The dyslexia ‘battle’ and middle-class mums? I think we need to look at the broader picture

with Alison Vaughan, teacher and SEND parent

Editorial note: Last week, The Guardian ran a long feature by Sirin Kale, called "The battle over dyslexia". An interesting read, especially as I wasn't aware there was any particular "battle" over something that seems to be a pretty well-established and widely-accepted diagnosis.

It discussed the history of the diagnosis and the controversial views of one particular Educational Psychologist. What especially caught my eye was another educational psychologist sticking the boot in to "middle-class parents" apparently, "sucking the life out of the SEN budget". I think she needs to sit down and read the SEND Code of Practice. And then, perhaps, retire, because her attitude clearly belongs back in the Jurassic period. No wonder she wanted to speak under a pseudonym.

My eye was also caught by a particularly insightful comment on social media about this from parent and teacher, Alison Vaughan, who has a dyslexic son. I'm not a dyslexia expert, so I was interested to hear another perspective and asked if she would expand on it for us in an opinion article, which she kindly has done. Alison is a teacher and adult literacy tutor. She obviously has a keen interest in SEND and is currently studying for an MSc in Psychology.

A Mother and Teacher’s response to Sirin Kale’s Article ‘The battle over dyslexia.’ by Alison Vaughan

As a primary teacher and a parent of a dyslexic son, I have read widely around the subject of dyslexia and use this knowledge in my day-to-day work. I've spent the last 20 years in the state system helping children move forward in their learning.

I felt Sirin Kale’s article lacks balance by portraying dyslexia as a class issue. While commending Kale’s desire for equal access to special needs provision, I believe she has mistakenly blamed SEND funding issues on those with the diagnoses of dyslexia. I want to broaden this debate by not only discussing the term dyslexia, but also examining the reasons why so many children with additional learning needs are still failed by our education system.

What do people mean by dyslexia?

Historically dyslexia was synonymous with reading problems. This definition has now broadened to reflect advances in research. Many parents, teachers and local education authorities have since adopted the definition formed by the Rose Review (2009).
The Rose Review states that:

“Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed. Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities. Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor co-ordination, mental calculation, concentration, and personal organisation, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia.”

The British Dyslexia Association has adopted the Rose Review’s definition, but also acknowledges that some individuals with dyslexia can experience difficulties processing what they can see and hear (2010).

Kale rightly highlights the limitations of the definition of dyslexia because it's an umbrella term, that on its own will not describe specific difficulties. Its helpfulness as a definition will often depend on how it is used.

Practically, as a teacher, I view dyslexia as a continuum where learners may experience mild, moderate, or severe effects. Many dyslexic learners have found the definition a helpful short-hand when explaining their difficulties to others. Saying “I’m dyslexic,” is an awful lot easier than saying “I have visual and auditory processing difficulties, combined with challenges when I read, spell and concentrate.”

Alison Vaughan

A broader perspective

Within academic circles, the acceptance or rejection of the definition will largely depend on your field of study and your purpose. While Kale outlined the varying outlooks from within the Educational Psychology (EP) community, a broader perspective can be gained from the wider psychological profession.

Dr Michael Thomson observed in the BPS journal ‘The Psychologist,’ that clinical and occupational psychologists are much happier to accept dyslexia as a learning difficulty than educational psychologists. This view is explained further by Rod Nicolson who is Professor of Psychology at the University of Sheffield:

“There remains a divide between Educational and Academic Psychologists. Educational psychologists highlight issues such as cost and equity, whereas Academic Psychologists investigate the underlying causes of the differences in brain function.”

Rod Nicolson, Dyslexia: Beyond the myth

I wonder if EPs would have the same difficulties with the term dyslexia if our education system was well-funded and there was more than adequate provision for all our SEND children?

Is dyslexia a middle-class construct?

Kale’s article reported on the work of Professor Julian Elliott who believes dyslexia is a middle-class construct. Global studies in the field of neuroscience challenge this. Brain scans demonstrate that there are physiological differences between the brains of dyslexics and those from the ‘typical’ population (Yu et al., 2018 & Stein, 2018).

John Stein, Emeritus Professor in Neuroscience, Oxford, has published many papers on the visual difficulties experienced by dyslexics where the words move, blur or tracking proves difficult, due to impaired magnocellular neuronal development.

Yu et al. from Harvard, says that dyslexia is passed down in families and has been associated with neural alterations in regions of the left hemisphere in the brain. Interestingly, they have observed cognitive and neural atypicalities in young children with a hereditary risk of dyslexia, even before they had begun to learn to read. I hope that as brain imaging advances, the fields of neuroscience and psychology can work together to build our knowledge on dyslexia and other SEND issues.

Character assassinations and maths

Kale’s reporting of the interviewee who claimed entitled parents were somehow draining the education system, was deliberately misleading. It did not adequately address the very real problems within our current SEND provision. Kale carefully built up an imaginative picture of affluent, Range-Rover driving mothers in sparkly cocktail dresses, demanding to have their child's school fees and pony lessons paid for them.

The article deliberately used headline-grabbing figures to extenuate this point. Apparently, £80,000 fees were not uncommon and £900,000 was spent on just 53 children! If you divide £900,000 between 53 children, you come to a figure just under £17,000 per child. This is roughly the same amount of funding a child would receive if they had a full EHCP in a mainstream state environment. So before we let Kale parent-bash ‘sharp-elbowed’ mothers any further, we need to examine our current SEND system.

The SEND system has failed our children

Sadly, five years on from the introduction of the Children and Families Act of 2014, our children with additional needs are still being failed. Head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, highlighted in her 2017/18 report that nearly half of all local authority SEND provision required improvement. She observed that although:

“...frontline workers are clearly dedicated and professional, progress is often slow and inconsistent…. As a result, the gap in outcomes for children with SEND continues to widen. Identification of SEND is weak and those who do not quite meet the threshold for an EHC plan have poor outcomes. Understandably, this leads to many parents feeling that to do the best for their children, they need to go to extreme lengths to secure an EHC plan.”

Educational psychologists work within this challenging system. Although LAs fund statutory work, in recent years their funding model has changed making them more reliant on schools. EP, Dr Will Shield (2017) explained the challenges in his role in ‘The Psychologist,’ saying, “Schools can buy in these other services, but the pot of money is shrinking and schools have other priorities”.

With this in mind, the actions of the parents in Kale’s article seems justifiable. Not all schools have the money to pay for accurate assessments. When speaking to a friend about her child’s SEN needs, it was telling that her daughter’s headteacher encouraged her to pay for an independent assessment because waiting times for an EP appointment were very long. It is my experience that parents don’t want to have to pay for these services, but know they are necessary for their child’s needs to be properly identified. This is the case for all SEN needs and not just those with possible dyslexia.

Why do parents of SEND children choose specialist independent schools?

Kale’s article raises another important question: Why do so many parents feel they need to move their child out of mainstream education? As a teacher, I am not alone in thinking that our current national curriculum and educational climate does not enable success for all our learners.

When I began my teaching career 20 years ago, the primary curriculum was lighter in content and a lot easier. Less able learners had more time to revisit skills and through overlearning, cement their understanding. I do not have rose-tinted glasses and don't want to turn our curriculum back for all our learners. I'm amazed how much progress most children make.

What appears to be lacking in the system is the flexibility to adapt the curriculum to the learner's needs and pace. There has been a marketing drive with terms such as ‘age-related’ expectations and phrases such as ‘catch up, keep–up’ that imply all children should be able to retain knowledge at the same pace. This has been to the great detriment of those with additional learning needs.

Ofsted has recognised this. In a telling report in January 2019, Sean Harford, HMI National Director of Education recognised that the school culture of defending results and managing outcomes has had “the greatest negative effect on the pupils we should care about most: the most disadvantaged – the poor and those with special educational needs and the least able.”

Private specialist SEN schools' main advantage is their freedom and confidence to design a curriculum appropriate for their learners, so they can focus on the foundational skills needed for later success. When this happens, learning is transformative and children flourish.

A way forward

The private system does not offer magic; many of its interventions could be done in state schools. The most important ingredient for success is flexibility to the learner's needs. Hopefully, Ofsted’s change in focus away from "pupil outcomes" (exam results) to the "quality of education" will give teachers the freedom they need to do this.

I hope when I next read an article on SEND issues in the Guardian it will fully address the root causes of the issues (underfunding and inflexibility within the state education system), rather than vilifying parents who are trying to do the best for their children.

Alison Vaughan


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