Dyslexics need not apply

9th January 2004 at 00:00
Is this the message we send out to those trainees who have coped with the shame of this disability once already? Harry Dodds argues for a more humane approach

Lucy Gordon wanted to be a teacher. Her degree in psychology helped her find a place on a primary PGCE course and, for a while, it looked as though she would achieve her ambition. Today, however, she has given up and will probably not enter the profession at any level. What went wrong?

Lucy is dyslexic. The last thing she expected at the beginning of her PGCE course was to be made to feel "so stupid and vulnerable all over again" as she had throughout her school life. Struggling with mental maths and being unsure about spelling and grammar destroyed the confidence her good performance in the classroom was beginning to give her. Part-way into the course she withdrew, deferring her place until the following September, by which time, she felt, a spell in the classroom as an assistant would have helped rebuild her lost confidence. It didn't. She didn't take up her place, and no longer intends to.

In her brief spell in the classroom, Lucy worked with children with learning difficulties. "It was like looking at myself as a child," she said. "I understood how hard even the simple task of reading a book was to them, and I could see they were not stupid. They just couldn't interpret that information like other kids, and I could see how angry and frustrated that made them."

Empathy at that level, she felt, would be a great advantage. She realised she could use her insights to great effect. If she was good at teaching spelling, did it really matter how well she could spell herself? Given today's emphasis on inclusion, one can see the strength of her case.

The final straw for Lucy was the Teacher Training Agency's skills tests in numeracy, literacy and ICT. "I felt so alone when trying to face them: support is the key element that doesn't seem to be addressed," she says.

She sees a conflict between the requirement that she pass them, and the "equality of opportunity" provisions embodied in the Disability Discrimination Act.

The agency insists that qualified teacher status cannot be achieved without passing the skills tests, but points out that special versions exist for those with a variety of disabilities, including dyslexia. "Dyslexic trainees can opt for an additional 25 per cent extra time within which to complete the tests and in exceptional circumstances additional arrangements can also be made," says a spokesperson for the TTA. Helpful, but still too intimidating for Lucy.

Jayne James is also dyslexic, but succeeded in becoming a teacher. She is now principal of the Sutton Coldfield Dyslexia Institute, and much of what she has to say echoes many of Lucy's points. Like Lucy, Jayne suffered many setbacks in her early education. She was made to feel stupid and was pressed to lower her ambitions. Her school held her back a year and put her in a class where she worked alongside her younger brother. She failed her O-levels and didn't finish her A-levels. However, she found a place at a college of education before A-levels were required as a qualification. She did well, but failed two successive years to pass the "Use of English" examination, a precondition for university entry, without which she couldn't qualify. In the third year of her course, however, the requirement was dropped, removing a major obstacle.

Jayne was not formally diagnosed as dyslexic until about five years ago, which does not mean to say that she was unaware of her condition. It took the growing realisation that her daughter was suffering much the same difficulties, and her daughter's subsequent assessment and diagnosis, to prompt her to go through the process herself. Jayne's assessment confirmed her dyslexia, but it also told her that her IQ was very high - a great confidence-booster.

Jayne can see no reason why a dyslexic should not become a teacher. She doesn't recommend English, but feels it's possible to cope with teaching a subject already mastered at A-level. She herself chose maths and PE, on the basis that their training didn't demand many essays.

She now finds that she can do anything her job requires of her, though it takes her much longer than a non-dyslexic would need. Her biggest problem is writing reports to parents. She finds she can only do three at a time, so she achieves her daily target of six by writing three in the morning and three in the afternoon. Orally, she has no problem.

Dyslexics develop compensatory strategies. Where they involve attempts to conceal the problem, disasters usually follow. Jayne sets herself strict targets, and meets them. She drafts short letters and has them checked by her administrative staff. When she reads the detailed assessments of her potential pupils, however, she must have no distractions. Teaching presents very few problems, even in literacy. Thanks to the Dyslexia Institute's programme, which made her go back to the very beginning, Jayne can now spell.

Should a dyslexic even think about becoming a teacher? Lucy felt thwarted in her ambition by the requirements of the course and by the lack of support, but clearly had much to offer in the classroom. Jayne may have had a lucky break with the timely dropping of the "Use of English" requirement, but she eventually found the right support and is now an influential principal.

Part of the answer can depend on where you seek your PGCE training. The University of Sunderland welcomes trainees with specific learning disabilities and offers excellent support. Its policy for dyslexic students seems humane and practical*.

Barbara Riddick, of Sunderland University's School of Education, has published research that will encourage dyslexic teachers, and should prove informative to those who are not**. It confirms almost everything that Lucy and Jayne say.

Dyslexics are not necessarily low achievers. Many have succeeded professionally, sometimes in surprising fields. Several well-known actors such as Susan Hampshire and Harrison Ford are dyslexic, as was the scientist Albert Einstein. As many as one in 10 people are affected, one in 25 severely so, from the obvious - poor spelling and reading - to subtler problems, such as having difficulty in telling left from right, or not being good at sequencing.

Dyslexia can be demoralising and can cause social difficulties. If you've been labelled for years as "slow" or "thick", your confidence takes a battering, and you are left ill-equipped to cope with discrimination when you meet it.

Teachers with dyslexia have a great deal to offer, though in an climate that places such an inordinately high value on the ability to spell accurately there will be employers who cannot be convinced of that. Their classroom skills probably cover the same range of ability as that of other qualified teachers, but they bring with them special insights. Many of Barbara Riddick's interviewees have become teachers because they don't want others to suffer as they did in school.

Classrooms are increasingly inclusive. Staffrooms should be, too - pupils should meet teachers representing the diversity of individuals they will meet in the world outside. That includes those who know, from the inside, what it's like to find learning hard.

Harry Dodds is an education consultant and writer. He taught English in Oxfordshire for almost 30 years before becoming a part-time teacher-trainer.For further information on Sunderland University - *www.sunderland.ac.ukdisability-supportdyslexia.htm**www.interdys.orgpdf PF13-Riddick.pdf

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