Life from the ashes of burnt cakes

The world was against Suzanne Parry who grew up in care with undiagnosed dyslexia and a rebellious streak. Nick Hilborne tells her story

Suzanne Parry left school with one GCSE, her grade so bad that she has forgotten what it was.

"I did not turn up to most of my exams," she said. "And when I did, I wrote 'I don't give a damn' or 'Mickey Mouse wrote this' on the exam paper and walked out. I thought I was hilarious."

The one thing Mrs Parry was good at was cookery, and that was because she grew up in care. When she was only 13 months old, her family fell apart.

She was looked after in a convent until she was 17, with her brother who was two and her sister who was three when they were all taken into care.

"I was the best cook at school because I had been taught at the convent by the best cake maker ever. I became a bit of a celebrity in the class, which was great.

"But once we were cooking Christmas cakes and someone turned up the ovens so the cakes burnt. The teacher accused me."

Mrs Parry had no alibi. As the cakes burned, she was smoking a cigarette in another part of the school.

"In the end I swore at the teacher, and never did cookery again," she said.

Leaving school with no qualifications meant factory work. After 12 years of this, Mrs Parry married and had children. She started an access course with the Open university, and obtained GCSEs in maths and English and three A-levels. She is now, at the age of 41, in her final year at Oxford Brookes university, studying English and publishing.

Mrs Parry is dyslexic but her condition was only recognised at university when she at last got help. The only supportive person at her school was one of the nuns at the convent, who was also her primary headteacher.

"I did not get special help at school but she helped me at home," Mrs Parry said. "I liked writing stories at school, even though everyone pulled them apart and said how bad the spelling was."

Things changed at secondary school. "When I first went there I enjoyed it, even though I was in the bottom classes for everything.

"But at 13 the hormones kicked in and everything went to pot. I drifted round school and stopped working hard.

"If I said I was dyslexic, the response was 'that's a good excuse'. If they had looked into it, they could have helped me.

"Getting to the root of the problem was something teachers did not do. They looked only at the surface. When you're in care you feel very vulnerable and that the world is against you because your parents don't want you."

Mrs Parry now has three teenage children at secondary school. Two have dyslexia. She said it was only by making a fuss that she obtained individual support for them.

"If I didn't know about dyslexia, I am not sure anything would have been done."

When her university course ends in May, Mrs Parry wants to train as a special needs teacher, and help children with dyslexia. l

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