My struggle to secure an education for my daughter in which her dyslexia is no barrier
On the 6 December 2013, after a school assembly about Nelson Mandela and how he had made a change in South Africa, my 11-year-old dyslexic daughter Olivia came in to the kitchen and asked me and my wife who the head of education in England was. “Michael Gove” we replied.
“Oh, OK”, she said and took herself off into the lounge. About an hour later, she returned with a two-page hand-written letter to Mr Gove. In it, she told him about her struggles with dyslexia, the bullying she endured at state school and how she wanted better help for dyslexic children, better trained teachers and more specialist dyslexic schools.
Olivia is a bright girl who has always had a great vocabulary but she was bullied right from Year One because she was different and quirky. In fact, she was bullied so badly that her hair started to fall out and she developed alopecia and, on top of that, she was becoming increasingly stressed by the fact that she couldn’t grasp phonics, was unable to read and felt stupid amongst her peers.
It was our first experience of how state schools can do so much but, for our circumstances, not enough. The school dealt with the bullying to a degree but it was down to my wife and me to confront the parents of her bullies. In the end, we moved house and Olivia moved school, this time to a small state school with one form entry, a class of 27. It was here within about six weeks that her dynamic form teacher told us that she might be dyslexic.
Now this was something my wife had also suspected for a while. Reading and doing homework were huge sources of stress and frustration for Olivia. Even with picture books she was unable to grasp the meaning, either from the words or the pictures. She just didn’t get it. Later that year and at the age of six and a half, Olivia was seen by an educational psychologist and diagnosed as dyslexic.
This was the start of our journey as parents to better understand dyslexia so that we could do all we could to help Olivia at home and at school.
Outside the mainstream
Whilst her school was understanding, little provision was made for her new diagnosis and she not only continued to fall behind in maths and reading but her self-esteem and confidence were also becoming extremely low. She was bullied and picked on at this school too, again because she was quirky and different and chatty and because her peers didn’t always get her.
Again the school was relatively understanding but the teachers there had no great experience of dyslexia. It was here too that a teacher dropped the bombshell that I will never forget: “We only get a few days training in dyslexia”. I was shocked. How can these teachers help Olivia with so little training or understanding of dyslexia?
In year four we had an opportunity of financial help to see if we could get Olivia into a specialist independent dyslexic school (Moon Hall School) near to our home. After a couple of trial days and an assessment, my wife and I found ourselves sitting in the Head’s office to be told she could attend and that they had a place for her. Looking back, the emotion of that day still gets to me. She would now be in a place with specially trained teachers and like-minded children with similar difficulties. Here she wouldn’t feel stupid, worthless and rubbish at school. Here, finally she would flourish.
At age nine Olivia had the reading level of a six-year-old. By the end of that first term it had risen to that of a ten-year-old and by the time she left last July it was at the level of a 14-year-old. What’s more, her self-esteem and confidence had grown and she felt happy, comfortable and safe amongst her peers. The trouble was that senior school was looming and although we wanted her to go into Year Seven at her current school, this was not an option for us financially. We even considered selling our home but it was Olivia who talked us out of this. In the end, we had to enrol her in our local state comprehensive, hoping that her time at special school had given her the grounding needed to help her survive. We knew in our heart of hearts that this was not the number one choice but we agreed we would give it one year and, if it was not working, we would try something else.
Within three weeks all the great work that her previous school had done began to unravel. She felt stupid in class and couldn’t understand what was being taught and started to shut down again, feigning illness so that she didn’t have to go to school. The SENCO again was helpful and encouraging but he had a school of 1500 pupils to cover. If you accept the estimate that ten per cent of the population has dyslexia, then that means he had 150 young people to support with dyslexia alone. Clearly, in a school this size one SENCO isn’t enough. With Olivia having meltdowns each night, we agreed to take her out of school.
My wife, having been inspired to learn about dyslexia so that she could help Olivia, embarked on two years of dyslexia teacher training and qualified as a Level 3 and 5 specialist teacher in dyslexia last summer. This meant that we could home school Olivia – something akin to a parent teaching a 17-year-old to drive, which is not easy by any means.
Before last October’s half term, my wife approached the Principal of the specialist school, in our eyes the only place Olivia would be settled and be able to learn and achieve. Thanks to my wife’s new qualifications, the Principal was able to offer her a full-time teaching assistant’s post, something that would help us find the school fees so, after the half term, both mother and daughter started school there.
As I write this today, Olivia is flourishing at the school and her mum is in a job for which she has a great passion. Serendipity, I would say.
In January of this year Michael Gove wrote back to Olivia, sympathetic towards her struggles and suffering at state school. Part of his reply said, “Your experiences show very clearly why it is so vital that dyslexic students receive the support they need”.
As a result of the publicity surrounding Olivia’s letter, she was invited to become a Young Ambassador for the British Dyslexia Association and she is committed to campaigning for better help for dyslexic children in state school. She is also pushing for an individual child’s state education budget allocation to be able to be transferred to a specialist dyslexic school to help parents pay for the fees. At least this gives them the opportunity for more dyslexics to get the help they so desperately need and that the state system just cannot give them. This could in turn increase the possibility for more specialist dyslexic schools to be set up in the UK.
These are ambitious goals for an 11-year-old dyslexic child but when you’ve been through what Olivia has been though, you learn that you have to stand up and be counted. As Olivia said at the end of her letter on behalf of all dyslexic children to the then Education Secretary, “take people like me in to serious consideration.”
Parent Tim Loder’s story has been supplied by education publishers Crown House Publishing Limited:
Editor’s note: This article was published in the July/August 2014 issue of SEN Magazine, before Michael Gove was succeeded as Education Secretary by Nicky Morgan.