What's it like being a dyslexic principal?

'I don’t take notes in meetings because I can’t': City Lit's Mark Malcomson says he learned to cover up his dyslexia

What's it like to be a college principal with dyslexia?

I’m one of the adults of a certain generation who didn’t get assessed for dyslexia when they were a child. I often joke that it hadn’t been invented when I was a kid – which, of course, is nonsense.  

All I knew was that certain things didn’t work for me. The first was reading aloud. Somehow what my eyes saw would never reach my mouth in the proper order or make sense. Learning things by heart didn’t work either; things just got mixed up in my head.  Spelling and punctuation were both a car crash, as was taking notes in real time. In an old-fashioned school, where conformity was paramount, trying to mask and hide these deficiencies was essential to avoid embarrassment and humiliation.


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However, mostly, I was academically successful. I got good O and A levels. I studied law at the University of Edinburgh before completing a postgraduate legal practice diploma at Strathclyde and then, in my 30s, I gained a master's in international relations from Kent.

In my late twenties, I mentioned to my parents that I thought I was dyslexic, and my mother, with no sense of irony, said: “Don’t be so stupid, you are clever!” My Dad, on the other hand, wondered whether the fact that he couldn’t read properly until he was 12 years old meant we had something in common.

By most measures, I have done well and I am hugely proud of being the principal of City Lit, one of Britain’s great colleges. It is only since coming to City Lit that I have really come to terms with my dyslexia, reappraised my own life and realised the effect it has on others. 

Coming to terms with dyslexia

You only can ever live in your own head – you don’t know what is normal for others. All I know is that those things described above seem harder for me than they do for others. There were upsides. I became a good public speaker to avoid having to read aloud. I don’t use notes when I speak, because in my world they are an instrument of torture designed to trap me into saying something stupid. I don’t take notes in meetings because I can’t, but I have a damn good memory to compensate. I am pretty sure that I think differently to others and that means I look at problems in a different way and solve them in a different way. You develop other "muscles" to cover up your weaknesses.

I am so lucky. I got through and did well, not despite any of these limitations but maybe because of them. 

However, so many dyslexics of my generation didn’t navigate through education successfully.  Our education system failed them and, as a consequence, failed society as a whole. We see so many adults at City Lit come back to us to get an English qualification in later life so they can reach the next stage of employment.  They are often embarrassed by their previous failures, not knowing if it was the system that failed and not them. 

So many people continue to perpetuate these historic injustices, mostly not realising it. It makes my blood boil when I hear “I didn’t shortlist X as they made a spelling mistake on their cover letter”, “It is much fairer to fill in an online form than give in a CV” or “People who make spelling mistakes are lazy – after, all there’s spellcheck nowadays.”  All of these wrongheaded preconceptions make the lives of dyslexics so much harder to get jobs or promotions. 

Writing this piece will have taken me at least twice as long as it would a person without dyslexia.  I will reread it many, many times over and still I will miss mistakes. I will have a couple of colleagues check it as a favour. I will send it off to Tes and they will check it. 

Despite all that, the moment it gets published online, I will click on the link with my heart in my mouth, looking for the mistake that will make everyone think I’m stupid. Some things don’t change easily because of years of hard-wiring.  But a bit more tolerance in society as a whole, especially in education, could make things a bit better.

Mark Malcomson is the principal of City Lit and chair of the Institutes for Adult Learning

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