“I was bullied because I couldn’t even spell my own name. People called me stupid and I just felt stupid so I didn’t want to go to school.” Mike Jones reflects on growing up in 1970s Bristol as he went through a lot of different schools at a very young age.
Luckily, Jones’ mum Pat knew her son wasn’t stupid and after spending many hours in libraries and offices of educational psychologists, she finally found out her son was dyslexic. Affecting more than six million people in Britain, dyslexia is a special educational need that often results in difficulties in reading, writing and spelling.
Almost four decades after his harsh school experiences, Jones went on to develop an innovative program that now helps thousands of dyslexic students across the country.
This wouldn’t have been possible without his mum. Jones explains how she read every book in the local library about dyslexia, then decided to home-school him using a new method based around intensive repetition and engaging games. Not content with just helping her son, in 1987 Pat set up the Bristol Dyslexia Centre, which has helped hundreds of Bristol’s dyslexic students re-engage with education, and won Pat an OBE in 2015.
Thankfully, Jones was also able to return to education and overcame difficulties to study law at university. He later retrained as a dyslexia specialist.
In 2010, keen to give more children the opportunity to experience his mum’s teaching methods, he adapted them into a computer program called Nessy. Nessy can be accessed by computer, tablet or smartphone and takes children through a step-by-step game-based program that speeds up or slows down according to each child’s needs.
Today, the program is being used to good effect in more than 250 alternative provisions and mainstream schools in and around Bristol, as well as by more than 15,000 students around the UK and over a million worldwide. Besides the award-winning Nessy program, Bristol’s teachers can go to the Dyslexia Centre to learn how to work effectively with dyslexic students.
The struggles of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) have regularly hit the headlines in recent years due to failing services in Bristol. Ofsted and Care Quality Commission inspectors are returning this week to assess progress on the significant weaknesses in Bristol’s SEND provision uncovered in 2019, while the council is alleged to have carried out surveillance of parent campaigners.
Despite the success of Nessy and the support offered at the Bristol Dyslexia Centre, Jones says there are still obstacles preventing dyslexic students from reaching their full potential in many of Bristol’s schools. “They’re not getting the support they need, aren’t being taught in the right way and are being damaged by their school experience,” he says.
Clearly, this is an old problem, a long-term systemic issue that has lasted for at least half a century and now requires a change in strategy by school leaders and serious investment from the government.
Tiffany James, Nessy’s director of educational development, explains how dyslexia in no way correlates to IQ. “You may have some bright students with dyslexia, who appear to be slow but who are simply unresponsive to the way they are being taught,” she says.
I tell her that the most common dyslexia intervention I’ve seen used in Bristol’s mainstream schools are colour overlays, which have long been touted as a way of making reading easier for dyslexic people. I asked whether these overlays were an effective intervention for dyslexic students; she pointed out there is little evidence to show that these overlays improve literacy. Jones adds that he believes they only aid students who have issues with light sensitivity, an issue some dyslexic people do suffer with, but which isn’t actually a symptom of dyslexia.
James says: “Most people only discover they are dyslexic later on in life, maybe when they go to university.” This is because there is significantly more funding for dyslexia at university level for things such as dyslexia screening and tailored equipment.
She adds that screening rarely takes place in a child’s first few years of school and this means support is unlikely to be as effective. “If you wait until [children] are eight years old, there is really good research which says 75% to 80% of those children won’t reach the reading levels of their classmates. If you do it when they are five, 90% of them will.” As a result of the delay, too many dyslexic students can’t engage properly with the school curriculum. When this happens, these children are more likely to become unhappy at school, misbehave and face the possibility of exclusion.
Both Jones and James believe that in order to improve outcomes for Bristol’s dyslexic students, three things need to happen. First, every single school should have at least one trained dyslexia specialist who is able to share their techniques with all other teachers in the school.
Second, schools should introduce additional screening early on, so they can identify children who are at risk of developing literacy difficulties. Finally, they highlighted how dyslexic people need to be taught using tailored literacy programs such as Nessy, which allow them to learn at a speed which is appropriate, because the phonics programs used in most schools are just too quick for dyslexic children.
James worries that negative school experiences may lead to mental health issues later in life. “We don’t want children leaving school illiterate because then their life opportunities are so limited.”
It is therefore imperative that Bristol schools do as much as they can to develop their dyslexic students’ literacy and allow these children the best opportunity to lead happy and constructive lives. This is surely a duty of any moral and inclusive education system.