an essential part of our school life is the belief that failure is inherent to success. Successful people in life are those who have learnt to cope with failure."

Pupils all have a mainstream curriculum; but teachers find slots in the day for one-to-one support to develop reading, writing and thinking skills.

Mr Hughes-D'Aeth believes dyslexics, given the right support and recognition, can go on to be high achievers. He said: "In the world of education we rate spelling, precision and neatness above other things. That's the easy way. It's much more difficult to measure sociability, creativity or the ability to think laterally and make connections between things. Here, we don't look at the spelling; we look at what the boy is trying to say."

Liverpool College, an independent, academically selective day school, works alongside the Dyslexia Institute. All children entering the school before the age of seven are assessed for dyslexia. "We try to pick it up from day one," said Jon Siviter, the headmaster. "If children are helped early they are more likely to be able to keep up with the mainstream. Our top scholar is a dyslexic. The wide range of extracurricular activities make these children feel that they can be a success in some aspect of school life."

Millfield School in Somerset is about to take on a sixth specialist teacher to help dyslexic children. According to Christopher Martin, its headmaster, the school has been making provision for dyslexics since the Forties. "The purpose of its founder in 1935 was to provide for the whole range of ability, for men and women of all gifts and walks of life. Dyslexic children bring wonderful qualities of personality and the ability to work in a team. Although they follow the full curriculum, they also spend up to 10 lessons a week in a specialist unit."

Mr Martin added: "We spend a lot of time training ourselves. We have to have a keen awareness of what differentiated teaching really means."

Contact Crested via the Dyslexia Institute (01784 463851) or the British Dyslexia Association (0118 966 8271)