Technology opens dyslexia's secret garden

10th October 2003 at 01:00
A south London school which has twice topped the most-improved list is letting others in on its success. Martin Whittaker reports

Name Harris city technology college, Croydon, south London

School type 11-19 city technology college

Proportion of children entitled to free school meals 18 per cent

Improved results In past three years up from 90 to 92 per cent of pupils achieving five C grade or better GCSEs

At Harris city technology college staff are just recovering from hosting an open evening, an event so crowded it had to be co-ordinated with military precision.

This successful college has a huge catchment area covering five London boroughs with 72 feeder primaries. Competition to get in is intense - there are seven applicants for every place.

Harris was one of the first city technology colleges, funded through industry sponsorship and government grants, when it opened in Croydon 13 years ago, rising from the ashes of failed Sylvan high school.

Since then it has been feted in national newspapers for its academic achievements. It topped the league tables of improved schools in 1997 and again in 2001. This summer 92.3 per cent gained five or more A* to Cs at GCSE.

But one aspect of the school that is less trumpeted is its cutting-edge work with dyslexic children. Today its motto "all can achieve" reflects its drive to include children across a range of abilities. Around 5 per cent of its 1,100 students are dyslexic.

The school's founder and sponsor Tory peer Lord Harris of Peckham, is dyslexic and insisted that the specialism was written into its mission statement.

Its approach is to give dyslexic children mainstream schooling, but with additional computer-based support and training for teachers. "This is not rocket- science," says principal Carol Bates. "We just do it Harris-style."

The support process begins when parents first apply to the school. Students sit non-verbal reasoning and aptitude tests to win a place, and those with dyslexia take their tests in a separate room where questions are read out.

Parents of new children are invited in before the start of the autumn term so that the college has as much information as possible about the student.

All staff have access to the special needs register on the college's computer network.

Each subject area has an exceptional educational needs link teacher, and they meet every half term to monitor progress and highlight students who may be having difficulties.

Meanwhile, all teachers new to the school are trained by Debbie Hart, the college's special educational needs co-ordinator. She is a member of the Dyslexia Institute Guild and the British Dyslexia Association.

"It's to ensure that not only do they understand how this operates within the college, but also that they have a really good understanding of dyslexia and how they can support children with dyslexia in the classroom."

The college is bristling with new technology, including interactive whiteboards and personal computers in practically every room.

In one classroom an AS-level psychology group is having a distance-learning lesson. Their tutor is a face and voice on a video screen at one end of the room.

"Children are coming in with very good ICT skills," says Carol Bates. "We hone those skills and the use of technology really does underpin our teaching and learning. And it's particularly useful to dyslexic children."

The college has a dyslexia centre kitted out with multimedia PCs running specialist software. Dyslexic students have major problems with organising and sequencing ideas. One program called Inspiration helps them to organise their thinking using audio-visual flow diagrams.

The atmosphere in the centre is informal and Ms Hart operates an open-door policy - students can come in at any time before or after school and at lunchtimes and work with her support.

Most dyslexic students in Years 7 to 9 have a timetabled session there once a week, while Years 10 and 11 are supported more frequently through coursework.

Harris can measure its success with results - each year its dyslexic students gain between 70 and 80 per cent five or more top passes.

Carol Bates also believes its approach is good professional development for its teachers.

"Everyone's empowered," she says. "So when they go on to other schools they are going to spread the good practice."

Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools Trust and a governor at Harris, said the governors call in outside bodies such as the Dyslexia Institute when necessary.

"I think it's one of those success stories where support from the sponsor and the governors has helped the school develop this particular expertise.

They are now training teachers and other schools how to support dyslexic children.

"It's absolutely typical of this country that a school like this goes and develops real cutting-edge approaches, which all schools could benefit from.

"But nobody writes it up and it's a secret garden. Nobody ever mentions that they have 54 dyslexic children."

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