Snipping away at obstacles

Dyslexia blighted the education of John O'Hara until it was diagnosed when he was 26 and studying at Coatbridge College. With the right support for learning, he can now `take on anything'

Douglas Blane

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Being told at school that you will never amount to anything is not the best start in life for a young lad. "I was interested, I wanted to learn, but I didn't know how," says John O' Hara (pictured). "Teachers made me think I was thick. I became the class clown and left school with no qualifications. But I wasn't thick," he adds, pleased surprise at the discovery still in his voice, as he sits and chats about his school and college education.

The young winner of last year's top SQA Star award, Pride o'Worth, managed to reach the age of 26 before Coatbridge College discovered the reason for his difficulties at school - he is severely dyslexic - and started helping him to achieve a dream he had had since the age of 13.

"High school was a nightmare for me," John explains. "But I have always been creative. I have a passion for hairdressing."

Being an undiagnosed dyslexic was far from the only barrier to a young man from a housing estate with a calling to create in cutting and styling.

"My family didn't see it as a useful skill or a good career when I left school, and I didn't think I was good enough anyway," he says. "So I had a lot of jobs that didn't satisfy me - in factories and shops - for 10 years.

"Then one day I decided I couldn't do it any more. I was actually in a great job by then - running a bar and restaurant - and earning a good salary. But I had never stopped wanting to be a hairdresser and I was mature enough by then to decide for myself."

Maturity helped but it wasn't enough to ensure success. Coping strategies got John through his first year at Coatbridge, along with the practical nature of the course, he says. "I used to memorise things and write them down later. But I wouldn't know what I was writing. That worked at first, but when I got on to the HND course it was harder. There was a lot more theory."

Students often come to college with support needs known from school, says Roslyn Darling, head of hairdressing and make-up artistry. "We pick up and build on that. Other students are like John, unaware of their difficulty, so they can't tell us on their application. Our lecturers have to observe them and make the connection."

Once that happens, a system swings into action, she says. "There is a lot of teamwork and integration. We have regular meetings to share information on support needs and progress. Guidance tutors note down all the positive things that are happening to the students, as well as their support needs."

These can range from dyslexia to finance, housing, home circumstances, childcare, lack of confidence or anything else that makes it hard for someone to do well, she says. "Our students are nurtured in their learning journey. We aim to make them independent learners. But that means helping them overcome any barriers to learning."

With John, it was the quality of his written assessments that rang alarm bells in his lecturers. "My writing was all over the place," he says. "My spelling wasn't right and I was using words wrong."

Referred to an educational psychologist for assessment, and diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia affecting his vision, John found the experience of learning changing fast. "I was shocked when they told me," he says. "I didn't know what dyslexia was. I thought it meant there was something wrong with me. But then they explained it and started supporting me."

Some of that support involved access to the computer-rich, supported study area of Coatbridge College, known as the Horizon Centre, as well as additional funding through the disabled students' allowance for a computer of his own, with access software such as Texthelp.

Some of it was seemingly simpler, but needed all John's lecturers to take steps to support him during lessons. "Shapes move when I'm trying to read, especially when it's black on white," John says. "If I'm reading black on white, by the time I've got to the second line I've forgotten the first one."

The solution was purple acetate that John could lay over any text he was reading. "Also my lecturers now provide me with information on purple paper. You have no idea the difference that makes. It's massive. I'm as good as anybody now. I can read a book. I could never read a book before."

John's difficulties were discovered after he left school, but still early enough to change his life. It doesn't always happen that way, even today, and for previous generations it hardly ever did. "I went home and told my dad I was dyslexic," John says. "Like me, he had never heard of it. But do you know what he said when I told him what it meant? "He said, `I think I'm dyslexic too.'"

Dyslexia is not well understood by parents, says Donna Brogan, curriculum leader for hairdressing and make-up artistry, and this can make it harder for schools to help. "Parents aren't experts in psychology. Our lecturers aren't either. But we are trained to be aware of the difficulties and to refer students to the experts."

Even when schools pick up a problem it still needs parental cooperation, she says. "I know another young lad, very bright and creative, who is doing product design at college and is getting support for dyslexia. He went to a good school, which contacted his parents to talk about his development.

"But they had the idea that dyslexia meant he was different or not intelligent and they didn't follow up on the invitations. So you can't necessarily blame schools when kids with difficulties leave without having got much support. At college we work with young adults who take their own decisions."

One decision John made at the start of this session was to stay on at Coatbridge College, where things were working out so well for him and he had gained an HNC in hairdressing. "I don't think they offer an HND in hairdressing anywhere in Scotland. So I'm now on the make-up artistry HND course at Coatbridge."

The department's industry links were an important factor in that decision to stay on, he says. "My long-term aim is to move to London and make a name for myself there. I would love to be a session stylist - someone who does the hairstyling part of a photoshoot for a magazine or a company campaign. But I need more experience and more contacts."

Further education is all about that preparation for the world of work, says Ms Brogan. "We are not teaching students to pass assessments and get qualifications. We are teaching them the skills that will get them jobs and careers. We are still in the industry.

"I'm full-time at the college but still very much a practising hairdresser. A lot of staff share their time between teaching and working in the industry. So we bring that added value of the real world to our teaching."

Those industry connections, plus a little enterprise and imagination, mean the kind of support for learning that John and other Coatbridge students have been getting should survive the coming cuts, Ms Brogan says. "We have been developing courses that are self-funding and don't rely on money from the government.

"When everybody is cutting back, Coatbridge is investing in the future. We have lovely new hair and beauty salons, so the public can come in and pay for our services. The way it works in our industry is that hairdressers often rent a chair from salon owners."

Already John is balancing the demands of a mobile hairdressing business, he says, while keeping up with college work. "I'm also now doing session styling. I work until 9 or 10 at night. It is a long day. But you make the time," he explains. "I beat myself up for years about my abilities. Finding out I'm dyslexic and getting help from Coatbridge College has lifted a huge weight off me. I'm a totally different person. I know I can take on anything. This is my passion. It's what I want to do with my life."

John O'Hara won the top individual award at last year's SQA Star Awards. Nominations for 2012 are now open.


Plush chairs, gleaming glass and modular, modern equipment in Coatbridge College's hair and beauty salon give the appearance of a highly professional establishment. It is more than an appearance, says hair and beauty curriculum leader Donna Brogan.

"This is the real thing. Other salons are envious of what we've got here, which is based on L'Oreal's training academy in London. We'll be renting out chairs here from next session, which is an innovative new development. That will bring in extra funding while giving our students first-hand experience of working with professionals."

Hairdressing students such as Siobhan Miller - another of the department's award-winners - are using the facilities already.

"I'm doing creative cuts and colours for my portfolio today," she says, clipping expertly at her client's head.

"Her hair was medium-brown with caramel before, but she wants to go darker this time.

"I have quite a few clients but this is my best one," she adds with a smile. "She's my mum."

Now in her third year at Coatbridge College, Siobhan prefers college to school, she says. "It is more relaxed, there's more going on and you get to work as a team. In school you are working on your own most of the time."

It is his willingness to work as part of a team that most endears John, ambitious as he is, to staff and colleagues at Coatbridge College, says Ms Brogan - and made them keen to nominate him for the SQA awards.

"When John comes into a room, before you know it everybody is energised, motivated and laughing and we've created these new amazing looks," she adds.

"John shares his energy and creativity with everyone. He's a star."

Photo credit: James Glossop

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Douglas Blane

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