As Chair of CReSTeD, and the Headteacher of a school with a long tradition of catering for pupils with specific learning difficulties (SpLD) in a mainstream environment, I am often asked for advice on choosing a school for a child with dyslexia. The first point I usually make is that the principles involved in selecting a school really should not be significantly different – if we are considering mainstream schools – whether a child is dyslexic or not. Choosing a school for any child is a potentially fraught exercise for a caring parent, and the vast majority of the most important factors to consider will be common for all parents.
There is no substitute for a personal visit to the school. In the independent sector, this should be a normal part of the admissions process. An open day event will usually be helpful; while such events are often criticised on the grounds that they are stage-managed by the school (and you should perhaps be worried if they are not), a perceptive parent should be able to see past the artifice and gain a feel for the ethos of the school. While a personal visit to a school in the maintained sector may be difficult to arrange in some cases, the open or information events should be useful in helping you gain an insight into the school.
When considering a school, look at its promotional materials. If they are smart and well-presented, that is all well and good, but look past the surface appearance; does the school make it clear that it celebrates individual achievement or does it boast about the number of A* grades its pupils achieve? Does the school make it clear that it has a vision of education that goes beyond the classroom, or does it simply make vague mention of an “after school” (one suspects this phrase almost always means “not taken seriously”) activity programme?
Word of mouth is, of course, very useful for parents, but only if the opinions are from parents with similar educational values to your own. If you value an education which concentrates on individual development, a recommendation from a parent on the grounds that a school achieves high results is not likely to be of much relevance.
Beyond league tables
Performance tables also have to be seen in the right context. Such tables do provide information and some of it is useful, though not necessarily in the obvious way. In the independent sector, if a school is doing a poor job for the majority of its pupils, it will close (and a good thing too). So far as independent schools are concerned, league tables tell us more about the selection policies of a school than anything else. Highly selective schools should score high marks in the performance tables, but this does not mean that they are adding any more value than less selective schools with more modest rankings; it is very unlikely to be the case that they focus more on individual pupils than the more averagely ranked schools.
The relationship between league table performance and maintained schools takes one into risky and controversial political waters. Undoubtedly, there are some poorly performing schools that are in that position because they are poor schools, but continue to operate because the healthy market disciplines that apply to independent schools do not apply in the maintained sector. However, there are plenty of apparently poorly performing schools doing an excellent job for their pupils.
Good schools with relatively low examination results may be judged unfairly negatively. Similarly, there are high-performing schools that are not pupil-focused and are coasting along because they have a good catchment.
In short, “objective data” should be treated with great care and a little suspicion. Indeed, to turn the situation on its head, the parents of a dyslexic child – and, indeed, the parents of any child who would like their son or daughter to be treated as an individual – should be wary of a high-performing school that places excessive emphasis on that high performance. As a parent you should not be interested in how many pupils achieved A* grades at GCSE and A level, or how many got into Oxford or Cambridge. Instead, your focus should be upon the school’s emphasis – or lack of it – on helping all its pupils to achieve their full potential, whatever that might be. Ideally, this desire for achievement should go well beyond the academic.
The specifically-focused provision that a school provides for dyslexic students will be an important consideration for parents, and there are some specific questions that can be asked of a school in this regard. Is it CReSTeD accredited? If not, why not? Ignorance, a desire not to have too many enquiries from dyslexics and an inability to meet the criteria are all possible answers.
Of these three possibilities, the final answer is potentially the least worrying. A school could be working towards CReSTeD criteria, and be heading in the right direction and therefore worthy of consideration; there is a CReSTeD category suitable for just about every type of school. The other two answers could suggest a lack of interest or, worse, an attitude towards dyslexic pupils that suggests that it is worth having a few for the money or the capitation but that too many might get in the way. I would not want my child to be in a school with such an attitude to human beings regardless of whether s/he was dyslexic.
It is important to remember, though, that while good dyslexia provision is a necessary foundation, it can never be the solution on its own to the challenges that dyslexic pupils face. Good specialist provision is hugely important, but what goes on in the maths, English and history classrooms, for example, is just as important and – unless it is a specialist school – it is this non-specialist environment in which dyslexic children spend most of their educational lives.
The importance of a school’s ethos cannot be over-stressed. Indeed, the emphasis that a school places on individual development and achievement, in all its forms, is important for any pupil, but for those with SEN it is absolutely vital.