Why isn't he getting more help?

Lorcan O'Brien is nine, but has a reading age of a six-year-old. The experts say he needs special support for his dyslexia, but, like other children in the UK, is not receiving it.
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The Independent Online

Imagine if this article were written in, say, Portuguese, or maybe Dutch. You might be able to recognise a few words and try to work out the gist... something about a boy and his education? But you'd soon get frustrated, and eventually lost. Thank goodness, you'd think, most of what you come up against is in English.

Lorcan O'Brien, who will be 10 in June, has experiences like that every day, except he's got nothing to fall back on. That's because he's dyslexic, with a reading and writing age of just over six. His spelling puts him in the bottom two per cent of his age group, and he has hearing difficulties too.

All of this has been known since he was three. He's jumped through countless tests to measure his deficiencies; innumerable specialists' reports have been written and a blizzard of paper has swirled between his parents, his schools and Cornwall's education department. But what's actually been done to help him survive in school? Virtually nothing. Seven years after the election of a government that promised class sizes would decrease, he's in a class of 34, and often floundering because he simply can't understand the material. Just twice a week, as part of a group of differing ages and with a variety of difficulties, he has a session with a visiting special needs teacher.

Why is he being left to fend for himself? Cornwall County Council has concluded that his problems are not severe enough for him to be made the subject of what's called a Statement of Special Educational Needs, which would entitle him to at least a daily one-hour session of specialist one-to-one help in school. The British Dyslexia Association (BDA) says Lorcan's story is, sadly, all too familiar.

"Lorcan's case is replicated in different parts of the country," says the association's chief executive, Steve Alexander. "Parents of dyslexic children are too often forced to battle for the educational support their children need, and which they should have as of right."

At home in the small village of Gorran Haven on the south coast of Cornwall, Lorcan comes across as a friendly and cooperative boy, but lacking the signs of maturity you'd expect from a child close to transferring to secondary school.

The books he reads with his mother are those that he should have left behind more than three years ago. Resignedly his mother Katie hauls out the thick pile of correspondence that charts her vain efforts of the last six years to persuade the council that her son needs extra help.

It's not as if she doesn't have the support of specialists. In April, a county education psychologist wrote: "Lorcan struggles with literacy and will find it increasingly difficult to access the curriculum. It seems likely he will require a high level of support for the foreseeable future."

Included in the letter were examples of Lorcan's spelling. "Pig" was "pog", "most" was "moyts", and he couldn't memorise three simple words in a rhyming exercise.

An NHS paediatric occupational therapist has given "strong advice that Lorcan be given ancillary help" as he approaches secondary school. The O'Briens have been paying for Loeke Wartna, a qualified dyslexia specialist, to teach him outside school once a week. Wartna has written to Cornwall County Council pleading for extra in-class support for Lorcan, arguing that he was in danger of leaving school almost illiterate and with scant knowledge of the national curriculum.

All appeals have so far been rejected at County Hall in Truro. In one reply to the family, a council officer wrote: "the authority does not consider that Lorcan's needs are so severe and complex that additional provision by the authority is required."

Lorcan's father, Peter O'Brien, is at his wits' end. And he's pessimistic about the latest application for a statement for Lorcan, which is winding its way through the bureaucracy. "We've brought this to the authority's attention for years now, but they've jumped behind every fence and legal nicety available to avoid their responsibility," he says.

The family have no complaints about teachers and staff at Lorcan's primary school, Mevagissey, situated in a picture-postcard fishing village on a tiny natural harbour on Cornwall's coast.

"His class teacher is brilliant," enthuses his mother. "Lorcan would be worse without him. But the school just hasn't been given the resources to help him cope."

And in such a big class, Lorcan's vulnerability emerges. His mother has complained of verbal bullying. "He hates school and suffers because he's so far behind," she says. "The other kids think he's stupid and call him 'dumbo'. He hasn't any friends of his own age. My real worry is that he'll become alienated and unhappy."

Underlying the family's sense of injustice is their frustration that other children with comparable difficulties get plenty of help. An East European boy at the same school has two hours one-to-one help every day with learning English.

Loeke Wartna knows of several cases of children with less severe difficulties at Cornish schools who have been given much more help than Lorcan. There's also a suspicion that Lorcan's calm demeanour and good behaviour is a disadvantage.

I described Lorcan's situation to teachers in other parts of the country with experience of special needs children. "If he threw the occasional brick through the window, he'd soon get more help," said one. "The weak, but well-behaved, kids always miss out," another said. The British Dyslexia Association thinks that behaviour can distort decisions about educational support. "Resources can be focused on children with special educational needs with behavioural difficulties," says Steve Alexander. "This leaves those that behave well with less."

Another problem is that people see dyslexia as a relatively minor affliction, given the number of successful figures, such as Richard Branson, Michael Heseltine, and Susan Hampshire, who suffer from it. But these are the exceptions, says Steve Alexander. "For the majority of severe dyslexics, school is a constant battle to keep up, which puts them and their families under immense stress."

Cornwall will not discuss individual cases. But, in a statement, the council hinted that the O'Briens' appeals were being rejected on grounds other than cost. "Our work in this area has not been the subject of cuts, so this is not a resources issue," it said. In that case, why is Lorcan being given so little help?

As EDUCATION went to press, Cornwall County Council offered to provide Lorcan with one hour a week of individual support. The family says that it is far less than they consider Lorcan needs but that they will consider the offer



What is it?The word comes from the Greek, and means a difficulty with words. Sufferers have an abnormality in the area of the brain that deals with language, affecting the skills needed for learning to read, write and spell. Brain imaging techniques show that people with dyslexia process information differently.

Degrees of severity: Around 4 per cent of people are severely dyslexic. A further 6 per cent have mild to moderate problems. Dyslexics come from all backgrounds and abilities.

Famous dyslexics: Tom Cruise, Walt Disney, Richard Burton, and Cher. Some sufferers claim that excellence in one area is partially attributable to dyslexia, though scientific proof of this is elusive. But dyslexia is certainly not a barrier to high achievement.

Help: The British Dyslexia Association (www.bda-dyslexia.org.uk) is a charity that covers about 90 local dyslexia groups. Other organisations include: British Dyslexics (www.britishdyslexics.co.uk); The Dyslexia Institute (www.dyslexia-inst.org.uk); and the Adult Dyslexia Organisation (www.futurenet. co.uk/charity/ado). SM