'Dyslexia? It's a gift'

15th October 2004 at 01:00
At a leading independent school they take a positive view of the reading diffculty. It just shows what having a specialist centre and deep parental pockets can do. Nic Barnard reports

From the outside, it looks unassuming enough: a three-storey terraced house with a green door in a well-to-do but unremarkable Brighton street; inside there are no suburban lounges and bedrooms, rather a series of small and simple classrooms. Some boast state-of-the-art computer suites, freshly installed; others give a hint of its true purpose - displays of imaginative but sometimes awkward prose.

This is the home of Brighton College's dyslexia centre. The school is regarded as a model for the successful integration of children with this specific learning difficulty. Unusually for a large, selective private school, Brighton has a sizeable minority of dyslexic pupils. Up to 160 children pass through the centre each week, some receiving hours of regular tuition and support, others just dropping in for a half-termly progress report.

Around a quarter were diagnosed after joining the school. But most were referred to the centre because of its reputation for high academic success among pupils with a condition that still too often condemns them to struggle. There is a high success rate for dyslexics getting in to university: this year one entered Oxford with straight As. Recent captains of rugby and head boarders have suffered from the condition.

Brighton College first opened a separate prep school for dyslexics 25 years ago. The centre, under its director, David Ollosson, was set up in 1992 to support senior pupils. However, for the past five years, dyslexic children from pre-school to A-level have been fully integrated into the mainstream and receive support behind the green door.

The college accepts only the brightest children - this is, after all, a selective school. But the severity of their dyslexia is not the issue. "We can cope with quite considerable levels of dyslexia providing the child has potential to work with," Mr Ollosson says. They charge around pound;470 a term, on top of termly college fees which rise with age from around Pounds 1,500 to pound;4,440.

For younger pupils, support focuses on remediation - identifying the extent and nature of this widely varying condition, and helping them develop strategies to minimise its impact by working on reading, spelling, comprehension and other skills. With older children, support shifts more directly to schoolwork.

The large number of pupils means teachers are closely attuned to the characteristics of dyslexia and there is a high chance of cases being spotted early. Brighton uses computer screening programs - Lucid Research's Cognitive Profiling System (CoPS) for pre-prep pupils and Lucid Assessment Systems for Schools (LASS) for the over-eights - but Mr Ollosson says the key really lies in observation and discussion among teachers and special needs co-ordinators.

Teachers look for children who may be doing well but could be doing better.

"They're great in class, fantastic in discussion, but never seem to do themselves justice on paper. One explanation could be that they're lazy or careless, but that would not tend to be our first reaction," he says.

Dyslexia is commonly considered to mean poor spelling, but Mr Ollosson says this is not the first thing he looks for. Missing punctuation or sentences that change tense halfway through may be better clues. Another might be a permanent state of disorganisation, pupils who are always losing things or turning up unprepared for lessons, all signs of short-term memory problems, a classic symptom.

Computer programs help to confirm suspicions; games assess general ability, spatial awareness, short-term memory and phonic skills. Typically, a child might be asked to remember sequences of colours or shapes, or the order in which a rabbit jumps out of a series of burrows.

Mr Ollosson says such activities are useful with younger children, where there is less written work to go on. Older children tend to be sent straight to the ed psych.

There the most detailed tests are carried out, including Wechsler IQ, assessments of reading speeds, spelling, numeracy and writing skills, including copying and free writing, and - as a predictor of academic success - verbal tests.

This is a strength of the independent sector. Too many dyslexic children in state schools never see a psychologist. Here, it is a condition of entry - parents pay pound;300 or more - and the results inform individual education plans (IEPs) for every pupil.

Such plans spell out the nature of each pupil's dyslexia, tailor teaching strategies - such as avoiding lists of instructions, or favouring hand-outs over copying from the board - and set targets. Pupils see a psychologist at least once more - notably at 16 to decide what exam concessions to apply for - but, otherwise, assessment uses the school's standard reporting framework.

Like many private schools, Brighton has a rigorous testing and reporting regime - all prep and pre-prep children take annual nfer tests in English, maths and verbal and non-verbal reasoning. In the dyslexia centre, they also take standardised spelling and reading tests twice a year.

Closer monitoring comes through a system of three-weekly reviews, which sees every child in the college given a grade for effort and attainment by their subject teachers. For dyslexic pupils, these reviews are a chance to consider the targets in their IEPs, which can be constantly updated.

So what is the measure for success for dyslexic pupils? Mr Ollosson says they are the same as for any child - examination results and their contribution to the wider school life. There is no "cure". But there is one other, crucial thing: self-belief. "I really do believe that dyslexia can be a gift," he says. "It brings out in some children tremendous talents and abilities, which a school like this is prepared to foster."

LASS, CoPS www.lucid-research.comDyslexia Screener www.nfer-nelson.co.ukSee also www.dyslexiaa2z.com

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