Picking a school when your child is dyslexic

When Graham Stringer MP said in January this year that dyslexia is a ‘cruel fiction’, the response was instant and clear. Of course dyslexia exists, swathes of critics responded. Few disagree that as many as 10% of children’s brains are wired differently, causing them to struggle with reading, writing and other skills, but that doesn’t mean they should be written off academically, as happened even as recently as 20 years ago.

Things have moved on, and Government legislation asks all schools to make reasonable adjustments to prevent disadvantage. Yet parents still talk about children with dyslexia feeling ashamed and even hiding it for years. With the right school, however, dyslexic children can achieve their potential in all areas, including academic results.

Jane Roberts*, from Berkshire, has seen her three dyslexic children through independent schools and all have done well. One is at medical school, another is a teacher and the third is training to be an actor. But it wasn’t always easy. With her eldest daughter, she visited 22 schools before finding the right one. ‘Some independent schools don’t want children with special needs. Others need the numbers, but then they can’t cope. You have to do your homework-and then keep watch, as things change and good staff can go.’

The Good Schools Guide (GSG) has a Special Educational Needs (SEN) edition, which gives an exhaustive guide to what to look for in a school (www.goodschoolsguide.co.uk), as does the British Dyslexia Association (0845 251 9002; www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/extra315.html). Some independent schools that do very well with dyslexic children don’t always advertise the fact, because they don’t want to be viewed as a special-needs school.

When considering a prospective school, ask to see its SEN policy. Find out the head’s attitude to special needs-this will set the tone for the school. Does it have high expectations for dyslexic pupils? Does it offer extra-curricular activities so they can develop their talents and build confidence? Is special-needs support integrated into teaching or an add-on? The GSG recommends that the latter approach is only suitable for mild dyslexics. Ask about teaching styles: many dyslexics respond well to kinaesthetic teaching, where children learn by exploring rather than by rote.

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One option is to send your child to a specialist SEN school, and there are some great ones to choose from. Some parents baulk at the prospect, but if your child has moderate to severe dyslexia, don’t be too hasty to write them off. ‘I didn’t go down that route because I thought it would limit their ambition,’ says Mrs Roberts. ‘But in retrospect, it might have been a good idea, perhaps for a couple of years, to overcome the literacy hurdle.’

Bobbi Oxnam, from north London, first sent her son Dominic, now 15, to Willoughby Hall, a specialist school, but it closed. She then transferred him to Felsted prep in Essex, a mainstream school that features in the GSG’s Special Educational Needs edition. Felsted has two specialist teachers for pupils who ‘need a boost’.

Dyslexic pupils receive additional learning support with drop-in sessions, and follow a slightly reduced mainstream timetable. Learning support is £160 per term, which includes in-house testing for dispensation for external exams. Mrs Oxnam is full of praise for the school. ‘We felt Felsted was an environment that would enhance Dom’s chances of surviving and, perhaps, doing well in a mainstream school. At first, he continued to struggle with writing, maths was anathema and reading a torture. We were proud of the D and C grades he achieved, although we knew he had an A-grade brain.

‘But the teachers persisted in believing in Dom and demonstrating their belief. If one strategy failed, another was tried. His success in rugby and music made him more confident and this translated into his academic work.’ Dominic now mainly achieves As or Bs. We have indeed come a long way. Dyslexia should no longer stop any child reaching their potential-but the right school is key to ensuring that the sky really is the limit.

* Name has been changed

Tips from the British Dyslexia Association

Remember that the purpose of homework is to practise something that your child is already familiar with. If homework is too difficult, you should discuss this with your child’s teacher

* Encourage your child to keep their school notes and work in folders so they don’t get lost or damaged

* Daily reading is essential

* Check that your child is taking the correct books and equipment to school each day. Develop a visual or written plan if this is an area of difficulty.

* Help your child to learn editing and checking skills so they can proofread as they get older. COPS can be helpful:

C = capitals
O = overall appearance
P = punctuation
S = spelling

* Revise work with your child before examinations. Encourage them to make notes, underline key words, draw pictures and so on when studying, all of which will aid their memory