Charles Weedon found that dyslexia taught him valuable lessons about learning support
I've got principles . . . and if you don't like them, I've got some more." Groucho Marx said that, and I know how he feels: I've been leafing through mine over the past 18 months, vaguely hoping to make up a matching set. The learning support world has worked hard, in classrooms, at management meetings - and, not least, in the sheriff courts - to reconcile the demands of the dyslexia community with its own, extant model of provision. Yet they seem to remain in conflict. Eighteen months ago I moved from an urban comprehensive to a parallel post in the private sector. Same kind of post, same kind of job description, except that the school had a particular emphasis on provision for pupils with dyslexic difficulties. I have moved from a system of learning support that doesn't work nearly as well as it should do to one that seems to work well indeed. Hence the plootering with the principles, trying to make sense of it all.
The change was abrupt. On Friday afternoon, I was part of an enormous organisation, with policies, mission statements, development plans, accountability procedures, and any number of directors, advisers, development officers and learning support officers. On Monday, those supports had all fallen away. I worked in a relatively small organisation, and if we didn't meet the needs of our potential clientele, the clientele might go elsewhere. Political correctness mattered no more. If it seemed right for the child, we would do it. If it didn't, we wouldn't.
I waited, and watched to see what structures would emerge. Emerge they did. All the bits and pieces that make up their underlying principles came flying together for me, with a most satisfying clunk, while listening to Professor Alan Dyson talking to a specific learning difficulties conference in Dundee. The key concept concerns the distinction between general learning difficulties and specific ones. They seem to elicit quite different responses in us, and therein lies the problem. The way Professor Dyson sees it, there are at the moment two competing models, currently rubbing along in uncomfortable parallel: the "psycho-medical" model of the dyslexia world, where the starting point is the individual and their particular set of needs; and the "curriculum" model of the learning support world, where the starting point is the inflexibility and inadequacy of the mainstream curriculum in meeting a range of needs.
Both are ethically excellent. Both seek to get it right in the swiftest and most effective way. But, having stepped abruptly from one model to another, I have a strong sense that one works and the other doesn't. One is needs driven and pragmatic; the other is idealistic, frustrating to operate, and in the long run less effective. The competing strands in our thinking go back a long way - call them, if you like, the "pupil model" and the "curriculum model". Way back, of course, we didn't have "models". We had remedial teachers.
Then came this exciting idea - certainly it excited me - that made explicit the idea that we had had a model all the time, but that it was one that should be challenged. It became known as the "pupil deficit" model, and it seemed flawed in that it directed attention solely towards the pupil. Instead, we felt we should accept pupils as they are, and direct our energies towards developing a curriculum rich enough and varied enough to meet their needs. This was the "curriculum deficit" model. It seemed to make every sense. I accepted it with a degree of evangelical fervour, and we turned our faces from the pupil to the curriculum.
We learnt about different pathways to the same outcomes, about differentiation, about not labelling, about curriculum consultancy. The thrust towards mixed-ability groupings gained strength and momentum. So we became agents of change, and developers of the curriculum. We were seconded, some of us, for a whole year or the equivalent, and we learnt about the dynamics of change, and interpersonal skills, before returning to our departments of which many, like mine, had not a single teacher with any formal training in the teaching of basic literacy or numeracy.
The pace of change increased, and as it did so it began perhaps to expose some inherent inconsistencies and contradictions. Even as we extended mixed-ability and common curricular aims, so too we integrated a wider and wider range of children with severe and intransigent difficulties, intellectual, behavioural and emotional - extending and extending the task facing the classroom teacher who wanted to teach them all effectively.
It became apparent that we were operating two curricular philosophies, without acknowledging it, or exploring the lines dividing the two, or considering their implications. For the vast majority of the school population, "curriculum deficit" held sway; but for a small minority, usually children with records of needs, this was so self-evidently inappropriate that the pupil's needs had to be the starting point. There was neither time nor energy to implement both systems.
I am fully confident that the pupil-driven model, Professor Dyson's "psycho-medical" model, works in my present setting; but could I have worked it 18 months ago, faced with the complex demands imposed by a rather wider range of difficulties? Probably not, because some of the assumptions prevalent in the two different settings vary significantly.
I am certainly working in a setting that expects excellence; that is enormously sympathetic while demanding the best of children; that has a strong and positive sense of its own identity. Certainly, we might expect a more uniform and higher level of parental commitment, and a more uniformly positive environment for our pupils, although there is a real danger of exaggerating these differences. Most parents, most places, care enormously.
Other assumptions stem from factors that do lie within the control of the school or the education authority: we make extensive use of setting, very flexible setting. Mixed ability is not prevalent in the senior school, and consequently we can often place a pupil in a setting where teaching is already partly tailored to their needs. Integration is the heart and centre of our support philosophy, but we are not compelled to integrate those for whom our provisions is not designed. Most important, we do not use support time and resources in trying to tell teachers how to teach. We don't feel compelled to make the curriculum our starting point. We focus instead on helping the learner to cope with it, draw from it and respond to it. The pupil, not the curriculum, is our starting point, although one may have implications for the other. Our aim is to understand the difficulties of our pupils, and then to share that understanding among subject teachers and to support them in doing so.
We can offer integration into a school experience that is rich, varied, demanding, while weaknesses are recognised, understood and supported. If a child has the ability to be in the top set for physics but needs the bottom set (or no set) for French or economics, so be it. Our role is to locate, identify and understand with all possible clarity the nature and extent of a child's difficulties, and then to take all possible steps to keep that child located firmly within a varied and stimulating environment.
Our priority is to help the child cope with the curriculum, rather than change the curriculum; and that single factor releases enormous amounts of energy and potential. But it needs curriculum structures that allow this and many structures currently prevalent tend to militate against it.
Dr Charles Weedon is head of learning support and the dyslexia unit at George Watson's College, Edinburgh. The views expressed are personal.