Every year, SATs results and other national testing shows that too many children and young people are not meeting expected levels in literacy, with 1 in 5 children leaving primary school below the national expected levels in reading, writing and mathematics.
If you cannot learn to read, you cannot read to learn, and too many children are unable to access the curriculum due to poor reading skills. It is these children who then become disengaged and leave school with few, or no qualifications, resulting in significantly reduced opportunities.
Dyslexia is one reason why a child might struggle at school, but it is much more than just a difficulty with reading. Often described as a hidden disability, dyslexia can have a huge impact on future success and fulfilment. After conducting research, it is clear that this needn’t be the case, and that dyslexia should not be a barrier to education or opportunity.
With grammar schools and SATs in the firing line this week, I wanted to research into how this would impact pupils with dyslexia.
I have noticed the palpable rise in tension amongst various academics, and their concerns for their pupils with dyslexia.
I took to Twitter to start my research and was overwhelmed at the response and interest, showing the pertinence of the issue. After conducting a variety of interviews, I found some alarming revelations.
It became apparent that one major roadblock for pupils with dyslexia is the SATs they’re required to take in Year 6. Low scores on these tests may not accurately reflect a dyslexic pupil’s ability. Debbie Abraham, a specialist dyslexia tutor, said: “Primary schools main focus is on SATs, throughout Year 6 it is drilled into pupils the importance of these tests. It can leave many pupils with dyslexia feeling overwhelmed, and as a result can suffer from stress and anxiety.”
The government’s grammar, punctuation and spelling tests for primary school children have been criticised as stifling creativity and, therefore, discriminating against pupils with dyslexia.
Elizabeth Turner, an English teacher in a North-West primary school, said: “I have children in my class who have English as a second language, and some who are also slightly dyslexic. They all write beautifully, and have a fantastic use of personification and metaphor – but because their spelling is weak they will probably go through secondary school as children who have not met the expected standard.”
General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, Russell Hobby, who reportedly collaborated with previous Education Secretary Nicky Morgan last year to explore solutions to primary assessment issues, said: “We have significant concerns about the treatment of children with dyslexia: we are worried that there is a risk of discrimination. Schools are prevented from properly recognising the successes of dyslexia students in the way they can with other students.”
However, the SATs have not been met with unanimous opposition, as Kamilah Hale, Dyslexia Tutor and Founder of Kin Learning, said: “I like the format mostly because the maths now separates out arithmetic and reasoning. The new format means that dyslexic pupils can do well just by mastering the core maths calculations.
“The marking system is such that pupils can pass by getting very few marks in the reasoning. It’s actually been a nice confidence boost for the dyslexic pupils as they now have an opportunity to show what they do know.”
Unfortunately, many children with dyslexia go through their academic life with their condition undetected. Evidence shows that certain parts of the SATs discriminate against pupils with dyslexia; this, teamed with late-stage detection, can produce poor results.
Speaking to Kira Coley, a freelance science writer, it was evident how this affected her at school. Falling behind in her work, Ms Coley felt she was less academically-able than her peers, which resulted in her deciding to not do her A-levels: “I was good at some things in school. Sometimes I would be in the top set for maths, but then the topic would change, and I would get put back down a set. It was very confusing, and eventually I just stopped trying in school.” Kira explained that her lack of support at school made her believe she wasn’t clever.
It became apparent from this research, that a major factor in academic achievement and wellbeing was the early detection of dyslexia.
Ms Abraham said: “Detecting children too late is an issue. Children feel demoralised, and the damage is already done.”
Ms Coley discovered she had dyslexia whilst doing a foundation course at university. Although having spent her life feeling university wasn’t in her remit – perseverance and dedication took her there.
“I got tested and found out I was severely dyslexic. University took me five years. I struggled the first few years, but eventually I realised how to cope with my dyslexia. I began using mind-maps, colour overlays and computer tools in my final year and ended up scoring a first in my coursework,” she said.
Experiencing school feeling intellectually inferior to everyone else can demoralise even the strongest. The wellbeing of pupils with dyslexia, especially around exam time, can become a destructive circle.
Ms Abraham believes the late detection of dyslexia in pupils can result in a detachment from education, pushing those pupils further down the metaphoric ladder: “This is not a good learning environment for pupils to be in. When they are stressed and disengaged, are they really able to take on new skills? Probably not.”
I was shocked to find out that the NHS does not cover the assessment of pupils with dyslexia. With the average cost of an assessment amounting to between £300 and £500 it can be of no surprise that some children can go through their entire academic life bearing the brunt of being undiagnosed.
Everywhere you look there is information and evidence highlighting the importance of early identification. Dyslexia is much more than just a term or a label; it provides an understanding of why a child or adult has specific difficulties.
The various economic arguments say that every child should be given the same opportunities to be all they can; every child should be able to realise their strengths and abilities and not have these overshadowed by poor reading ability. A child who is unable to acquire the skills necessary to be an accurate and fluent reader is at a serious disadvantage and will be unable to access the curriculum of any subject at school.
This is where the grammar school debate comes into fruition. Without appropriate detection measures in place, and a lack of resources in school, how can we ensure selective education wont leave pupils with dyslexia behind?
The aforementioned cost of assessment teamed with proposed selective education will surely create a divide between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, whose parents can’t afford these crucial tests or private tuition, in comparison to their wealthier counterparts – which could hark back to the days of a 1950s binary system.
Mr Hale believes that “for less academic children, the grammar schools may have the benefit of taking the academically-inclined pupils out of the comprehensive schools, leaving room for less academic pupils to focus on creative or physical subjects, in which they may flourish.
“It will also make it easier for teachers to go at a slightly slower pace that better suits those with learning difficulties.”
Whilst I agree with Mr Hale to an extent, the critic in me can’t help but notice the flaws in the argument. As mentioned previously, many pupils go through their academic career ignorant to the fact that they could have dyslexia; therefore, they believe they are less academically able compared to their counterparts.
As we have seen with Ms Coley, she was no less able than any of her peers; once she realised she had dyslexia she was able to adjust the way in which she studied to accommodate her “disability”.
Surely branding pupils as “less academic” will add fuel to the self-perpetuating fire that they are not intelligent, and career paths such as university are not on offer to them. Instead of creaming off the elite, more focus should be on screening pupils who could have dyslexia, and ensuring they have the resources and support to allow them the same opportunities as others their age.
Ms Abraham believes that more funding and resources should be driven into creating a dyslexia screening programme rather than the expansion of grammar schools, which will give pupils the “intervention they need to help them succeed”. The screening would ensure dyslexia is detected in pupils at a young age, so the necessary foundations can be established, encouraging diagnosed pupils to excel in academia.
It begs the question, with selective education and our current “over-tested” education system, is the DfE bypassing the fundamentals?
We contacted the DfE on the matter and are still awaiting a comment.
Debbie Abraham is a Specialist Dyslexia Tutor, and she works with pupils of all ages who are struggling with maths and English language. Her aim is to help all pupils maximise their grades and achieve their goals. Visit her website for more information.
Kira Coley is a Freelance Science Writer and Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth. She is very keen to create case studies and assist pupils with dyslexia. Visit her website for more information.
Debbie Abraham (2016) (Telephone interview regarding pupils with dyslexia) [Personal communication: 23 September 2016]
Elizabeth Turner (2016) (Face-to-face interview regarding her experience as a teacher in primary school) [Personal communication: 24 September 2016]
Kamilah Hale (2016) (Telephone interview regarding pupils with dyslexia) [Personal communication: 26 September 2016]
Kira Coley (2016) (Telephone interview regarding her experience of education) [Personal communication: 26 September 2016]
 Dyslexia Action (2016) ‘Facts and figures about dyslexia’, para.1 <http://www.dyslexiaaction.org.uk/page/facts-and-figures-about-dyslexia-0> [Accessed: 26 September 2016]
 Matthew Weaver (2016) ‘New primary school tests discriminate against dyslexia pupils, say teachers’, para.4 <https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/mar/11/primary-school-spelling-tests-dyslexic-pupils-teachers> [Accessed: 27 September 2016]