|Every opportunity: lessons at Bethany School.
“Dyslexia may be an obstacle, but as long as you choose the right school there is no reason why a dyslexic child shouldn’t achieve everything their heart desires.”
So says Francie Healy, head of the co-educational Bethany School in Goudhurst, Kent, one of a growing number of mainstream independent schools to offer specialist teaching for dyslexia, dyspraxia and Asperger’s Syndrome.
Bethany’s specialist dyslexia unit caters for groups of around six and is strategically sited in the middle of the main teaching block. “Our approach is to keep all the children together most of the time and to withdraw those needing extra support for tailored sessions when necessary,” says Healy.
“I would advise all parents of dyslexic children to look at where they’ll be for most of the day and to decide whether the school’s approach fosters inclusion or separation.”
With some 10 per cent of the population thought to suffer from dyslexia — symptoms range from mild spelling difficulties to a chronic inability to read and write or severe absent-mindedness — it’s little wonder that independent schools are keen to establish their credentials in this area.
But Brendan Wignall, headmaster of Ellesmere College in Shropshire, and chairman of the Council for the Registration of Schools Teaching Dyslexic Pupils (CReSTeD), says that the relatively small number — fewer than 80 — of schools recognised by this charity suggests provision is patchy.
“You’d expect me to recommend that parents look first and foremost for the CReSTeD seal of approval but, sadly, some schools with dyslexia units see them as little more than a marketing opportunity and, in extreme cases, discourage dyslexic pupils from staying on in case it affects [overall] results.”
He adds that it is vital to question whether the school is in the right place spiritually and culturally. “A mismatch between the confidence-boosting a dyslexic child receives in a specialist unit and the thoughtless barracking they may encounter at the hands of the head of maths an hour later could be very damaging.”
Structured teaching and small class sizes, standard in many independent schools, can be vital for children with dyslexia. But for Carolyn Billson, whose son James attended Bethany before going to the University of Reading, the ethos of the school was all-important.
“Having discovered James has moderate dyslexia with dyspraxic tendencies, we did the rounds of the local private schools. Bethany seemed such an excellent school that we would have chosen it even if it hadn’t had a specialist unit. The practical coping strategies and the support James received transformed his approach to study,” says Billson.
At the boys-only More House School in Frensham, Surrey, which specialises in language-processing problems, headmaster Barry Huggett endorses an individual approach. “Athough we don’t see ourselves as an academic powerhouse, we have the facilities to offer all 413 pupils what amounts to a customised timetable reflecting how each one learns and processes information. So all boys are given the opportunity to take eight or nine GCSEs.”
Former More House parent Sue Olen says that for her son, Oliver, now in his final year at the University of Derby, problems with dyslexia began early. “He had severe difficulty reading [at pre-school stage], and at junior school he was in tears daily due to his frustration at being unable to keep up.”
The family paid the first year’s fees at More House, but once Oliver had been granted a Statement of Special Educational Need — a document issued to pupils with significant difficulties that details the help they should receive — the local authority picked up the tab for the remaining six. “The confidence-building that came from being taught alongside other boys with similar problems changed our son’s life,” says Olen.
Established in 1946 and with only 96 pupils aged between seven and 17, Frewen College in Rye, East Sussex — where term fees from Year 7 start at £6,593 for day pupils and £9,252 for boarders — was the UK’s first specialist dyslexia school. With each house named after a celebrated dyslexic — Sir Richard Branson, Nigel Kennedy, Sir Steve Redgrave and Jamie Oliver — the college sees positive role modelling as crucial.
“Once you’ve found a school with technical provision for dyslexia, find out how many one-to-one or small-group sessions are included in the fees and examine the school’s track record,” says the college’s business manager Jeremy Field. “Look beyond the glossy brochure.”
6:30AM GMT 01 Jan 2013