Schoolchildren: Dyslexia and Neurodiverse Conditions - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:47 pm on 4th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 7:47 pm, 4th March 2020

My Lords, I thank everybody who has put their name down to speak in this debate. I should probably declare my interests, which I am afraid are slightly legion in this case: I am dyslexic; I am president of the British Dyslexia Association; and I am chairman of Microlink PC, which is an assistive technology company—there are probably a couple of other things, but I think we have the gist of it.

Why did I table this debate? It is because, at the moment, special educational needs are in trouble. It is a very good concept; many Governments have said over a long period of time that we will stop allowing X percentage—say 20% or 25%—of our pupils to be written off, which historically had happened. But we are now saying they shall be educated—great—and we have a legislative structure that says they shall be provided with help, and we have got ourselves into a position that is probably a classic case of the road to hell being paved with good intentions, where we are letting down people who are trying to fulfil all this.

Before we go any further on this, I apologise for starting with dyslexia; I realise it ain’t the only show in town. Autism, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, ADHD are all there, but dyslexia is the one I know best, the one I had the best briefing on, and the one I am least likely to make a mistake on.

The British Dyslexia Association reckons that 80% of those on the spectrum—and it is a spectrum—are unidentified by the time they leave school. We are only touching the edges. Most of those with most of the problems are probably not the most severe—those with the Belisha beacon that says, “There is a problem here, so come to it”; it is those at the edges, the people who are just underachieving, just failing. This is probably the group where we should put much more attention, because these people often do not get spotted, do not get assistance and either fail or, more likely, very much underachieve.

We have had descriptions of the issue, and as always the Library’s briefing captures it when it quotes a House of Commons Education Committee report, published last year, describing the system as,

“‘badly hampered by poor administration’ and a ‘challenging funding environment’ … The Local Government Association has stated that the current system is at a ‘tipping point’, as demand for SEN services has risen much faster than funding has been made available.”

We have real problems here. Why do we have problems? The fact is that somebody who is dyslexic, dyspraxic or whatever it is gets placed in a classroom that is designed for the other groups. If you are dyslexic, you are usually taught most of your subjects via a whiteboard or with somebody repeating dictation. You are expected to acquire the language quickly enough to be able to process it in that way. If you are dyspraxic, you are not writing it down quickly enough. If you have an attention deficit disorder, you cannot concentrate for that period of time. If you have autism, there may be a fundamental gap between what is being asked of you and how you understand it. Every one of these processes means that that challenging classroom situation becomes, for you, something that is either much more difficult to overcome or actually impossible.

What is the natural reaction to this of any pupil in that place? It is survival, is it not? To take dyslexia again, the classic reaction is either to disappear in the middle of the class—become invisible as much as you can—or disrupt it. Both are perfectly natural reactions. You have got rid of the pressure on you; you are fine. The fact that you are not being taught is something that will catch up with you in later life, but at the time, if you are eight or nine years old, you cannot deal with what is going on so you will take a survival method.

What happens to the teacher? The teacher does not know what to do, because they are not trained; it is as simple that. They are not trained to spot or to give support. If we cannot train everybody to be an expert in all these subjects, we can certainly make them slightly better at spotting problems. What we must do is quite simply bring the expertise into the school system. It will cost about £4,000 to get a level 7 qualified dyslexia teacher trained up, and it will be roughly similar, I am told, for the other major disability groups—and these are disabilities, I feel. You are supposed to get £6,000 spent on you by a school when you start. The first £6,000 comes out. Whatever happens, it is not expensive to get some structure in there. If we put extra units and extra response capacity into initial teacher training, we will probably save time and money in the long term and probably in the medium term.

Let us not forget that, the last time I looked, more than £80 million is spent on appeals to get an education, health and care plan. It has become a solution for some 3% of the school system. It was never designed to be that. The response I got, rather manfully, from the Government Front Bench in the past was, “Oh, but the Government do not lose all these cases.” No: it is only about 87%. Autism is greatly overrepresented in this process. Something is wrong here. Unless we get more support into the classroom and stop having to go back to local authorities, which are under budgetary pressure, again we have a problem. The school has a problem here. We need another approach.

The Government have said they will spend £500 million, I think—I forget the exact figure—on high-needs cases. What is a high-needs case? Is it the people who are already spotted, or is it those people who have had a moderate problem that could have been dealt with but has become worse? In the case of dyslexia, they say, “We will not come in and help you unless you have been failing for three years.” Let us take a moderate problem and make it that much worse, that much more difficult to deal with.

Let us also remember that, with a whole-school approach, we can look wider than the classroom. I have met people who have said, “Did you know you can get autistic people to do games?” Apparently, a lot of autistic people like cricket: nice function, nice individual team game. Apparently, they are good strikers in football, better than midfield generals. It is possibly understandable. These things go on. A PE teacher might be better at understanding dyspraxia. It was a great revelation to me—I should have known this, but I did not—that many people with dyspraxia have terrible trouble getting fit and staying fit. When you think about muscle memory, it probably becomes slightly more understandable. So let us look outside the classroom as well, because for some groups PE or playtime will become a response; a place to hide and get some relief. For others, it becomes worse.

Finally, one thing that hits all these groups, and probably hits dyslexics worst, is the marking of spelling, punctuation and grammar. You can lose 5% in English language, history, geography and religious studies, I think it is. That may not sound that big a thing, but I put it like this: at the top end of the problem, you are not going to get a 9 in a 1 to 9 grading if you lose 5% if you use dictation or computer-operated systems. I use computer-operated systems all the time. For English, you can lose 20%. It is said that if you spell out every word, you will not lose it for spelling. If you are dyslexic and using a computer-operated system, you cannot; it is almost impossible. The fact that the fine-detail memory or short-term memory of someone within the dyslexia spectrum is not good means that they are not going to take on the arbitrary rules of grammar and punctuation—and they are fairly arbitrary —and they will be marked down. And English, where you can lose 20%, is a gateway subject. If you do not get English, you cannot do X or Y afterwards. Noble Lords who think that that is bad should look at the functional skills problems in further education.

There are many problems here. I finish with a final anecdote, which the Minister’s office has certainly seen. There are skills that you could mark when you are using assistive technology. For instance, when the Minister’s office wrote to me asking what I was going to be talking about, I sent back a message. I meant to say, “The principal thrust of what I am going to say”, but apparently what came through was, “The printable thrust of what I am going to say.” Possibly that is a skill for not reading backwards. You could remark and put them down, but that is one you should get right. Will the Government give us their ideas about this? They are talking about increasing use of the technology going through the process—it is in one of the responses I have with me, I think it is from Michelle Donelan. You have something you can mark that people can achieve. Please, can we look at this and become slightly more realistic about the support that can be given?