Case study: Kingsbridge community college, Devon

17th October 2003 at 01:00
Dyspraxia is the poor relation in the specific learning difficulties continuum, and can be easily missed. Until four years ago, not one of our 1,200 students was identified with the condition; now we have five. And I suspect there are many more.

One of our Year 11 students, George, is a bright boy with reading and spelling abilities well in advance of his age, but he has struggled throughout school with any activity needing perceptual organisation, hand-eye co-ordination or spatial awareness. He didn't really crawl as a baby and had speech therapy until his reception year. He's always been untidy, always in the wrong place, and finds any "fiddly" activity difficult. Three-dimensional tasks, such as buttering bread, have never been easy. He didn't learn to tie his shoelaces until the end of primary school and was teased by his peers for being bad at football.

School work has presented particular challenges for George. He has never liked drawing and still finds doing illustrations and drawing maths shapes difficult, but he has worked hard to develop a neat style of cursive writing, which he can produce with concentration. But it's a tiring activity. The computer has been a boon, allowing him to focus on what he wants to say, rather than writing it. Extra time in exams allows him to plan carefully the sequencing of ideas, and check his work to make sure it is legible.

George's difficulties with writing, drawing and sequencing have had implications in all subjects, not just the more practical science, technology or PE. Finding alternatives to illustrations, allowing enough time to write things down, offering him opportunities for more oral than written responses - even giving him a ruler - have all helped. Despite some bad experiences early on in school, George now has a good understanding of what helps him most and is increasingly confident in discussing with teachers how best to manage areas of difficulty.

Parents are often the best people to spot that something isn't right.

George's mother recognised it in both her sons, but not until her younger, more dyspraxic child was diagnosed, did she realise what George's problems were, and ask for an educational psychologist's assessment.

Nell's mother, a primary teacher, could never quite put her finger on what was wrong with her daughter. Nell's dyspraxia was not severe and, looking back, her mother says she could always find an excuse to dismiss the now obvious symptoms. Nell was always on the outside, not bullied, but not always included, as she couldn't play ball games, scramble up the climbing frame or ride a bike. Her mother couldn't understand why her daughter hated PE, couldn't catch a ball despite hours of patient parental tuition or even wash her own hair.

But her mother realised how bright Nell was when she noticed how well she could skim-read a passage, and understand, retain and talk about it. An educational psychologist's diagnosis of dyspraxia came as a relief, and explained all the years of frustration with physical activities and the difficulties getting her ideas down on paper. "You panic when your child can't learn to catch a ball, yet if we'd known she was dyspraxic we would have valued every little step as an achievement," her mother says.

George and Nell's dyspraxia won't go away; both children will always be conscious of being "different". But schools with inclusive practices can make a big difference to how well students such as they progress.

Ginny Campbell is special needs co-ordinator at Kingsbridge community college, Kingsbridge, Devon

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