Having a daughter with dyslexia, and a determination to get things done, led a Midlands man to open a treatment centre that claims to offer near-miraculous results. But is it all too good to be true? Gerald Haigh investigates.
There's a man in the Midlands who claims he's curing people of dyslexia. Self-made millionaire Wynford Dore would be quick to deny that there's anything miraculous going on at his DDAT (dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit treatment) centre in Warwickshire. He's just, he says, someone who likes to get things done.
Not an academic himself, he has nevertheless attracted the interest and support of some high-profile educators. Gareth Newman, for example, former head of Brooke Weston city technology college in Corby, Northamptonshire, now an adviser at the Department for Education and Employment, is Mr Dore's cousin, supporter and admirer. Together they work on commercial educational projects.
One of Mr Dore's ventures is the DDAT centre, which is claiming extraordinary results for its radical approach to the treatment of dyslexia. The centre has eschewed conventional thinking on therapy in favour of a regime based on a range of physical exercises, believing the condition is closely linked to a fault in the development of motor skills.
Mr Dore's interest in dyslexia is based on personal experience of the condition and its damaging effects. His daughter, Susie, was diagnosed as dyslexic when she was nine. "I watched her go right through her life up to the age of 26, underachieving, frustrated, depressed." That was a couple of years ago, before Mr Dore's therapy regime brought about a dramatic improvement in her condition.
Mr Dore left school aged 14 with just one O-level, and made his fortune developing and marketing fireproof paint in the Seventies (just as asbestos was being dropped as a building material because of its carcinogenic properties). After selling his business in 1998 for the sort of money that bought the helicopter parked on the front lawn, he had the freedom to pursue his long-held ambition to find a solution to his daughter's problems. He was looking out for research that, combined with his own talent for practical application, could make a real difference. Special needs teachers work hard trying to fill a colander with water," he says. "I was always looking for a dramatic breakthrough."
He's found it, he believes, by applying the work of researchers who say too much effort goes into dealing with dyslexia through the "thinking" parts of the brain. They believe the roots of dyslexia and some other learning problems lie in the cerebellum, an area at the back of the brain that deals with the physical stuff - basic motor skills, including balance. Some researchers believe the problem is developmental - that affected children have missed out on the part of development that engages the cerebellum and its links to the organs of balance in the inner ear.
Sally Goddard and Peter Blythe of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology in Chester have long been following this path, working with children who demonstrate what they call "neuro-developmental delay". Their work, and that of the DDAT centre, owes much to Harold Levinson, who runs a clinic in New York State, in the United States.
Dr Levinson has been saying for 30 years that dyslexia is a disorder of the inner ear and the cerebellum and that it can be treated.
Those who hold to this "cerebellar" approach believe drugs, including those used to combat seasickness, can help. Mr Dore studied Dr Levinson's work. And in 1999 he took a rather closer interest. "I flew his whole clinic across here," he says. "And he ran a small pilot scheme. All the children he saw improved over a six-month period."
But Mr Dore was unhappy using drugs, and a local GP, Dr Roy Rutherford, with whom he was working, said he was sure the same effect could be achieved with exercise. The idea is that making the cerebellum work by giving it lots of balancing and hand-eye co-ordination tasks improves its function generally - so the child gets better not only at balancing, but also at reading and writing.
Mr Dore opened the DDAT centre last summer. It has since seen about 500 people - adults as well as children. Dyslexics or their families self-refer to the centre, many coming through word-of-mouth recommendation.
In the waiting room of the premises, above a shop in the centre of Kenilworth, near Coventry, children and their parents are throwing and catching beanbags. It seems they're just passing the time, but there's much more to it than that.
The dyslexic child (or adult) is assessed using equipment that tests the skills of balance and the ability to follow a moving light with the eyes.
Based on the results of the tests, the patient is sent away to do some basic exercises for 10 minutes a day - including, for example, standing on an unstable "wobble board" and throwing a beanbag from hand to hand or person to person, following it with the eyes. There are follow-up visits, with reviews of the treatment. But the promise of rapid progress doesn't come cheap. The initial visit costs pound;475. Follow-ups cost pound;75 a time.
Rachel Smith came from Southampton University's institute of sound and vibration research to be director of clinical assessment at the DDAT centre. Together with Dr Rutherford, she is responsible for assessing and working out therapy regimes at the clinic, which employs 17 staff. Ms Smith is utterly convinced the procedure works. "The changes I have seen in children's reading, writing and sports skills are incredible. I didn't think I'd see changes in six months, but they've been happening within four months."
The families support this claim. Deborah Francis, mother of 13-year-old Jamie, says: "He's reading more easily and progressing quickly." Jamie has noticed the difference, too. "Before, when the teacher wrote on the board and asked me to copy it down, I'd spend a lot of time looking at every word," he says. "Now I can look at the whole sentence and write it down." Jamie has also learned how to play tennis, a skill he had previously been unable to master.
There's no shortage of such stories. The centre provides testimonies full of phrases such as "going from strength to strength", "huge improvement", "delighted with her change in attitude", "dramatic difference"; it claims that 97 per cent of those accepted for treatment show an improvement.
Despite all that, it's not difficult to find words of caution, especially from organisations used to dealing with dyslexia. They know just how many anxious parents are out there, and how ready they are to latch on to anything that promises help. The main organisations are used to cautioning their members against getting too excited about "breakthroughs" - the British Dyslexia Association has said it about Dr Levinson's work. And Shirley Cramer, director of the Dyslexia Institute, is concerned by DDAT's claim, widely reported earlier this year, that dyslexia might be eradicated within 10 years.
"It's good to see other lines of approach," she says,"but this is a massive claim based on little evidence. What worries me is that parents are very vulnerable."
The BDA says much the same. "We want to see effective, measured and sustained change," says education director Lindsay Peer. "To see what happens two years on and five years on."
Mr Dore is visibly stung by the accusation that he is building up false hopes. "The reason I'm passionate is because somebody has to be." He says he knows as much as anyone how it feels to be the parent of a dyslexic child. "It's horrific to see your child misunderstood, grossly underachieving and labelled as thick or lazy."
Dyslexics can be exploited, too, he says - not just by bullies at school, but later in life, when there are contracts to be signed and deals to be made. "I was always worried that my daughter would be unable to cope with all the details of adult life," he says. Now, though, his daughter, treated first briefly by Dr Levinson and then by the DDAT centre, holds down a job in a nursery school.
"She's not just better at reading and writing," he says, "but she's calmer and more confident, and has a whole group of friends when a year ago she couldn't name one."
He freely admits that all this seems too good to be true. "Imagine how guilty I'd feel if I built up somebody's hopes falsely," he says. "I've worried all along that someone would put a pin in this balloon. But it just ain't happening."
There's no doubting Mr Dore's commitment. Lynn Taylor, an ICT adviser who knows him well, says: "He's certainly not doing it to take on the establishment; he just believes that what he's doing is right, and I admire him for that."
Gareth Newman confirms Ms Taylor's impression. "For as long as I've known him he's been looking at original ideas," he says. "Much of his adult life has been spent finding a way to help dyslexic children; he spent a lot of time with me talking about it. He's always felt there must be a key to the door somewhere, and he's searched worldwide for solutions."
Lindsay Peer and Shirley Cramer emphasise that there's already a huge body of research on effective ways to tackle dyslexia through early identification, early intervention and effective teaching. Ms Cramer says:
"If you can intervene with the appropriate teaching at the earliest possible time - that's the optimum. We know what interventions work. We know what's effective." While advising caution on the centre's claims, they welcome any attempts to pin down what is happening there, saying it's only fair to the centre, to other dyslexia researchers, and to the children.
Meanwhile, Wynford Dore is not in the business of turning researchers, or anyone else, away. And he is anxious to avoid being seen as working against special needs teachers. "The classroom remediation process is every bit as important for those we've treated as it was before. But teachers will find they don't have to spend so long on it, and they'll be able to get round a much larger number of children."
Anyone is welcome to see the centre, and he's had many visits from psychologists, educators and local authorities. He has also commissioned detailed evaluation from Professor David Reynolds of Exeter University's school of education.
The most important research will start next term. This will allow comparison of people who've been treated at the centre with those from a control group. The aim is to provide academically credible results that can be published, some time next year, in a high-quality, peer-reviewed journal.
Focusing on the needs of children should be the aim of all concerned. Jamie Francis is one of many whose increased confidence alone bears investigation. Asked what the message for teachers should be, Jamie says:
"You should give it a try. It does make a difference - it's made a difference to my life and I have a lot more confidence in class."
DDAT centre: 08000 977080; www.ddat.co.ukBritish Dyslexia Association: 0118 966 8271;www.bda-dyslexia.org.ukDyslexia Institute: 01784 463851;www.dyslexia-inst.org.uk Information on Harold Levinson: 0870 750 0718;www.dyslexia-add.co.uk Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology: 01244 311414; www.inpp.org.uk A Teacher's Window into the Child's Mind by Sally Goddard, Fern Ridge Press, Oregon, 1996. ISBN 0-9615332-5-0.