Secret Teacher: we’re setting dyslexic children up to feel like failures
It is Monday morning and our year 3 literacy lesson is under way. The child I’m funded to work with is using an iPad while they have a break, watching a show aimed at helping children with additional needs develop communication skills. I walk around the classroom supporting others. We’re looking at using adjectives in Roman myths. Jenny asks how to spell “tiny”; Kearon needs the spelling for “flaming” at the same moment Behnam wants “sanctimonious”.
John is struggling more than the others. Even if I write the word for him he rarely copies it correctly and his letters are back to front, upside down, and sometimes more a squiggle than anything else. Out of the corner of my eye I see him drawing a cartoon on the side of his page. I ask him to start writing. He strings a few words together, and then goes back to drawing. I don’t have any more time to support him because my 1:1 is ready to begin work.
But I believe the current system is failing dyslexic pupils. Research suggests dyslexic children are more likely to suffer low self-esteem, poor motivation and concentration. Our local council’s dyslexia guidance stresses the importance of early recognition and intervention, and there are a number of ways teaching can be adapted to help meet students’ needs – simplifying written instructions, presenting only a small amount of writing to them, or using audio devices. Yet shortage of time, staff and technical equipment means it’s very hard to give such targeted assistance.
I’ve seen huge delays in assessments to determine what support a child might need – right across special educational needs (SEN) in the schools I work with. This is particularly the case for specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia that may not be deemed severe or urgent.
I write endless lists of observations about children struggling with a range of issues, including spelling. Meetings are set with teachers or senior management for those with education, health and care plans (EHCPs), but there are many children without plans who also need help. Funding attached to the EHCP buys in people like me to work with specific students, but the others seem to slip through the cracks. Although we do our best to support all children, it is ad hoc and chaotic. I see them falling behind in their learning as a result.
The leadership teams at the schools I work with are aware of the problem but are working under the same constraints as the rest of us. There simply isn’t time, with the staff we have, to embark on interventions.
In a 2016 National Education Union survey of ALT members working in state-funded schools in England, 83% reported that children with special educational needs were not getting enough support. One teacher said: “It’s frustrating and heartbreaking to see the amount of children not getting adequate support, let alone the in-depth support they need, due to lack of money, and the system’s reticence to actually put a child on the SEN register.” From what I can see, the situation has not improved.
Previously, teachers and union leaders have raised concerns over the impact of “draconion” spelling tests on dyslexic children. Changes made this year allowing teachers to judge overall aptitude rather than expecting children to meet every criteria should help those who struggle with spelling. According to Sarah Hannafin, senior policy adviser for NAHT, dyslexic children should be “less disadvantaged… than they were in previous years”. But judging pupils on such narrow measures doesn’t give us a rounded picture of ability or intelligence.
If I took the Sats test today, I doubt I would pass it. I moved through school at a time when spelling and grammar were important but not essential. I was given the support I needed to grow. This gave me space to develop my creative writing without worrying about perfect spelling. I gained the confidence in myself as a learner – starting out in the remedial maths and English set at school and ending up with a PhD in health education.
The picture is very different for the children I teach. As a result of too little targeted support and stringent tests, I worry many will enter secondary school believing themselves to be failures. But I don’t feel I’m in a position to give these children the level of help they need or deserve.