Severe dyslexia does not have to be a byword for failure. A school using martial arts and a novel approach to reading and writing is seeing remarkable results. Biddy Passmore views them at first hand
In an oak-panelled hall in a large, red-brick country house outside Lichfield, a dozen figures in cream pyjama suits bow, lunge, grapple and fall on an expanse of green rubber mats. At one point, they carefully pick up bladeless swords and "fight". Some of the children are obviously unused to physical exercise. One or two appear to have little spatial awareness. But all are concentrating, trying hard and behaving. "Just as well," says David Thompson, the instructor, "since a lot of what we do could be dangerous."
These pupils, aged between nine and 14, are taking an optional weekly lesson in the Japanese martial arts of aikido, budo and kenjutso at a highly unusual school. It may look like an old-fashioned boarding school, but Maple Hayes is a day school and the 95 pupils are all severely dyslexic. It is one of only 10 independent schools for specific learning difficulties in England, and the only one in the Midlands.
"This," says Daryl Brown, head of the school, "is the last chance saloon." Maple Hayes takes "the really hard cases": pupils for whom all other approaches have failed.
To get their sons and daughters into Maple Hayes, two-thirds of the parents have had to fight, usually via special needs tribunals, to have the pound;12,000-pound;15,000 fees paid by a local education authority.
They have had to prove that their child's difficulties are so great that they cannot be provided for in a mainstream school. Some parents abandon the struggle and make sacrifices to pay the fees, even though their child has a statement of special needs.
Tom Knight, 14, has been at the school for two-and-a-half years and clearly remembers his relief when the tribunal decision allowed him to go there. Tom, who wears hearing aids, was taken out of his primary school three days a week for visits to a special centre for language problems. When he moved to secondary school, he was still working on basic vocabulary with a classroom assistant, and being bullied for being deaf, dyslexic and slow at games.
At Maple Hayes, he can take part on an equal basis and nobody mocks him. He finds the martial arts sessions enjoyable and helpful, giving him better balance and physical and emotional control.
As David says: "This is an art, not a sport, and it is not competitive. I tell them I'm not looking for the best person in the group; I'm looking to see if they're doing better than they did last week." The aim of the martial arts sessions is to boost the pupils' self-confidence, often shattered by an early school career of unmitigated failure.
Many children come to Maple Hayes, which has pupils aged seven to 17, not just with severe reading and writing problems, but with the poor physical co-ordination that often accompanies dyslexia (10 per cent of dyslexics also have dyspraxia). This has not been helped by frequent withdrawal from mainstream classes, often PE, for support with literacy problems. Some also have a history of poor behaviour stemming from frustration and a profound sense of social isolation.
This, says the headteacher, is the paradoxical result of the drive to "include" pupils with special needs. Being withdrawn from mainstream classes is one thing pupils do not have to face at Maple Hayes. "These children are not getting specialist tuition by withdrawal from a mainstream environment. They are getting a mainstream curriculum within a specialist environment."
That means a full range of subjects (except for modern languages, but Spanish can be taken on Saturday mornings), taught by 14 subject specialists, and plenty of sport: football, touch rugby, athletics and cross-country running, in the school's ample park. The children who come here may have reading and writing problems, but they are intelligent. "We take pupils showing a significant difference between their performance level and what their IQ indicates they ought to be able to do," says Daryl. The emphasis is on essay subjects, such as English and history, and on giving full sentence answers in others. And pupils do not choose options at the end of Year 9. That might encourage them to drop subjects in which they're perfectly capable of getting a good GCSE grade later.
The result, as admiring inspectors have pointed out, is that children who join the school at a level where they would be expected to leave with no qualifications gain a clutch of good GCSEs. All sit at least five and many take 10 or 11. And the fact that 60 per cent achieve five good grades compares well with the results of a normal secondary school.
At the heart of this are techniques for helping pupils to read and write that are unique. They do not use phonics or a multi-sensory approach. "These children have experienced years of failure trying that," says Daryl, "and there's no point in trying again." The Maple Hayes technique sorts words into morphemes (units of meaning). These are either spelt conventionally by a combination of letters, or represented by simple images called icons. A word containing "vis", for instance, will have something to do with seeing, so a vital chunk of the word can be represented by an image that looks like eyes.
Sense of achievement
The approach uses only one sense at a time, to block out distractions. Reading is visual rather than aural (early lessons are almost silent), while writing practice is by touch, using cursive script where the pen stays on the paper. To help pupils concentrate, they will be blindfolded at first.
These techniques were devised by Daryl's father, Neville, a former English teacher who set up the school 25 years ago and is its principal. While acting as head of department in his secondary school, he became fascinated by the problems some pupils had with language. He developed methods they used to help themselves into teaching techniques that he tried out and used as the basis for a doctorate in psychology. They have been used at Maple Hayes ever since.
Tom Knight, for one, is glad he did. "I was doing very basic work at my high school," he says. "They said my reading and spelling were improving but they were teaching me to read basic words such as "tap" and "dog" and "cat", using a big A4 picture of a cat. But I like to be given a bit of a challenge and I didn't feel they were helping me. Here, I didn't get the icon system straight away but now I understand it and can use the method. Today, I'm 20 pages into Northern Lights by Philip Pullman."
As for the new physical skills Tom is acquiring from martial arts, they could come in handy in his intended career in the police force. He already uses the right language. "If I can apprehend people, that will be useful," he says