The journalist Alan Watkins often said, ‘Politics is a rough old trade’, and many people recall Harold Wilson’s remark, ‘A week in politics is a long time.’ We know what they mean.
Dyslexia has featured in UK political discourse for years, and political perspectives have changed. Not too long ago, an MP was on record denying the very existence of dyslexia. Yet, assuming that our parliaments are representative of the population and working on the statistic that some 10% of the population is dyslexic, perhaps 60+ MPs and a dozen or so MSPs are dyslexic. When you reckon that tenacity is a side effect of dyslexia, and dyslexics have to put up with being criticised, belittled, nagged, made fun of, we might seem to be an ideal group to provide candidates to stand for Parliament.
Astonishingly, it is the disgraced Westminster ex-Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock, who has just moved dyslexia up the political agenda. Now on the back benches, in December he introduced a Bill in the House of Commons that would make it mandatory to test all English and Welsh children for dyslexia before secondary school. It was passed and comes up for a Second Reading in March 2022. One hopes that the Bill becomes law in England and Wales, and if so, that Holyrood would enact a similar mandate. Scotland already has more highly tuned practices for identifying neurodiversity amongst primary school children than might be found south of the border, although even these are not consistently implemented.
So, Hancock’s initiative has raised broad issues. When he made his proposal for a Dyslexia Screening Bill (https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2021-12-07/debates/19032173-7175-48BD-A28C-EAE9A6332D0F/DyslexiaScreening#contribution-557A02A2-56C8-4BAB-87B7-30B33A0150D1) he spoke about his own difficulties at school, and how it was only when he went to university (to Oxford!), that he was assessed and found to be dyslexic. What Matt Hancock means by ‘screening’ was not clarified in the first reading of his Bill but it indicates an important first step. When would the ‘screening’ take place? Surely, we dyslexics would say, the earlier the better and, when the child’s dyslexia is identified, the right type of teaching for that child’s learning needs can swing into action – at primary school, or rather at all primary schools.
Let’s think for a moment about ‘lies, damned lies…and statistics.’ Recent statistics have shown that the number of state secondary school pupils across the UK with additional support needs has been falling, but in private schools the number has been rising. Odd that. We don’t know the details for every school, every youngster and every parent, but my guess is that the parents of youngsters at private schools are particularly adept at getting the needs of their children attended to. These parents are insistent that the proper assessments take place. I suspect that the average parent of a state school pupil, who isn’t paying for their child’s education ‘at the point of delivery’, may be less aware of children’s learning needs in general, and perhaps less skilful in pushing to get their own child’s needs addressed. For many children, if these learning needs are not identified early, life chances might be lost completely – the intervention of an observant tutor at university would simply never happen for them. University would never be an option.
The issues of funding pressures on state and private schools are different too. The funding has to go alongside Mr Hancock’s mandate, I’d say.
My perusal of what goes on in discussions about dyslexia in both Westminster and Holyrood shows that ‘spelling’ is mentioned very often. I hope that the proposed mandatory ‘screening’ happens very soon, but that issues beyond spelling, those linked by dyslexia to ADHD, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and dyspraxia are screened for, too. We should be delighted that things are happening, but we must continue to press for the necessary changes to happen.
Vin Arthey, guest blogger and Dyslexia Scotland Speaker Volunteer