Can't read? Pay up or fall behind

Not all worries go away at Christmas. Frances Caroll, a special needs teacher, has two dyslexic children
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The Independent Online
If You are the parent of a dyslexic child, or suspect that you are but no one is telling you, no doubt you have already run into late- night arguments with your partner as you try to work out what to do. Ignore it? Believe advice that he or she will outgrow it? Or move heaven and earth and a lot of cash to get help?

Did Tony and Cherie Blair have similar arguments when she sued an education authority for failing to give adequate teaching to a dyslexic girl? Or did Tony smile ruefully and say, "Well the last government..." Did he explain gently to his admiring wife that under Labour things would be different, that the quality of education would be improved - with better trained teachers and smaller classes - and that all problems would disappear? That at last someone was going to tell Miss Doitallandsagging how to teach. The teacher could ask the 29 other children in the class to be very quiet while she gives the struggling pupil its necessary hour a week of detailed phonological training, having spent her own meagre spare time training to teach all possible categories of special needs.

The head of educational psychology in a London borough told me that it will take time before Labour acknowledges the place of specialised teaching. He foresees that when those children who are unable to benefit from normal teaching fail to respond adequately to the new literacy drive, the government will panic and bring back specialist teachers. As things stand the move is in the opposite direction, with pressure to restrict the statementing procedure - the process of identifying children with special needs - which is seen as concentrating too much funding on the few, albeit a very needy few. Another job Miss Doitall can do if she will just apply herself a little more.

In the meantime Tony will play his other card. I think the word is out that anyone who wants to use private education should be encouraged to do so. At the moment he is only talking voluntary schemes of co-operation; sixth formers hearing infant children read, premises for business funded summer reading schools. However, even those who do not want to use and pay for private education may find themselves forced to do so, if their child has specific reading difficulties.

Only children with a reading lag of three years or more are eligible for specialist help in our London borough. We find ourselves in a catch- 22 situation in that, because we provided private tuition and kept our children's reading at a good level, we must now continue to provide help ourselves if progress is to be maintained. Reading is no longer a problem for my son. But spelling for a dyslexic child is very difficult, and takes up to three years of specialist tuition. If this always has to be arranged out of school hours it is seen as a punishment by a child already tired from dealing with a school day that he or she finds stressful.

The director of education was regretful but could offer no solution. I was told that tuition for my child would have to take place after school and that I would have to rely on either private or voluntary tutors. I did enquire what the director would do were his child in need of specialist teaching and he did not have the income to pay for lessons. There was a silence at the end of the phone.

This is not the first time I have heard the private sector being advocated for special needs, dyslexia in particular, by senior management. Last summer I asked a senior inspector in Wandsworth what plans the borough had to meet the needs of dyslexic pupils. I assumed that with my qualifications and many years experience in teaching children with reading difficulties I would be needed. He was able to give me career advice based on their plans to bring specialist help to dyslexic pupils: he suggested that I try teaching in the private sector. Again, he did not have any suggestions as to how a parent on a low income could afford it.

I am expecting an announcement from the government any day now on the moral benefits of paying for your own child's education. Soon the fit and able will be encouraged to pay for a decent education and make way for the less fortunate who will have to make do with the basic take-it- or-leave-it state education.

Our weekly bill for dyslexia tuition for two children is pounds 33 and it's worth every penny while we have the money. When cash is short they have to contend with an over-involved and fractious parent teaching them.

It is already stressful for teachers to deal with those dyslexic children not severe enough to receive any help. The child may cause management problems and need extra attention. The parent may be demanding. The teacher feels guilty about being helpless, and then angry, only too aware that he or she is the last port of call for that child in terms of provision. School and parent relationships become strained, or, as in the case of one friend, the school may suggest that the parent take their child elsewhere if they are unable to accept the school's best efforts.

The government is placing great hope on improving literacy teaching and so meeting all children's needs. This is a good and fruitful undertaking. Unfortunately it gives no room for the specialist one-to-one tuition that dyslexics need. The strain on teachers will only increase as the impossible is demanded of them for the dyslexic child. This is exacerbated by a trend to delegate special needs budgets to school control. The funds notoriously end up as the kitty to pay for supply teachers to provide cover at the end of the financial year.

It will cause a lot less strain all round if teachers and parents accept the actual lack of provision as a reality. For the borough or school to insist that a dyslexic child does not need help just because it is not available serves no one. It takes courage for a school to admit that it lacks sufficient provision for dyslexia. The education authority passes the buck by requiring the school to provide for all needs irrespective of budget. When I raised the matter of lack of specialist services for my dyslexic child with the director of education, in a borough too parsimonious to even pass on the government allocated budget to schools, he proceeded to make the school feel culpable for any lack of provision.

Still, I comfort myself with this. Any parent not able to provide specialist help for a dyslexic child may well be spared the expense of having to find college tuition fees. In the meantime I am madly squandering my child benefit while it is still there on spelling lessons because I know that given the right teaching my children could get to university, if they so chose. At the moment it is enough to see them writing a story on the computer, or engrossed in the latest Beano or Goosebumps to make me feel that the struggle to find adequate specialist teaching is worthwhile.

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