Education: Joe's permission to fail

Dyslexia is a well-recognised condition and you might think that schools and local authorities would have procedures to help affected children cope - but that isn't necessarily so. By Jane Goldsmith
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The Independent Online
Joe's pre-school years were happy and fun. Like many children he was lively, and had a great sense of humour. His speech wasn't marvellous, but he got by. He was inquisitive about the world, and keen to absorb knowledge. In his first year at school he was cheerful and contented; he enjoyed his work and had empathy with his teacher and classmates. It was remarked upon that he was bright lad, willing to learn and very co- operative.

When he was nearly seven, he started to complain of bullying. When I investigated, he told me that whenever there was a writing task other children sitting at his desk would rub out his work, forcing him to start again. When he got cross, he said, they would all laugh. We spoke to his class teacher who confirmed that writing and language tasks had become an issue. He had started using displacement activities such as dropping his rubber on the floor and sitting under the desk - a worrying development, because he had never reacted in this way before. She said: "He should lighten up."

It wasn't long before we had become deeply disturbed by reports of his behaviour in the classroom. He had started to crawl around on his hands and knees, making animal-like noises. He also took it upon himself to walk out of the classroom without permission and sit in the cloakroom alone. We discussed this with him gently, and quickly discovered the fundamental reason behind it: "If they think I'm stupid, then I'll act as if I'm stupid."

He didn't behave like this at home. Surely, then, we asked the school, all the evidence pointed toward an educational problem that was sparking the rebellious behaviour. But the teacher's attention was focused primarily on containing the negative behaviour rather than trying to ascertain what was causing it.

Two months later we still had no useful diagnostic help from the school or from the local education authority, so we arranged for Joe to be privately assessed by an educational psychologist. The assessment revealed that Joe was dyslexic, with a degree of dysgraphia. It also showed that he had a verbal IQ of 145.

Every time Joe wrote something down he could see that it was wrong, but he could not correct it because of the nature of his disabilities. We could only imagine the frustration that he must have felt.

Naively we thought that the local education authority would help. We were soon to discover otherwise. The local authority argument was that there was not enough delay in Joe's academic achievements to justify funding special needs' provision.

The issue was not the absolute level of his performance, but the differential between his mental capabilities and his ability to convert these to the required written form. There is absolutely no provision made in current legislation for the gifted learning-disabled student.

We knew he needed assistance, and we sought a private tutor whose support and encouragement were a great help. Still Joe's attitude at school continued to decline. The local authority suggested that he was terrified of failing, and that he needed "permission to fail". Teachers downgraded his work accordingly, to meet his academic performance, and, in doing so, effectively destroyed any interest he had in learning at school.

A year after the first noticeable signs of unhappiness, Joe seriously began to rebel. He now began to resent everything that school represented. It was at this point that he said: "If I can't get them to like me, I can get them to hate me." Too late we realised that it wasn't permission to fail that he needed, but permission to succeed and gain some self-esteem. His academic failure had become internalised and personalised into a sense that everything was geared against him.

How could we now put any kind of positive interpretation on school life? We had become dismayed at the lack of empathy. Not wishing to give up, we agreed to try a Home/School diary. However, the entries in that diary only served to prove the scale of the battle that was taking place for Joe. Scribbled accounts of his holding his head and saying he couldn't do the task, only to be then challenged about it, were deeply painful to read. The theory was that he had to conform to the task and that he was being deliberately obstructive. It was plain to see that the school was never going to respond positively to his needs.

Bullying became a common event both in and out of school. Children were beginning to abuse him verbally in front of me in the street. In the end, he responded to the taunting by reacting physically. We approached the school again to discuss the issue, but we were never satisfied with the level of response. The standard approach was that Joe's negative behaviour in the classroom encouraged the bullying. They said he had to learn to cope.

Two years after the start of the problems, and after a bereavement which brought a small inheritance, we chose to remove Joe to a fee-paying school, a clean start away from the bullying and the stigma.

We explained his problems to the new school and expressed our worries about his education and what had become his knee-jerk reaction to pressure - a panic response. They assured us that they could provide him with an environment in which to flourish.

The change in Joe is overwhelming. He is happier, calmer and altogether more relaxed. He is always given positive reinforcement and a true sense that the teachers in his new school believe he can succeed. They also challenge him intellectually. In return for that encouragement his work is more confident, and he tries his best. He still has panic attacks at school. If he has a difficulty with the written word we speak to his teachers, and they respond sympathetically and act to solve the issues quickly.

In the first half of his second term, he received 15 commendations. This permission to succeed has worked wonders so far, and Joe is a different boy. His first report was a delight to read. The understanding of his needs and the emphatic encouragement his teachers were trying to convey leapt from the pages. The headteacher wrote: "This is most encouraging and well deserved; keep it up."

As Joe sat reading his report a huge, delighted smile came to his face and a tear came to my eye. A tear of joy that at least he was able to succeed, but also anger for the two wasted years and the damage that had been done, not only to Joe, but to the family as a whole.

At the end of the day, Joe is lucky. We can now afford to pay for specialist tuition and education in the private sector. And so the question remains. How many more children are out there suffering the same level of what I would call victimisation and abuse by the state system? What of the loss to the UK culture and economy of children who will go by the wayside if the current failures of the system are allowed to continue?

Joe is a pseudonym