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Be alert for dyslexia, or pay the price in damages

Heads have probably taken much more notice of dyslexia since Cherie Booth won more than pound;40,000 for Pamela Phelps in the House of Lords three years ago.

After a topsy-turvy passage through the High and Appeal courts their lordships finally agreed that Hillingdon education authority was liable for its educational psychologists' failure to identify Ms Phelps' condition during her primary and secondary school years.

Although her headteachers were absolved, it was made clear that schools had a duty to spot dyslexia and deal with it properly.

Now the Court of Appeal has taken this a step further. It has ruled that a school's failure to spot a learning difficulty might not only reduce a pupil's income prospects, but be a potential cause of mental or psychological injury for which substantial damages could be awarded. The judges warned, however, that courts should be slow to side with the claimant. There needs to be cogent medical evidence, they said.

Law lords issued their new ruling after hearing an appeal from a dyslexic man who claimed his schools had not done enough to help him overcome his learning difficulties.

He received extra tuition throughout his schooling, after his parents expressed concern about his reading and writing abilities. He subsequently took an HND art and design course, and eventually gained a degree. Later he obtained a number of part-time teaching posts but had difficulty in coping with the written material.

The man and his parents claimed that he would have achieved more if his literacy skills had not been so poor. They pointed out that he was 25 before his dyslexia was identified. The psychologist who diagnosed the problem also judged him to have a reasonably high level of intelligence.

Although the man lost his case because he failed to make a claim in the time allowed, this is another warning to heads to take extra care when they suspect that a pupil is failing to make sufficient progress.

It is not enough simply to give remedial help. Schools should work closely with parents and educational psychologists, and seek appropriate diagnostic testing, which might lead to a statement of special needs.

Heads should also ensure that diaries of events and records of meetings are kept at least until the young person has reached 21 and sometimes, as in this case, until the ex-pupil is 24.

See: Phelps v LBC Hillingdon 2000; Robinson v St Helens MBC 2002

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