'My confidence was destroyed'

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Alex Sykes says his school's low expectations of those in care meant they never realised he was dyslexic - and stories like his are all too common

Seven years and several menial jobs after leaving school with just a single meaningful GCSE, Alex Sykes was finally diagnosed with dyslexia.

The former children's home resident blames teachers at his secondary school in Halifax for failing to spot his condition because of the low expectations they had of children in local authority care.

He said: "If someone had given me help with dyslexia earlier, it could have changed my life. Instead my self-confidence was destroyed. People presumed that because I was in care I was going to have problems.

"For my first two years in secondary school I was the only one who was in care. Everyone knew because the children's home was up the road. The whole thing felt alien to me.

"By Year 10 I did not bother to go to school much. In Year 11 I managed to get a job working in a hotel through work experience, so I spent most of my time there."

After leaving school at 16, Mr Sykes took a pound;1.50-an-hour job with Forte hotels before a stint as a door-to-door salesman. During that time he was rejected by the army because of his lack of academic skills.

Eventually, helped by Project Challenge, a local scheme for disadvantaged young people, Mr Sykes returned to college. He is now in his final year of a media and public relations degree at the University of Huddersfield - where his dyslexia was finally spotted. As the box (right) demonstrates, Mr Syke's experiences continue to be typical for too many of the 65,000 children in England and Wales in care today.

The TES "Time to care" campaign, launched today, aims to change this. It has already won the backing of some of the most senior figures in education and leading children's charities Barnardo's and NCH.

Maurice Smith, acting chief inspector of schools, Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, Barry Sheerman MP, chair of the education select committee and David Kidney MP, chair of the associate parliamentary group for children in care and leaving care, have all given their support.

Mr Smith highlighted the plight of this group of children in his first major speech as chief inspector. Mr Smith told the North of England conference: "I am happy to commend to you the Times Educational Supplement's campaign to improve the educational attainment of looked after children."

It is the second time in recent years The TES has campaigned for children in care.

In 1999, the paper revealed that many local authorities had no idea about how young people in their care were doing at school. It helped force government action and the proportion of care leavers with at least one GCSE rose from 37 per cent in 2001 to 43 per cent two years later as teachers responded to the challenge.

Writing in this week's TES, Sir Cyril Taylor calls on the Government to press ahead with plans to place children in care in boarding schools and to consider creating academies with boarding places.

Jacqui Smith, schools minister, will address representatives of 120 boarding schools at a conference in London next week to win support for a scheme to place at-risk children in their care.

The schools, which include some of the most prestigious in the country, with fees if up to pound;20,000-a-year, will be asked to accept children from seven or eight local council areas from September next year.

The scheme is a pilot project: the first pupils' progress at the schools will be monitored over the next few years before the Government decides whether to fund a large-scale national scheme.

A Green Paper in the next few months will set out the Government's plans for improving the chances of looked-after children. The recent schools White Paper promised to expand school choice for children in care and said local authorities would be expected to ensure schools met their needs.

Platform 21

* jon.slater@tes.co.uk

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