How state schools are failing dyslexics

Peel the politics from the row over Ruth Kelly going private, and what's left is a system that consistently lets down some of our most vulnerable children. Karen Gold reports
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The Independent Online

Politics, not education, has dominated the furore about Ruth Kelly's decision to remove her 10-year-old dyslexic son from his Tower Hamlets primary school and send him to a £15,000-a-year private boarding school.

Yet at the heart of the former Education Secretary's current dilemma - and the anguish of thousands of other dyslexia-touched families - are two unspoken educational questions. Why does it seem to be so difficult for state schools to succeed in teaching children with dyslexia? And if it is so difficult, can we realistically expect ordinary schools to do it?

Ask dyslexia experts those questions, and their first response is to say that very few people - including very few teachers - really understand what dyslexia means. That is partly because it is a complex disorder, says John Stein, Oxford University professor of physiology who runs three charity-funded dyslexia clinics a week in Oxford and Reading.

But it is also because people who can read, write and spell have trouble comprehending the idea that a bit of hard work will not overcome the difficulties of anyone who can't. "These children can't learn the usual way, however hard they try," he explains. "Dyslexia is highly heritable. In the past 10 years we have found four or five genes that seem to account for 50 per ce\nt of cases. Most of those genes are involved in how the brain develops before birth. So the probability is that there is a fundamental difference in the way dyslexic brains are set up. They are different."

To make life harder for teachers, dyslexic brains differ not only from standard brains, but also from each other. Some dyslexic children have visual problems, others do not. Some have difficulty processing sounds, others do not. Some are clumsy, have poor organisational skills or attention spans; others do not. That variability, says Professor Stein, is why anything less pinpointed than one-to-one teaching is less than ideal. "These children need individual help, because every dyslexic is slightly different."

In specialist private dyslexia schools, individual help is at the heart of what they get. Daily one-to-one sessions with teachers who have taken a one-year course in methods of assessing and teaching dyslexic children, plus very small classes, also with specialist qualified teachers, and an environment where dyslexia is normal, are the three main attractions to children and parents, says Maggie Snowling, professor of psychology at York and one of the country's leading dyslexia experts.

Exactly those factors persuaded occupational therapist Anne Marie van Es, like Ruth Kelly, to move her severely dyslexic daughter Josie, 14, now back in a state comprehensive, into a private specialist school for a year when she was 11. "Josie's three different primary and middle schools all put her in small groups working on remedial schemes," she says. "She'd get to the same point with each scheme, fail to get any further, and then they'd just try another scheme."

So she moved her to the Unicorn School (in Oxfordshire), an independent prep school specialising in dyslexia. That school transformed her learning. It gave her work at her own level, with someone who understood her inability to decode, according to her mother. "It helped her find strategies that worked for her, and who told her she wasn't stupid because she couldn't spell her name today, even though she could spell it yesterday. She'll always be dyslexic, but she can cope now. She can see a piece of text and not panic."

Josie, like other severely affected children, had fallen four years behind her chronological age in reading when she moved schools. Even that description underestimates her difficulty: a brighter than average child, she was probably the equivalent of six years behind her potential. Around a quarter of affected dyslexic children are in this severely affected category (around one child in 10 is dyslexic). Whatever their general intelligence, this group is the hardest for ordinary schools to deal with, according to Snowling.

"Education professionals are often not very honest with parents," she says. "They say, 'It'll get better.' Quite frankly, the truth is that, for these children, sometimes it won't."

The mild to moderate majority of dyslexic children, on the other hand, do improve, although slowly. At least some weapons in the good state school's literacy armoury - phonics, small group catch-up schemes, individual reading and spelling practice, varied teaching strategies, stamping out bullying - eventually hit their target. So could these same state schools not provide expert, made-to-measure teaching to enable the severely affected minority to succeed?

In theory, yes, says the British Dyslexia Association. Units or schools with small classes and specialist teachers could be set up. (Special, as opposed to specialist schools, catering for slow learners, would be the worst possible places, emotionally and academically, to educate a bright dyslexic child).

In practice, however, the extra cost makes the idea unimaginable. Instead, the BDA argues, it is possible to meet these children's needs by changing the way state schools teach. Oldfield Primary School in Maidenhead is a pioneer of the Association's kitemarking dyslexia-friendly schools scheme (see box). Many of its classroom teachers and teaching assistants have done specialist courses. It screens five-year-olds for dyslexia, offering small-group extra work for many and one-to-one help for a few. Most important, says head teacher Richard Jarrett, everyday teaching methods are designed for children who find words and letters difficult.

"We practice multi-sensory teaching. The children don't just write letters, they make them in sand, or with paint and shaving foam. We use visual, auditory and kinaesthetic methods of teaching everything, and we monitor every child."

No child loses from this; dyslexic ones gain, he says. So why have all state schools not followed suit? Partly the answer is money. Oldfield's previous head was notoriously passionate about dyslexia, committing unusually large amounts of the school's budget to specialist training. But partly in many, particularly secondary schools, the transformation of teaching styles involved is unimaginable.

"I've had teachers say so many times, 'If he doesn't understand, he should ask'." says Maggie Snowling. "But what teenage boy is actually going to put his hand up and do that? These children need to be in a milieu where they can have self-respect," she says.

But the provision state schools make for them undermines that possibility further, argue parents and experts, because they adopt the far cheaper option of using teaching assistants to help the children. At best, when the teaching assistant has undergone specialist training, this practice isolates the child from their peers, says Nigel Pugh, who works as an advocate for parents fighting for specialist dyslexia provision. More often it is no help at all. "Teaching assistants are a wonderful bunch of people, but they don't have the expertise, or the qualifications, to get inside these kids' heads. These children have severe, complex difficulties. We're giving responsibility for them, de facto, to some of the least qualified people in the education system".

Underneath current failures, he and Snowling argue, is an odd mixture of economics and philosophy. Local education authorities resist allocating extra money to teach these children, maximising delays in the legal system of assessing and statementing them, until they have fallen hopelessly behind. And then massive intervention - not only academic but social and even punitive - is required. (At least a quarter of the prison population is thought to be dyslexic.)

Yet schools resist early intervention, says Snowling, because they are unwilling to look potential failure in the face. "From the scientific perspective, it's quite clear that some children are not going to get better. I think there's a kind of reluctance for education to accept that.

"By the age of six or seven, you can tell if a child is going to have a persistent disorder. But teachers don't, because they're not trained to, but also because they don't want to. They don't want to accept that in severe cases, mainstream teaching doesn't work."

The victim inevitably is the child. Despite wry political comments, everyone quoted for this article volunteered support for Ruth Kelly's decision. "I really feel for her," says Anne Marie van Es. "I think she made the right decision, and I'd back her all the way."

Nigel Pugh also understands her position." It's not a question of effort," he says. "Teachers in schools are making huge efforts to help these children. It's about effectiveness. I want state schools to be able to do it. I really do. But the evidence is that without early intervention and high-quality teaching, the child is damaged by what goes on."

Dyslexia-friendly schools

The identifying features of schools that take dyslexia seriously are everywhere to be seen. They include pencil cases that remain on every desk while the children move between classrooms, and colour-coded subjects (such as green door on the geography room, green geography exercise books). Children have access to sophisticated equipment - hand-held page scanners and voice recognition software. Classrooms are plastered in the key words that children may have trouble reading or spelling in history, science and cookery.

To receive a kitemark from the British Dyslexia Association, local authority schools must have:

* specialist trained staff

* regular screening and assessment of children

* early intervention

* multi-sensory teaching methods

* social support, such as buddy initiatives.

For more details see the BDA website: