She’s in her late 40s now: we first met when we were both teenagers. She was a trainee nurse, I was still at school – there was just over a year’s age difference between us. She had become a nurse, she told us cheerfully, because the careers adviser at her school knew three things to tell girls: be a secretary, be a nun, be a nurse. She couldn’t type and didn’t believe in God, so that left just one option.
We’d been friends for twenty years before she finally admitted that wasn’t exactly true.
I learned to read when I was three, leaning over my mum’s shoulder as she taught my older brother before he went to school. I taught myself to write – my juvenile handwriting, for several years, was formed rather like sloppy typescript, because I had worked out the details from playing with my dad’s typewriter.
She learned to read when she was 11. Her primary school put her in with “the thickos” – never officially referred to as that, of course, but we had them at my school too: the kids who sat at the side of the class in a special group of desks and weren’t expected to keep up with the rest. She was given picture books to look at, and ignored: her teachers assumed she was stupid. A friend – not me – taught her how to read when she was 11, and she figured out writing much the same way I did. She fought her way to pass Highers and qualify for nurse training, because she assumed she would never be able to pursue a career that required much from her in reading or writing.
My friend is severely dyslexic. Her school didn’t diagnose her. This was in the 1970s, when educationalists were strongly encouraged to assume that a working-class kid who couldn’t read or write wasn’t dyslexic – I have read contemporary advices strongly warning against diagnosing dyslexia if any other reason could be found for a child’s inability to learn. A working-class kid from a council estate got no special help. With stubbornness, high intelligence, and a capacity for hard work that shakes me, she got into nursing, then psychiatric nursing, and achieved all a non-graduate can in nursing today.
To go further, she needed a degree.
So she set herself – this time as an adult, diagnosed dyslexic, with over twenty years of figuring out what she needed to be able to accomplish what she wanted, with all the Special Needs support she wanted – to study, part-time, for a degree in psychiatric nursing.
She graduated with Honours, and won the medal for the best student in her year. When she told me, I must confess; I wanted to take that medal back to her primary school, and make each of the teachers who’d dismissed that little girl as “stupid” eat it.
Things have greatly improved since those days. Children with special needs are much more likely to be diagnosed and get the help they need.
But horribly, to anyone who cares about children, our current UK government wants to change that. “Too many” children are being diagnosed with special needs. Especially, too many children from poor homes. Children who are disruptive or who fall behind in class are being diagnosed with special needs instead of treated as wicked misbehaving children. The Tories don’t like that. The Telegraph is running a poll to let its comfortably-off readers tell children from low-income homes, dyslexic kids from council estates or single-parent families, that they’re not worth being helped.
Children. Who need special help. Thousands of them. They’re being 456ed.
“If we can’t identify the lowest achieving 10% of this country’s children, then what are the school league tables for?”