The method for diagnosing dyslexia, known as the discrepancy model, was relatively straightforward: test a child’s IQ and their reading age, and if there was a discrepancy between the two – average-to-high IQ, low literacy – that child was dyslexic. Elliott felt unsure about these assessments. The children he tested for dyslexia all struggled to read and write – that much was clear – but their literacy difficulties manifested in different ways.
The Battle Over Dyslexia: It was once a widely accepted way of explaining why some children struggled to read and write. But in recent years, some experts have begun to question the existence of dyslexia itself.
The Guardian by Sirin Kale
Photo by Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty Images.
Julian “Joe” Elliott was training to be an educational psychologist when his supervisor invited him to lunch one day. The year was 1984, and Elliott was 28. As they were eating, Elliott’s supervisor mentioned that he had spent the morning testing a child for dyslexia. He had determined the child was dyslexic, and put her on a programme called Data-Pac, a new approach to teaching literacy which paired teachers with children for individual sessions that taught them how to sound out letter combinations. Elliott asked what he would have recommended if the child hadn’t been dyslexic. His supervisor appeared sheepish. He would have put her on Data-Pac anyway, he said.
Elliott thought that was weird, but what did he know? He qualified as an educational psychologist in 1986 and began practising. Over the next decade, he was often asked to assess children for dyslexia. At this time, most educational psychologists believed that dyslexia was a learning difficulty with a neurological basis, which affected bright children whose difficulties reading and writing could not be explained by the usual factors, such as low IQ, not having attended school or having a chaotic home life. The method for diagnosing dyslexia, known as the discrepancy model, was relatively straightforward: test a child’s IQ and their reading age, and if there was a discrepancy between the two – average-to-high IQ, low literacy – that child was dyslexic. Elliott felt unsure about these assessments. The children he tested for dyslexia all struggled to read and write – that much was clear – but their literacy difficulties manifested in different ways. Elliott was still junior, and he chalked up this sense of uncertainty to imposter syndrome.
In 1998, Elliott co-wrote a guide for teachers working with children with special needs. The book was nominated for the Times Educational Supplement’s academic book of the year award, but if Elliott was being honest with himself, the chapter on dyslexia wasn’t up to much. “It was a bit of a shitty chapter, really,” Elliott told me. “I hadn’t got a handle on it.” Six years later, when his publishers asked him to write a second edition of the book, he was determined to nail the chapter on dyslexia. He was older now, more experienced. He collected every study on dyslexia he could find and started reading.
In his research, Elliott came across one particularly startling paper. In 1964, a young researcher called Bill Yule was sent to the Isle of Wight to carry out fieldwork on dozens of schoolchildren with reading difficulties. Yule was in no doubt that many of the children he studied suffered horrendously in trying to read and write. He saw it firsthand. But Yule – who would become one of the leading educational psychologists of his generation – couldn’t find a pattern of indicators, common to all the children he tested, that would coalesce into a single syndrome called dyslexia. Each child’s literacy problems seemed to be different.
Elliott made a note of Yule’s study and continued researching. Until the 70s, dyslexia had been a way to explain why intelligent children couldn’t read. But in the 80s, research started coming out which suggested that your IQ had no bearing on your ability to read or write. (One of the first critiques of the discrepancy model was published in 1980, and further papers debunking the model were published throughout the 90s.) Intelligence and reading ability weren’t connected, meaning that dyslexia could no longer be defined as a condition that affected only bright children who struggled to read. Anyone, with any level of intelligence, could be dyslexic.
Hunkered in his study, piles of academic papers at his feet, Elliott asked himself: if you couldn’t test dyslexia by means of IQ, how could you test for it? If Yule hadn’t been able to find a uniform diagnostic criteria – a pattern that fit all the dyslexic children he’d studied – was it even a condition at all? And what was the point in testing for something if, as his supervisor had acknowledged over lunch all those years ago, the treatment was the same, regardless of whether you had it or not? “That’s when the penny dropped,” Elliott says. “It was all bollocks.”
Since that day, Elliott, a professor of education at Durham University, has made it his mission to challenge the orthodoxy on dyslexia. He argues that there is essentially no difference between a person who struggles to read and write and a person with dyslexia – and no difference in how you should teach them. Dyslexia is such a broad term, he argues, that it is effectively meaningless. According to Elliott, we should stop using the word dyslexia, and with it the need for an educational psychologist to diagnose what is plain for all to see: that a child is struggling to read and write. Instead, we should be trying to help all children with literacy difficulties, not just those who have been diagnosed with dyslexia.
Elliott is relaxed about stirring up controversy – he sometimes gives the impression he quite enjoys it. He receives hate mail fairly regularly. “A pantomime baddy … the word bully comes to mind,” is how one specialist dyslexia teacher characterised Elliott, after seeing him talk at an event. Elliott is like “a climate-change denier”, Callum Heckstall-Smith, then head of communications for the British Dyslexia Association (BDA), told me. “[He] has absolutely no backing academically,” said Lord Addington, a Liberal Democrat peer and president of the BDA, when I mentioned Elliott.
Yet although not all experts agree with Elliott, the truth is that his views have found favour among many educational psychologists. “Joe is not, I think, a maverick,” says Prof Simon Gibbs of Newcastle University. “His and my view, based on the available scientific evidence, is that there is no hard, fast or easy way to diagnose dyslexia.” It’s a view shared by Greg Brooks, emeritus professor of education at Sheffield University, who reviewed all the available definitions of dyslexia in 2004. “No two definitions agreed,” says Brooks. “Long before I met Joe, I also came to the same conclusions as him.” According to Vivian Hill, professor of educational psychology at University College London, “All Joe is doing is telling people what the scientific research is saying”. In January, Elliott was given an outstanding achievement award by the British Psychological Society, in recognition of his work on dyslexia.
For Elliott, this is not just a matter of scientific accuracy. He also believes that the current system entrenches inequality, because children from poorer backgrounds tend to be less likely to be diagnosed with dyslexia. “Reading difficulties are real. I’ve seen thousands of kids with reading difficulties,” he told me. “You know what? Very few of the ones I saw in the inner cities, in the council estates, get diagnosed with dyslexia.”
In recent years, the work of Elliott and like-minded scientists has proved increasingly influential in the UK. In 2018, two local authorities – Staffordshire and Warwickshire – announced that they would no longer differentiate between children with dyslexia and children with literacy difficulties. “It is widely accepted that the diagnosis of dyslexia is scientifically questionable,” the guidance – which outlined both local authorities’ provision for children with literacy difficulties – explained.
Instead, they would teach all children equally, partly making use of a pioneering approach that focuses on teaching children to read and write the 100 most commonly used words in the English language, which cumulatively account for 53% of all written English. The approach was piloted in 14 Staffordshire primary schools during a year-long study in 2011. In one school, within eight months, the number of students who had fallen behind with their reading halved, dropping from 60% of the children surveyed to just 32%. Larger studies, using this approach, showed that the incidence of reading difficulties was reduced from 20-25% to between 3-5%.
Despite the success of the earlier pilot scheme, there was strong opposition to Staffordshire and Warwickshire’s announcement in 2018. In October, the BDA president Lord Addington raised the issue in the House of Lords. Addington is a hereditary peer and, since 2011, chair of Microlink, a company that has received £132.3m in government contracts since 2003 to supply assistive technology to students with disabilities, including dyslexia. During the ensuing debate, one peer wondered whether Warwickshire and Staffordshire had “also advised their residents that the Earth is actually flat and that there is no such thing as global warming”. Anxious parents besieged the phone lines of at least one local dyslexia charity, asking whether their dyslexic children would no longer receive help; the BDA gave statements to the specialist education press and the Telegraph, alleging that both local authorities were simply looking to cut costs.
When we met in his narrow House of Lords office late last year, Addington told me that he became concerned about what was happening in Staffordshire and Warwickshire the minute he read the paper outlining the new guidance, which was brought to him by the BDA. “I thought, right, this contradicts the law in numerous places,” said Addington. He felt the guidance stated that dyslexia didn’t exist. “If you’re telling me that dyslexia doesn’t really exist, I’m afraid my everyday experience of life says you’re wrong.” (Addington is dyslexic.) “I said: ‘I’m not having this.’” During the course of our conversation, Addington said that he didn’t speak to the local authorities involved, or the researchers behind the schools pilot, before publicly lobbying to have their policy scrapped. “I criticised them publicly because I suspected what they were doing was wrong,” he explained. “If I’m sitting down there, and I’m any use in parliament at all, I’ll follow my own judgment.”
The debate in the House of Lords – and the flat Earth comments in particular – sent shockwaves through the British educational psychology community. “Neither authority was denying the existence of children with difficulties in reading, or saying that they don’t believe children that others label as dyslexic are not worthy of attention or note. They were trying to help everyone!” Jonathan Solity, an honorary lecturer at UCL, whose research underpinned the Warwickshire and Staffordshire guidance, told me with exasperation. A follow-up event held at UCL in January 2019, at which the Staffordshire and Warwickshire team argued their case, was attended by nearly 200 educational psychologists and watched online by thousands more – a major event in the small world of educational psychology.
Yet by the end of 2019, Staffordshire had dropped the guidance and Warwickshire had also pulled it, pending review. (Both authorities declined to speak with me for this article.) It was the first-ever attempt by a British local authority to ditch dyslexia, and it had failed. But it was also a rare public skirmish in a conflict that has been quietly fought over the past two decades in classrooms, lecture theatres, select committee hearings and special educational needs tribunals across Britain. On one side an emerging collective of academic and local authority educational psychologists, pushing for educators to drop a definition of dyslexia they view as scientifically vague and socially exclusionary. On the other dyslexia advocates, some academics and the parents of dyslexic children, who vigorously defend dyslexia as a meaningful concept that has helped millions of children access support and understanding for their literacy difficulties.
Both sides tend to proceed with implacable certainty, often caricaturing their opponents as unfeeling bureaucrats determined to deny dyslexic children the support they desperately need, or pushy parents determined to secure advantage for their offspring, come what may. “If you want to cause an academic riot,” writes Janice Edwards in The Scars of Dyslexia, “just shout, ‘let’s discuss dyslexia!’ to a hall randomly filled with educational psychologists, assorted educational ‘experts’, politicians, teachers, and parents. Then retire gracefully and watch the mayhem commence.” When I told Greg Brooks about the piece I was writing, he let out a long, delighted laugh. “You don’t know what you’re getting into,” he said. “It’s horribly contentious and horribly messy.” Later, he emailed: “Good luck … prepare for ordure to be hurled.”
A human being cannot learn to read and write on their own. Unlike speaking or walking, say, it must be taught. Most people in the UK will learn to read and write by the age of seven, but about 20% of the population will struggle to reach this level, and about half of these people are believed to be dyslexic, although not all of these people will be diagnosed. Dyslexic people may look at a piece of text and skip words, or switch letters around. When writing, they sometimes grope for the word they want to use but can’t spell it, so opt for a shorter, imprecise alternative. To the dyslexic student learning to read, books aren’t a portal into another world, but a door that keeps slamming in their face.
The term dyslexia, meaning “difficulty with words”, was coined by a German ophthalmologist, Rudolf Berlin, in 1887, after Berlin noticed that some of his patients struggled to read the printed word during eye tests, leading him to speculate that there may be some neurological reason for their difficulties. In the late 19th century, researchers characterised dyslexia as a disorder that only affects intelligent children with literacy difficulties – a myth that persists to this day.
By the time Bill Yule turned up on the Isle of Wight, fresh out of graduate school, academics knew there were a cohort of children who experienced persistent and unexplained reading difficulties. 3.7% of the children Yule surveyed on the Isle of Wight met this criteria. But none of these children had the same pattern of symptoms. The elasticity of dyslexia as a diagnostic category has confounded researchers ever since. “The nub of the problem for the concept of dyslexia is that, unlike measles or chickenpox,” writes Margaret Snowling of Oxford University in Dyslexia: A Very Short Introduction, “it is not a disorder with a clear diagnostic profile.” She suggests that it might be more helpful to think of dyslexia as something akin to high blood pressure, for which there is no precise cut-off point, only a range at which doctors become concerned.
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, awareness of dyslexia percolated out of academic journals and into the public consciousness. In 1963, the Word Blind Centre opened in Bloomsbury, bringing together a team of speech therapists and psychologists in the first attempt to systemise dyslexia provision in the UK. Analysis of the children who attended the centre, published in 1972 by researcher Sandhya Naidoo, found that they overwhelmingly came from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. “Dyslexia, then as now, was being diagnosed in higher proportions in children from wealthier socio-economic groups,” writes the researcher Philip Kirby, formerly of Oxford University’s UK Dyslexia Archive.
As understanding and recognition of dyslexia grew, families pushed for legal safeguards for dyslexic children. With the 2014 Children and Families Act, parents could apply for public funding to send their children to private schools that specifically catered to dyslexic students. First-tier tribunals, overseen by judges specialising in education and social care issues, would resolve these cases.
These legal rights were easier to access with a diagnosis. And so more and more professionals began offering to meet the needs of the growing numbers of parents seeking dyslexia diagnoses for their children. Private educational psychologists to test for dyslexia; tutors; lawyers who specialise in dyslexia cases. All willing to diagnose your child with dyslexia, and fight their corner, providing you can afford to pay for their services.
Over time, a gap opened up between children who struggled to read and write but had not been diagnosed as dyslexic, and their dyslexic classmates. A 2019 report from the all-party parliamentary group for dyslexia found that children from lower income backgrounds were less likely to be diagnosed with dyslexia. (About 50% of the UK prison population have literacy difficulties, yet almost none of these prisoners will have a dyslexia diagnosis.) According to the 2019 report, for the children who did receive a diagnosis, nearly half of the families surveyed spent on average £1,000 a year to help their child with their dyslexia. Exacerbating this inequality, private dyslexia schools tend to be situated in wealthier areas: more than half of the 13 specialist dyslexia schools listed on the Helen Arkell Dyslexia Charity’s website are based in London or Surrey, the two wealthiest counties in the UK. None of them are based in the 10 most impoverished counties in the UK.
Both dyslexia advocates and those who want to do away with the term agree that this inequality is a major problem. To resolve this, Helen Boden, chair of the BDA, argues for the provision of specialist dyslexia teachers in all UK schools, and screening all children for dyslexia. At present, “Those that can’t fight are left to drown,” Boden told me. “That can’t be right.”
Even for parents who can afford to fight, the process can be brutal. Chrissla Davis, a nurse consultant (the highest level of NHS nurse), and her husband Mark, a security guard, live in Willenhall, a town in the West Midlands. Their two-year battle to get their 12-year-old daughter, Shaylee, into a specialist dyslexia school, Maple Hayes, put an enormous strain on their family life, cost them about £10,000 and almost broke Chrissla emotionally. She would sometimes cry from the stress when dropping Shaylee off at school. “It completely sort of ripped us apart as a family,” says Chrissla, who radiates iron determination.
It all started in 2016, when a private tutor hired by Chrissla and Mark to help their daughter, who was having academic difficulties at school, suggested testing Shaylee for dyslexia. In October 2017, Shaylee was diagnosed with dyslexia by a private educational psychologist – the test cost £400. To Chrissla the result seemed plausible: Shaylee often told her mum how much she hated going to school, and she would pretend to be ill to get out of class. The educational psychologist appointed by Walsall council disagreed, telling Chrissla, in March 2018, that Shaylee was not dyslexic, but that she needed speech and language therapy. “I told the local authority’s educational psychologist that she was wrong,” said Chrissla. “She threw her doctorate in my face. And I said: ‘I don’t give a shit what you’ve got. I know my child.’”
There followed a three-way tussle involving the school – which initially told Chrissla it couldn’t accommodate Shaylee’s needs, before backtracking and saying it could, a move which did not fill Chrissla with confidence – the local authority, which disputed Shaylee’s dyslexia diagnosis, and the Davis family, who fought tooth and nail to get Shaylee into Maple Hayes. For Chrissla, it wasn’t just about the teaching Maple Hayes offered: she wanted Shaylee to be in a classroom full of children who, like her, had struggled to read and write. At Maple Hayes, Chrissla hoped her daughter would feel normal – rather than the class dunce, who hated going to school so much she threatened to break her own legs.
In November 2018, Chrissla and Mark took Walsall to a special educational needs tribunal. They sold their Range Rover to help cover their costs. During our conversation, Chrissla slammed an enormous binder of supporting materials she used in Shaylee’s case down in front of me. In it was a diary of every interaction Chrissla had with her local authority and the school, from the period when the family first decided to go to tribunal, around March 2018. Chrissla had transcribed hours of conversations with school and local authority officials.
In December 2018, the tribunal ruled in Walsall’s favour: Shaylee’s needs could be met in a mainstream school. Chrissla didn’t give up. The previous summer, Maple Hayes had taken Shaylee in for a free trial, to see if she would be a good fit for the school. “She absolutely flourished,” says Chrissla. So, in February 2019, Chrissla gave an interview with the Birmingham Mail to put pressure on Walsall to fund Shaylee’s placement at Maple Hayes. Finally, in April 2019, Chrissla emerged victorious: Walsall agreed to cover Shaylee’s placement at Maple Hayes. They would pay her fees of £14,855 a year, rising to £20,115 when she turns 13.
On a sunny afternoon in December 2019, I met Chrissla, Mark and Shaylee at Maples Hayes, which is set in verdant countryside near Lichfield. Students go horse riding and attend lessons on Saturdays. Class sizes are small. Children are taught to read using a morphological system that was devised by the school’s founder, Dr Neville Brown, in which letters are paired with individual symbols. It is an unconventional approach – most educators favour phonics, which teaches children to sound out words – but it appears to be working. The school has an “outstanding” Ofsted rating.
Earlier in the day, I’d eaten lunch with Shaylee in the school’s airy canteen. Over forkfuls of spaghetti, Shaylee smiled as she told me that she was doing much better with her reading and writing. All of Maples Hayes’s 97 students had been funded by 16 different local authorities to attend the school, after their parents challenged their local authorities in the tribunal courts. In total, local authorities are paying at least £1.7m a year to the school, which is not a charity.
After giving me a tour, and introducing me to the school dog and pet chinchilla, Brown showed me the assessment protocol the school uses to identify children with dyslexia. It was the same IQ-based model that has been debunked by scientists. Maples Hayes’s prospectus even makes explicit reference to the school’s aim: helping children of average-to-high IQ learn to read and write. I sent a copy of the Maple Hayes assessment protocol to Vivian Hill at UCL and Simon Gibbs of Newcastle University. Both raised concerns about its approach, pointing out that you can’t test for dyslexia using IQ.
The children who attend private dyslexia schools such as Maple Hayes were truly struggling in mainstream schools, and are now thriving. In itself, that is something to celebrate. But when local authorities fund students to attend private dyslexia schools, that involves taking large sums of money from budgets that are already far too small to meet every child’s needs. As of last year, 14.9% of English schoolchildren had special educational needs, the third consecutive yearly increase.
As demand for special education provision has grown, budgets have shrunk. Since 2010, when the coalition government came to power, Walsall’s budget has been cut by £193m. Staffordshire county council – where Maple Hayes is based – has cut £260m from its budget over the same period. “If parents want to send their children to a school like Maple Hayes,” argues Gibbs, “that is their right, but [it is] not one a local authority should support financially.”
Every parent wants to do the best for their children, but some are better placed to do so than others. It is easier to win at tribunal if you have money. Legal fees range from £10,000 to £30,000. “Middle-class parents with sharp elbows is how someone described it to me once,” says one solicitor who specialises in dyslexia cases. “The parents understand the system. They aren’t playing the system, but they have enough information to understand their child is entitled to the support. They’re on it, and they’re clued up.”
The solicitor told me that his practice is expanding around 25% each year, and that his team takes on about 100 dyslexia cases each year, losing just two or three. (A FOI request to Derbyshire council, published in 2018, indicates that he might not be exaggerating: of the 119 appeals registered to date with the special educational needs tribunals, the local authority won only one case.) “More parents are appealing than ever before,” says the solicitor. “The tribunals are overrun with cases.”
Lined up against these solicitors in special educational needs tribunals are local authority educational psychologists, responsible for assessing the needs of the children in their borough. On Facebook groups for the parents of dyslexic children, they tend to be characterised as penny-pinching bean counters, there to deny dyslexic children help, whereas independent educational psychologists – who are paid directly by the parents – are more attentive to the child’s needs. “I just don’t want to be fobbed off and want to be ready to fight my son’s corner,” reads one typical Facebook post from a parent concerned that a local authority educational psychologist is underestimating her child’s difficulties with literacy. The response from the group is unanimous: go private, and be prepared to fight.
But these local authority psychologists have oversight of all the children’s needs in their borough: meaning that they may have to make hard decisions about which children are most deserving of additional resources. Hill told me about two cases she worked on that came before a special educational needs tribunal at the same time. One involved a single mother, living in council housing, who did not have a solicitor representing her case. “The child was preverbal, with severe and profound multiple learning difficulties, requiring care around the clock and support for toileting,” Hill says. The other child was dyslexic.
“With extreme horror I saw that the child with dyslexia got the resourcing, and the mum who was managing her child with enormous difficulties didn’t get anywhere near the same level of resource or funding,” Hill said. “I find it difficult to see local authorities placing children with reading difficulties in expensive placements when there are children who have the needs I just described being left on the 13th floor of a tower block with a single parent.”
I spoke with multiple local authority educational psychologists who expressed similar concerns, but despite their unease, most would not agree to be quoted, even anonymously, for fear of being identified. They saw what happened in Warwickshire and Staffordshire, and were wary of the fallout. One psychologist was willing to talk, until his wife caught the gist of our conversation, wrestled the phone off him, and hung up.
Eventually I found Katie, a local authority educational psychologist working for a London borough, who agreed to speak under a pseudonym. “There’s a terrible injustice in this borough, because we have a very wealthy half, and a very underprivileged half,” she said. “Wealthier parents are paying private educational psychologists and the dyslexia association £900 to get their child a diagnosis of severe dyslexia, even though that child might be scoring at age-appropriate levels, because that’s just not good enough for these parents.”
There was anger in her voice. “So they get this professional diagnosis of dyslexia quite easily – you only have to pay for it,” she said. “And then they use that at tribunal, which they can afford barristers and lawyers for, to get private educational placements in special schools.” It’s not uncommon for the local authority to spend £80,000 a year on a single child’s placement.
Independent educational psychologists charge between £300 and £900 for an hour-long assessment. (They may also be sent prospective clients by private dyslexia schools, which can also provide parents with recommendations of solicitors specialising in SEN tribunal cases.) Both Hill and Gibbs have on occasion reviewed the independent educational psychologist reports presented by parents at tribunals. They found some of these reports alarming, because they made lavish demands upon local authority resources, before the children had received any kind of specialist support in a mainstream school. They argue that best practice requires waiting to see how a child responds to educational interventions, before doing anything as drastic as mandating their enrolment at a specialist school.
Katie described middle and upper-middle class parents as effectively “sucking the life out of the SEN budget”, and she thinks that abuse of the system is worsening, as parents share knowledge online, in private Facebook groups and forums such as Mumsnet. “I’ve been an educational psychologist for a long time,” she said. “I’ve done maybe 70 tribunals. I see it again and again – the difference between the haves, and the have-nots.”
Meanwhile, her local authority’s educational budget is continually slashed. “We’re constantly making cuts!” she said. “It’s so unjust.” Since 2015, £5.4bn has been cut from England’s school budgets.
In her book The Scars of Dyslexia, published in 1994, the special educational needs teacher Janice Edwards tells us about “John”, one of her dyslexic students. John was 11, but had a reading age of seven. His experience at a mainstream preparatory school had been violent, and traumatic. “Mrs T hit me really hard once,” said John of a former teacher. “She asked me to do a piece of work, and I just couldn’t, so she said I was stupid.”
In class, John felt alienated from his fellow pupils. “They were all bloody clever and I was stupid,” he told Edwards. “They all passed their 11-plus and I couldn’t even read the bloody questions. I hated all of them.” He developed ways to hide his dyslexia at school. Because students were sometimes called upon to read out the class register, John memorised all the names in advance. Unhappily, one time when John was asked to read the register, he held it upside down, exposing him to the ridicule he’d worked so hard to avoid.
But after being moved to a private dyslexia school at 11, John progressed rapidly. By the time he left school, Edwards reports that John was even able to “read and understand Shakespeare”.
John’s story is a familiar one. Studies have shown that as many as 20% of dyslexic children experience anxiety or depression, and there is little doubt that a diagnosis can help children in a bruising school system feel slightly less terrible about themselves. “When your son is screaming he wants to kill himself, harm himself, and repeatedly running away at the age of six because he feels stupid, it’s so difficult,” the parent of one dyslexic child told the all-party parliamentary group for dyslexia in 2019. Dyslexia advocates often argue that this, in itself, is a good reason to hold on to the concept, whatever some scientists may say. “Academic arguments about things are great,” said Boden, the BDA chair, “but for us it always will be and always has been about the people.”
Last winter, I attended the BDA’s annual fundraising gala at Twickenham Stadium. As I stood in the lobby, I watched the gala crowd arrive. Women in sparkly cocktail dresses stepped out of Ubers, aided by men dressed in black tie. The crowd were mostly white, in their 30s or older, and the atmosphere inside the room was excitable, the vibe that of long-married couples enjoying a rare night away from the kids.
As we dined on roast lamb, speaker after speaker took to the stage to share their own experiences of dyslexia. Before they were diagnosed, they thought they were stupid. With their diagnosis came acceptance and access to a supportive community of like-minded people who had experienced the same struggles and had come out the other side. “I was lucky enough to be diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 10,” Mollie King of pop group the Saturdays told the crowd. “It breaks my heart to think that there are other children out there who don’t have this diagnosis, and still feel stupid, the way I did.” Guests nodded in recognition. An 18-year-old girl received an award for her resilience. “I want people to know that dyslexia is a gift,” she said, to applause. “You aren’t dumb, you’re smart in a different way.”
Among scientists in the UK, one of the most prominent defenders of the concept of dyslexia is Margaret Snowling, a professor of psychology based at Oxford University. Although she has criticised Elliott’s arguments, there is some overlap in their views. “I think Joe Elliott has the right instinct,” she said. Like Elliott, Snowling is alarmed by the practices of independent educational psychologists – the professionals who are paid directly by parents to diagnose children with dyslexia. “I think it is a racket,” she said. “You wouldn’t have doctors giving diagnoses that are inappropriate.” She also agrees with Elliott’s view that dyslexics and non-dyslexics can basically be taught to read and write in the same way.
On many other points, however, Snowling disagrees with Elliott. She points out that dyslexia has a hereditary component: studies have consistently shown that children with dyslexic parents are more likely to be diagnosed with the condition, and often have conditions including attention deficit disorder and dyscalculia, indicating that dyslexia is a heritable disorder which affects the part of the brain that processes speech and sound.
Above all, Snowling thinks that Elliott is being needlessly iconoclastic. Dyslexia exists, she says, and it’s a label that most people find useful. She has seen this up close – her son is dyslexic. “Bottom line is that if you know someone who’s really had an extremely tough time because of this difficulty … then I think they deserve to have a name,” Snowling said, pointing out that labelling helps people explain to themselves “why they seem to be so stupid”.
Elliott remains unconvinced. “People say a dyslexia diagnosis is useful,” he told me, “so you can look a child in the eye and tell them that they aren’t stupid, and it isn’t their fault. But what about the kids who aren’t dyslexic? Are they lazy and stupid? What we should say to every kid who is struggling to read is that it’s not their fault. You shouldn’t need a diagnosis to say that.”
Away from the debate over the science of dyslexia, one local authority has transformed how it treats children with literacy difficulties. In 2019, just after Staffordshire and Warwickshire were flame-grilled in the House of Lords, Cambridgeshire quietly rolled out a near-identical policy – with one important caveat. Although Cambridgeshire doesn’t differentiate between dyslexic and non-dyslexic children when it comes to teaching literacy, it never removed the word “dyslexia” from its policy guidance. Cambridgeshire simply got on with things, without becoming embroiled in a political firestorm. If parents want to call their children dyslexic, then that’s fine. But it won’t affect the teaching or support they receive. The BDA even endorsed Cambridgeshire’s approach.
In March, I visited Joanna Stanbridge, an educational psychologist for Cambridge county council. Stanbridge – who exudes a fanatical fervour for her job – helped to push through the new approach. “It’s such a barrier, not being able to read and write,” she said passionately. “Everybody needs to be able to do it, particularly those young people who don’t have the privileges other people have.”
It was our second meeting: in November 2019, Stanbridge and her colleague, Kirsten Branigan, had invited me to sit in on a training session for Cambridgeshire’s special educational needs coordinators. Participants were taught how to identify literacy difficulties in children, what interventions to put in place, how to tailor these interventions for children, how to create dyslexia-friendly classrooms – and what to do if those interventions weren’t working. About 17,000 children and young people in Cambridgeshire are believed to have some level of literacy difficulty.
After taking me to a primary school to meet with a low-income child who had benefited from the new approach to teaching literacy – quietly beaming from behind tortoiseshell glasses, he told me with pride that he’d started reading “bigger books” now – Stanbridge took me for a drive around Fenland, the most deprived district in Cambridgeshire. “It’s largely agricultural,” she said, as we sped along narrow roads. Fenland is flat, an expanse of fields of green and brown, under a massive grey sky. “It’s quite cut off. A lot of the villages don’t have any train stations at all. Because there’s not a lot of transport in and out of Fenland, there’s not a lot of access to aspiration.”
Stanbridge is an unlikely evangelist for the new approach to teaching literacy. Her mother is a specialist dyslexia teacher and Stanbridge planned to follow in her footsteps when she became an educational psychologist. She didn’t have a Damascene conversion on dyslexia: there was nothing as singular or dramatic as Elliott’s realisation as he revised his book. Hers was a steady change, a gradual immersion into the theory and practice of teaching literacy, rather than an apple thudding on her shoulder.
“In the world of educational psychologists,” said Stanbridge, “dyslexia is such a contentious subject. Are they dyslexic? Aren’t they dyslexic? But I’m thinking, what do we do about it? What’s the thing to do about it? That was probably the beginning of my 180: just thinking, why are we spending so much time going, ‘are they or aren’t they [dyslexic]’, because no one knows.”
Because change does not come fast, if it comes at all, Cambridgeshire is still paying to send children to private dyslexia schools: it is still legally obligated to honour the judgment made in tribunals, regardless of the reforms. If you plot the distribution of where these children live on a map, 80% are clustered in Cambridge city centre, or south Cambridge, the wealthiest parts of the county. None of them come from Fenland. It is a microcosm of the situation nationally. Following their abortive efforts to implement a new regime, Warwickshire and Staffordshire spend roughly £900,000 between them sending 53 children to private dyslexia schools per year. For the same amount of money, they could hire 27 teachers.
Back in 1976, Bill Yule wrapped up his Isle of Wight research with the following observation: “The era of applying the label ‘dyslexic’ is rapidly drawing to a close. The label has served its function in drawing attention to children who have great difficulty in mastering the arts of reading, writing and spelling but its continued use invokes emotions which often prevent rational discussion and scientific investigation.” And so it continues, almost half a century on: a dyslexia debate, with no end in sight.
Sirin Kale is a London-based journalist specialising in women’s rights, politics, music, lifestyle, and culture.