The Conversation: Specific learning difficulties

13th June 2008 at 01:00
Geoff Link runs a private boarding school that specialises in pupils with dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia. He talks to Trevor Averre-Beeson
Geoff Link runs a private boarding school that specialises in pupils with dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia. He talks to Trevor Averre-Beeson

Q: How did you find yourself in this specialised field?

A: I started as a PE teacher in Wimbledon, then moved to Devon to become head of PE in a school with a large dyslexia department. To my surprise, I found working with children with learning difficulties really interesting. I also enjoyed working with more challenging children. I then became deputy head at Stanbridge Earls School, before becoming head four years ago.

Q: It is not the most obvious of career routes?

A: Again, it started in an unexpected way. While a PE teacher, I did a masters degree. I worked with Mike Golby, an inspirational lecturer at Exeter University. He encouraged me to undertake action research on pastoral care. It opened a whole new area of interest.

Q: What do you think is your major impact on children at Stanbridge?

A: The key to helping children with specific learning difficulties is making them feel safe and respected. In mainstream schools, such children often suffer from bullying and isolation. With us, they have a stable environment and framework, and they feel settled. Everyone here will offer support. Because there are so few schools like ours, they inevitably become boarders. We work hard to ensure being away from home is not a punishment, but a privilege that is fun, warm and safe.

Q: What makes the school's success possible?

A: Part of our success is down to staff. They are brilliant, passionate, caring and supportive. They have to be - not just in the classroom, but all day and evening too. Here you have to buy into our ethos and core values. We make sure new staff know that, and they receive great support from those who have been here a long time.

Q: What kind of children attend your school?

A: We cater for girls and boys aged 10 to 19 who are dyslexic, dyspraxic and dyscalculic. Some have mild Asperger's syndrome, and for some a large school is too overwhelming. Our intake is from a cross-section of society, united by the fact that they have learning difficulties. Dyspraxia and dyslexia affect only 4 to 5 per cent of children, so we draw from all parts of the country and from abroad. We get children referred to us from as many as 24 countries. Stanbridge is a haven for them.

We take huge pride in the achievements of our pupils, many of whom have experienced failure in education. For instance, last year's head boy left with three As and a B at A2, despite arriving in Year 10 with no academic aspirations. But we are just as thrilled with those who achieve the best they can in other areas: drama, music, sport and practical activities are very important.

Q: It must be very different from ordinary schools?

A: Our main characteristic is personalised learning. Teachers have to differentiate for every child because needs are so diverse. This is apparent in the classroom, in personal organisation, sustaining relationships (difficult for many of our children), in memory skills and making sense of the world. We work hard to meet the wide range of learning problems presented to us.

Q: What are your hopes for the future?

A: I want to develop our facilities. We are becoming over-subscribed as news of our work spreads. I want our boarding and school facilities to be the best in order to make us one of the premier providers of education for children with specific learning difficulties. I was proud when our inspection report in 2006 described us as "very good at achieving our aims and aspirations" and, of course, we want to continue to be "excellent".

Q: Last thoughts?

A: I want Stanbridge to be a "special" school in every sense. Our staff are special. It is fundamental that teachers love their work and the children so that pupils respect and feel safe with them. Large schools can lose the nurturing side to a teacher's work and, as a result, lose the care for the individual. At Stanbridge, every child really matters.

Trevor Averre-Beeson is executive headteacher of Salisbury School in Enfield, north London

CURRICULUM VITAE

Name: Geoff Link, 56

Job: Headteacher, Stanbridge Earls in Romsey, Hampshire, a specialist school teaching children with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia

Years in teaching: 35

Education: St Luke's College in Exeter; MEd Exeter University

Previous jobs: King's College, Wimbledon; Grenville College, Devon

Interests: sport (played rugby to a high level), travel, dog-walking.

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