Tony made it, but what about the rest?

Article published in TES Magazine on 22 April, 2005

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Tony is a tall, well-built young man in his early 20s with a pleasant smile and a sunny disposition. He works with his father as a painter and decorator and appears to be doing very well. He’s courting, as they say in these parts and has just bought his first house. I know him because I taught him to read. He came to me a couple of years ago and it was obvious that he was severely dyslexic.

At the time he had a reading age of 7 years and 6 months but, encouraged by his father who gave him time off work, he came to me for lessons. He is now fluent, with a reading age of 14 and particularly enjoys reading magazines related to the housing market; he has plans to become a property developer.

He’d been to a huge secondary school nearby until he was 15 and, in common with most schools in the area, they had little or no idea what to do about his reading problem. Sadly, most of his school days were spent in the special needs room, where he was provided with drawing materials and effectively left to his own devices. One can only imagine the tedium of his schooldays. Tony freely acknowledges that he was disruptive and was probably a massive pain in the backside for the staff. Indeed, he concedes that sending him to the special needs room may have been the best option for his over-stressed teachers.
But something he said to me today has prompted me to write this. He was not always alone in the special needs room. Other non-readers – when they were not playing truant – were in there with him. Tony would like to have played truant with them himself; anything would have been better than having to endure his daily humiliation at school. But his father would never allow him to do such a thing and the fear of his father’s wrath outweighed his desire to join the others at the local shopping mall. “All my mates from school,” he told me, “they’re either on drugs or in prison. It’s only because I was so scared of my father that my life is different to theirs.”

Unlike when I began my teaching career 40 years ago, dyslexia is now acknowledged to be at the root of most reading difficulties. It is widely diagnosed in schools and resources are thrown at the problem. Yet Tony was at school in the late 1990s. It’s not a bad school by any means and has extensive special needs provision. In fact I knew its Senco from that time and he was a dedicated, though overworked, teacher.

In my field of literacy training, we deal with many young men who draw little or no benefit from school. If they have close family support, the experience may not prove too damaging in the long term and they can go on to make a good life for themselves. However, we should always consider the tedium and humiliation they must endure at school before the blessed day comes when they can legally leave and find themselves a job and a meaningful way to spend their time. And we must also consider those many young men whose frustration will have led them in other directions.

The simple moral of the story is that, despite advances in the understanding and recognition of dyslexia, we are still failing these children. This results not only in damaged lives but in a prison population most of whom are barely literate. The real tragedy is that it can be avoided. The tools exist for all people to be given the gift of literacy.

Not only for their benefit but for the benefit of society as a whole.

Keda Cowling

Posted in Schools