When the `forgotten children' grow up

5th June 2015 at 01:00
Undiagnosed and unsupported learning difficulties can mar students' time in school. But adult education offers new hope

A few weeks ago, I met an interesting and intelligent 52-year-old man. His topics of conversation ranged from politics and world affairs to cricket and antique maps. Much of his information came from the BBC World Service, which he listened to at every opportunity. I was assessing him to see whether he had dyslexia, but I found myself skipping over a number of the reading and writing exercises because it turned out he was completely illiterate.

He wasn't the first person I'd met who struggled with literacy but he was the most severely affected. I teach English to adults and see a lot of people with reading and writing skills comparable to those of young children. In fact, many come to us because they can no longer keep up with their own children's abilities. Often they fell behind at school because of an undiagnosed learning difficulty or missed out on a consistent education.

So I was interested to read about a new report that says tens of thousands of children with special educational needs are being "forgotten" in school (bit.lyInclusionStudy). Struggling with conditions such as dyslexia and autism, they fail to cope in mainstream education because teachers lack the expertise and training to support them.

Two University of Cambridge professors, John MacBeath and Maurice Galton, visited 19 schools attended by more than 2,000 children. They found that some pupils with complex needs were dismissed as "lacking a work ethic" by teachers because they did badly in tests and had difficulty following lessons. One mother was told that her SEN child was afflicted with "lazyitis" and another that dyslexia was "just a fancy label".

A percentage of these "forgotten" children return to education as adults and that's when I meet them. So many of the adults I teach recall school experiences that mirror what MacBeath and Galton describe.

Regardless of how long it was since they last set foot in a classroom, most can remember negative experiences from their schooldays. And this can affect their confidence and self-esteem for the rest of their lives. Many have spent decades feeling like failures, even if they've built a wonderful family and achieved success in their work. When I ask why they didn't receive the help they needed or why their attendance was sporadic, almost all say they slipped through the net.

Complex needs unmet

There are multiple reasons why people struggle with reading and writing, yet as far as I know it's rarely to do with them having "lazyitis" or "lacking a work ethic". The adults I teach juggle study with family responsibilities and full-time jobs and are the hardest-working people I've met.

In my experience, their difficulties most commonly result from undiagnosed or untreated dyslexia, autism or other conditions. One woman told me she could barely see as a child, which had a profound impact on her learning. Problems with her sight were picked up on and rectified only in adulthood.

It seems hard to believe that these needs can go unnoticed but many of my students tell me they became masters of concealment. If they were asked to do work they found difficult or to sit an exam, they all used the same tactic - disruption. This tallies with MacBeath and Galton's findings. The professors encountered pupils who cried uncontrollably or become angry and caused a scene when asked to take a test.

One of my learners in his late forties, whose dyslexia has only recently been diagnosed, told me that whenever he was asked to read out loud he would throw a chair across the room in order to get removed from the lesson.

Some of my students hated school so much they played truant to the point of being expelled. A few never settled back into education for one reason or another. Some were moved to special schools, but often for a short period. One man told me that his SEN teacher died. No one else was trained to teach him so he was moved back to mainstream classes.

Some missed out on school because they grew up in care, with ever-changing addresses and temporary guardians. One 32-year-old never went to senior school. She was moved from children's home to children's home in different cities and no one person took charge of her education. Another woman refused to speak as a child, for reasons that she doesn't fully understand. With no specialist help, she lived in silence and her school simply gave up on her.

Adults usually return to the classroom because they realise they can't cope any more. The illiterate man above had worked as a chef for decades but left when the paperwork increased. His partner of 25 years handled all his admin needs, but when the relationship broke down he realised he couldn't function in society and decided to do something about it.

MacBeath and Galton argue that children with SEN are being let down by being taught in mainstream schools. They say it's a cost-cutting exercise to the detriment of the child and want the government to provide more specialist help. As a teacher I know that without the right training, support and resources, no member of staff can be expected to give a child with complex needs the assistance they need.

If these "forgotten children" aren't given a safety net, some will resume their learning as adults. No matter how old they are, they'll remember being told they have "lazyitis" or "lack a work ethic" and it will be up to teachers in adult education to build their confidence and help them move on.

Kate Bohdanowicz teaches adults in East London


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