Dorothy Walker meets dyslexic turned internet dynamo Barney Blackburn
Barney's earliest memory of school is of refusing to attend. For almost a year, he could not be coaxed into the classroom. Today he is revelling in his studies as a day boy at Charterhouse, the Surrey public school. His website tells the story of how he learned to cope with dyslexia, with the support of family and teachers - and a little help from ICT.
Barney, who lives in Godalming, discovered the power of ICT aged nine, when he moved to St Bede's Preparatory School in Eastbourne. In the school's ICT suite, he began exploring the computers and the internet. "I found it was really fun and I decided I wanted to learn some programming," he says.
Before he could put his plan into action, however, he found himself embarking on another computer project, which would have a major impact on his learning career.
Barney had been diagnosed as dyslexic a year earlier and a family friend suggested he might find it better to type rather than write by hand. In the holidays he enrolled on a crash course in touch-typing in London, achieving an initial speed of 20 words per minute, "about the same speed as I could write". When school resumed, he was allowed to take in a laptop to use in class and he has placed his faith in one ever since.
He says: "It is really useful. When I write by hand I don't really see or take in what I have written. When I type, I understand much more - I don't really know why. But it is certainly much faster to type and I don't have to worry about making my writing neat, so I have time to stop and read every couple of sentences. Using a spellchecker has also improved my spelling."
He stresses the strategy worked thanks to the support of his teachers and because he had learned to type before taking the computer anywhere near the classroom. "If you can't type it is useless as it slows everyone down."
In 2000, he resumed his programming plans, persuading his ICT teacher to help. "He said the only language he knew was HTML, for building websites, so that was what I learned." And when it came to putting his new-found knowledge into practice, Barney knew exactly what to build. "When I was searching the web for help with dyslexia, I couldn't find many good sites which took the child's view of how to help other children. That was the gap I wanted to fill."
Barney's website is full of hints and tips gleaned from his experience and from the many children whose success stories he shares on the site. "It's not just my side of the story," he says. "It shows how other people have overcome their dyslexia, too." He receives many emails from teachers and the site explains what Barney's teachers have done to help him at school.
He spends a couple of hours working on the site every weekend, while spare his time on weekdays is devoted to managing his latest venture, selling his own software by mail order. Last year, driven by a desire to write Windows-based applications, Barney signed up for evening classes in Visual Basic programming. He emerged with a City and Guilds qualification and began writing software "to help people do everyday things".
"It is a family effort," he says. "My mother and sister work in special-needs schools and they provide the ideas by telling me where they need support." Current titles include Simple Sums, Mouse Control and Days, Months amp; Numbers.
Last year, when his father was appointed estate bursar at Charterhouse, Barney's plans altered dramatically. Instead of continuing his schooling at St Bede's Senior School, he found himself taking the scholarship exams for Charterhouse at short notice and with little special preparation, but Barney passed with flying colours, earning a Major Exhibition. "The school made sure my exam desk was near a socket so I could plug in my laptop and after each exam I handed in a floppy disk of my work," he says.
"Charterhouse has been really cool about being dyslexic."
Immediate plans are to continue improving his software and learn more complicated programming languages. He says: "I haven't decided on a career yet, but I will carry ICT forward in some way."