Influential literacy reports by leading think tanks and charities have ignored the thousands of children who will never catch up in reading and writing but who can still achieve a full and rounded education, says Chris Rossiter
“Dyslexia isn’t even a thing”; “exam extra time is a middle class purchase”; “the dyslexia industry selling specialist courses”. These are all things that I have heard recently, in my role as the Director of the Driver Youth Trust. From teachers.
Whether or not we agree with the label of dyslexia; whether we recognise the condition or not, surely we all know that there is a significant group of children – with dyslexia or other impairments – who will never achieve the same level of literacy as their peers without significant specialist support. And that there are some young people who – even with all the support in the world – will never come anywhere near the arbitrary GCSE score that makes them ‘literate’ in the eyes of the world (and how much more arbitrary is that score with this year’s grade changes).
But we cannot blame teachers – the leading think tanks and others who form and frame policy are writing glowing and glossy pieces on achieving 100% literacy that airbrush out those who cannot be saved by a ‘love of reading’ or poor fathers reading to their children.
Our latest report, Through the Looking Glass, adds weight to the concern that learners with Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND), are being airbrushed from education thinking.
Glossy pieces airbrush out those who cannot be saved by poor fathers reading to their children
We analysed 21 influential reports on achieving literacy standards for all children, and showed that leading think tanks and charities have ignored these pupils – the majority of whom are educated in mainstream schools. Read on Get on – run by Save the Children – sets recommendations for 100% of 11 year olds reading well by 2025, without once mentioning dyslexia, and suggests the target can be achieved with “some additional tailored help for the poorest pupils and extra help in the early years”.
Claims from organisations such as Ofsted, the Sutton Trust, Education Policy Institute, the Fair Education Alliance and the Department for Education amongst others, reported since 2010, provide a sanitized image of education and schools. In some instances, SEND pupils simply do not feature and where they do, they are identified in the main as a homogenous group. Reports talk of a vision for 100% literacy but – when you look a little closer – only, it seems, for those children where the solutions are simple: more reading with parents or catch-up programmes.
Of course investment in the early years matters. And the focus that Pupil Premium puts on social and financial ‘disadvantage’ is welcome. But these reports paint a picture where either a child can catch up easily, or they are in a special school with serious difficulties and literacy doesn’t matter. These are in themselves both false positons and they ignore the thousands of children who will never catch up in reading and writing but who can still achieve a full and rounded education.
The notion of specialist input – of educational psychologists, speech and language therapists and the dyslexia teachers – is all but invisible in these reports.
The notion of specialist input is all but invisible in these reports
This reflects the reality on the ground, where schools and parents report waits of over a term – some much more – for referral to a specialist for assessments and support. As budgets are getting tighter, are these thought leaders colluding with a system that plays the numbers game? In following their recommendations, we would be focusing resources on the those that can catch up. These are the children ‘worth more’ in the progress 8 scores and league tables. Do these reports make it easier to exclude those who might cost a school more in cash or position?
Consider, for example, Education Policy Institute’s Annual Report 2016. It claimed overall levels of attainment are rising in both primary and secondary settings, only to then explicitly state: ‘The analysis excludes special schools and Pupil Referral Units’; although there are 199 mentions of disadvantage.
Of course this is not an either/or argument. Focus on social disadvantage is not wrong. Catch-up initiatives are not wrong and bristol post office. Much that benefits children on pupil premium in terms of reading and writing will help most children with SEND. However, some children do need specialist help. Those with significant learning disabilities. Those who need augmentative and alternative communication.
In Through the Looking Glass we make practical recommendations for change: including a review of all government literacy strategies to ensure they have realistic goals for all learners, including those with SEND.
Moreover – for us all – we need to consider carefully the assumptions that are bound up in the terms ‘disadvantaged’, ‘SEND’ and ‘literate’: a child does not become illiterate if they don’t achieve the appropriate GCSE grade, nor are they doomed to failure in life if they do.
Chris Rossiter is Director of the Driver Trust