Last summer I had an accident which put my right hand out of action for three months. It was the beginning of a tough lesson on coming to grips with a right-handed world. Activities previously taken for granted, from using a knife to flushing the loo, proved problematic for a new left-hander. Everything needed thought. In between cursing my fate and clearing up the mess made by trying to operate left-handedly, I wondered how true left-handers manage.
Their growing number was the first surprise. From 6 per cent of the population in 1964, the figure has risen to somewhere near 15 per cent today. The DfEE keeps no figures, but surveys in primary schools around the country for the Left-Handers Club, a campaign group run by the Anything Left-Handed shops, show that in the average class of 30 there will be five left-handers.
The most likely explanation for the rise is that left-handers are no longer regarded, as they were even 40 years ago, as contemptible and of bad character ("gauche" and "sinister") and forced to write with their right hand. Today, at least, they are allowed to use their left hands - but are rarely taught the best way of doing it. It is too often assumed they will adapt the methods shown to right-handers - and somehow just cope. There is no formal requirement that teacher training should cover how to teach left-handers, and the majority of teachers are supposed to recognise the difficulties and deal with them alone.
Mark Stewart, who runs the Worcester outlet for the Anything Left-handed shops, also runs courses in schools for teachers and parents. At Honeywell Primary in Wandsworth, south London, he encouraged an audience to join in exercises to establish the degree of their own orientation. Nearly 100 adults folded their arms in front of them to establish which arm they naturally folded on top of the other, squinted through imaginary telescopes to see which eye they used and hopped up and down to see which leg they favoured.
Many basic creative skills are made harder for left-handers by the wrong equipment. At Honeywell this was brought home by asking people to cut out a spiral with the wrong hand with a pair of wrong-sided scissors. Right-handed Trevor Campbell, parent of left-handed Chester, struggled:
"The blades on right-sided scissors are set the wrong way so you simply can't follow the spiral and see what you are doing. I can appreciate what my Year 5 son has had to cope with."
After 30 years in teaching and advising on early years, Chris Page was horrified when she attended a course by Mark Stewart. "Theory is so different from hands-on experience. I found that all these years I had been setting up children to fail. If you set them impossible tasks as they are acquiring skills, all they learn is a lowering of self-esteem. It was a real eye-opener. It pulled me up short and I've changed my practice and the advice I give to others."
Alison Robins, a SENCO at Cherry Orchard School in Worcester, says: "In my experience many left-handers suffer low self-esteem. Their writing and behaviour is categorised as messy, clumsy and slow. It's easy to provide basic, very simple, low-cost strategies to help left-handers; what is not easy is to help a child regain self-esteem."
Max Metzger, an eight-year-old from Honeywell, says being left-handed is like "being an alien. You're a different creature. When I was very young I wished I wasn't left-handed." His mother, Suzanne, says Max is good at telling stories but cannot get them down on paper easily, and his homework always takes him longer than it does his right-handed twin, Harry. "Unlearning how to write incorrectly - when you have struggled to learn it in the first place - is very difficult. The analogy I make for him is that it's like living in a Victorian terrace. The neighbouring house is a mirror image. If you go next-door it always feels strange. It's like yours but it's not - everything is different. It's very profound. You are always building on confusion."
A survey by Rhona Stainthorp, senior lecturer in child development and learning at the Institute of Education, shows that many teachers and parents have no idea that what they assume is clumsiness or bolshiness is based on practical difficulties that can be easily overcome. She suggests that, when teaching writing, modelling should take account of left-handers' needs. It helps if teachers demonstrate air writing to left-handers facing the board, by using their left hands and looking over their left shoulders at the children.
Left-handers tend to develop three main problems which can easily be overcome if the guidelines (see box, page 6) are followed. To avoid covering their writing, left-handers often develop a hook style, writing over the top. It frequently causes back pain and makes the writing clumsy and slow. Many left-handers smudge their work as their hand pushes along the line after the pen. And because they often grip too hard, letters are poorly formed and writing becomes tiring.
All these factors limit a child's potential, making it harder to do as much or as tidy work as his or her friends. This can prove especially difficult in exams unless extra time is applied for.
Even turning the pages of a book is different. Eileen Baker, principal of Bishop Grosseteste Training College in Lincoln, recommends teachers sit with left-handers and turn the pages with their left hands. "In the early stages children physically model themselves on what adults do and the physical sequence of reading a book can be very awkward."
In practical subjects there are difficulties teachers may not be aware of, for example left-handers stir anti-clockwise and find it difficult to pour from a right-lipped pan.
One of the most common difficulties is in using computers. Left-handers shouldn't have to stretch across the screen to use a mouse. They can manage without expensive changes if a machine is set up with a mat and mouse on the left - although a left-handed keyboard is helpful for those needing to input numbers on a large scale.
In design and technology, left-handers can improve markedly when given handtools designed for them, even with something as basic as a left-handed ruler.
In music, being right-handed is not a particular advantage and pieces that require dexterity in the left hand can give left-handers a morale boost. Concert pianist Christopher Seed says left-handers do find it more difficult to play the piano as most of the tunes are for the right hand. He commissioned a special left-handed piano. That is not an option for schools, but at pound;90 a keyboard mirror or electronic module for the electric keyboard may be.
Mark Stewart of Anything Left-Handed has launched a new video pack which should prove helpful to teachers - his wife is a teacher and their son is left-handed. Anthea Millet, chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency, recently funded its distribution to all providers of initial teacher training. She says: "I suspect that the implications of left-handedness and the potential problems are not fully understood, nor indeed do we know the scale of the problem. One of the reasons for promoting the video pack is to raise the profile of the issue in colleges and in schools."
Eileen Baker has already used it with students at Bishop Grosseteste: "They found it very clear and helpful. The strategies were not all obvious, but the students found it easy to take away good, solid, practical ideas."
Classroom teachers also find the video pack useful. At Red Hill Primary, Worcester, where the video was made, headteacher Richard Buttle intends to use it as the basis for in-service training in the coming term after a school survey revealed that up to eight children in each class of 30 were left-handed. "We need to provide equality of opportunity for all our pupils to achieve their best and that means providing the proper strategies and correct materials.
"Unlike most initiatives this one is very cheap in terms of effort, time and resources. It requires almost no extra funding. We will watch the video, discuss it and probably follow the very simple guidelines."
As for me, my hand is now fully recovered - but never again will I be so offhand about being in the right.
The video pack is available from the Left-Handers Club, 20a New Street Worcester WR1 2DP at pound;13.95, p amp; p pound;2.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: lefthand-education.co.uk