They Are Supposed To Be Like That!

Why there is no need to “fix” kids with “special needs”.
Guest blog by Shelley Johnston: Dyslexic, doctor, home-schooling mother.

If I am going to have a rant, I will say that I don’t see anyone classifying children as “SEN” because they lack the extraordinary physical energy and courage of my next-door neighbour’s son. In comparison to him, many other children are frankly pathetic. I will say that I don’t see any children being “statemented” because they lack the ability to handle animals the way my childminder’s son can pick up anything from a preying mantis to a chicken and it appears to become tame. Nobody sighs and says “Never mind, dear, we can work on it,” because they can’t write backwards perfectly, as though in a mirror, like my daughter.

But do you know what? When I am old and sick, if I have a heart attack at 3.00 am, I really hope I find someone in A&E who was like my neighbour’s son as a child, because they have the energy to still be firing on all cylinders at three o’clock in the morning.

One day I WILL finally persuade my husband that a large portion of our household income needs to be spent on horses, and if one of those horses gets colic, I’m going to desperately want someone like my childminder’s son to show up and be able to soothe the thrashing hooves and snapping teeth as the poor thing tries to kick and bite its own tummy.

If I need an engineer, I hope they can flip shapes about in their head as easily as my little girl can.

The biggest trouble our children with “special needs” face is our own short-sightedness; our desperation that they go along with the pack, fit the mould and jump through all the hoops – the hoops laid out by the National Curriculum and Ofsted and other well-meaning bodies of people, who don’t seem to understand that Normal Distribution is a bell-curve; that it is NORMAL for people to be abnormal, that whole populations work by having a balance between lots of people who are good at one thing and a few who are good at others.

If we spend all our time trying to narrow the bell-curve and cut off its untidy tails we will find ourselves up the creek without a paddle. We not only do our “special needs” children a grave disservice by teaching them that what they are good at and enjoy is secondary in importance to the things that they are bad at and hate doing,  giving them the impression, albeit unintentionally, that they have to pretend to be something else before they are allowed to be themselves. We deprive the rest of the world of their brilliant talents. We bury our mathematicians, our architects, our philosophers, our Chelsea Flower Show gardeners, our Einsteins, our Chopins under a wave of “Yes, dear; that’s nice: you can do it when you have practised your spellings/when you have learned to sit still in class/when you can remember to put your hand up before speaking/ got your marks in your SATS (ooh , don’t get me started!).

Perhaps they aren’t meant to sit still. They can learn to read standing up, lying down, walking around, or sitting up a tree. Perhaps being “good” at school, sticking to all the rules and interacting with 30 children at a time is just exhausting for the child who is so sensitive that they read the signals of a frightened baby animal. And that’s OK: they are meant to be wriggly, or sensitive, or able to write in both directions. It’s our job to give them space to bloom – whether it’s in a mainstream classroom, a smaller group, a quiet place to hide, or not even at school.

But it doesn’t matter what they need: that’s not what this article is about. It’s about how we look at our children, because that is how they look at themselves. Do we feel sorry for monkeys because they can’t swim, or do we let them climb trees?

PS Of course we have to buy a life-boat as well, because we are 21st century parents with a pathological aversion to risk, and even though the monkey lives in a dry jungle we have to cover all our bases, but more on that some other time…

Lifting the lid on “exam factory” thinking.

Lifting the lid on “exam factory” thinking.

In a direct challenge to the government’s performance tables fixation and the use of “exam floor targets” to label failing schools, Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, has said that some school leaders should be “ashamed” of the tactics used to bolster their league table standings. The Ofsted view is that some schools are simply becoming “exam factories”, burdening students with “meaningless exams” to improve their league table results.

Ms Spielman said, “At a time of scarce pupil funding and high workloads, all managers are responsible for making sure teachers’ time is spent on what matters most. This means concentrating on the curriculum and the substance of education, not preparing your pupils to jump through a series of accountability hoops… The idea that children will not, for example, hear or play the great works of classical musicians or learn about the intricacies of ancient civilisations – all because they are busy preparing for a different set of GCSEs – would be a terrible shame.”

The head of the inspectors in England continued, “All children should study a broad and rich curriculum. Curtailing key stage three means prematurely cutting this off for children who may never have an opportunity to study some of these subjects again.

“Rather than just intensifying the focus on data, Ofsted inspections must explore what is behind the data, asking how results have been achieved. Inspections, then, are about looking underneath the bonnet to be sure that a good quality education –one that genuinely meets pupils’ needs – is not being compromised.”

Answer the Question!
Is this the first breeze of a fresh wind about to blow through our Education system? More emphasis on teaching and learning as opposed to just focusing on achievement has got to be positive, and with the current state of uncertainty in the political landscape it is unlikely that the government will do much to oppose the direction Ofsted may be taking. This issue was highlighted in the context of maths learning difficulties at our SpLD Central conference yesterday, where Prof Steve Chinn (author of Maths for Dyslexics, The Trouble with Maths etc) was our keynote speaker. Steve pointed out that a frightening number of 16-19 yr olds were, basically, incompetent at maths. By incompetent I mean that they made fundamental place value errors; couldn’t work our simple fractions etc. By frightening we are talking about over 40%. At or near the top of the pile of achievement-based teaching (ie I want you to give me the answer to this question, now!) is learning times tables by rote. And in February this year we find Nick Gibb telling an education select committee that times tables testing would be returning to primary schools in summer 2019, as the government thinks “Times tables are a very important part of mathematical knowledge.”

Back to Basics
I don’t think any of us would disagree with the value of knowing what, for example, 6 x 7 equals. What Steve was showing us yesterday was the importance of making sure that children know what the numbers actually mean before we ask them to do sophisticated operations with them. In order to achieve that goal we sometimes need to go a long way back into very basic territory, then sometimes further back still, before we can put right errors and misconceptions that have been hard-wired into early learning experiences with number. What is easy to see in the context of maths learning applies right across the curriculum. Insisting on tests for times tables (and don’t forget, schools – we’ll be grading you on how many of your students give the right answers!) is just a symptom of the bigger problem which is driving the education standards it is desperate to improve.

So let’s hope Ofsted have their way, and get to inspect more of what is going on “under the bonnet”. Maybe we should send the schools minister one of our dyscalculia kits…


Writing on the Wall


It’s not often I get excited about government reports, but the article I read in last Monday’s paper has got me blogging. A report by the Commons’ education select committee criticises the focus on technical aspects of reading and writing that was introduced last year by the schools minister, Nick Gibb. The report said: “The committee is concerned by the emphasis on technical aspects of reading and writing and the diminished focus on composition and creativity at primary school. The committee is not convinced this leads directly to improved writing and calls for the government to reconsider this balance.”

The report goes further, in what is a damning account of what it calls the “high stakes” system of Primary assessment (SATS), but it’s the phrase “diminished focus on composition and creativity” that caught my eye.

I used to be an English teacher, and I’ve always loved writing. Right from the very beginning in the Infants, (in the 1950s) and all the way through my school years, different teachers encouraged my ability and gave me the tools to nurture it. I grew to love grammar and punctuation, to understand parts of speech, to recognise the difference between a main clause and a subordinate clause, to know a simile from a metaphor, to correctly punctuate speech, and to generally follow the road map that took me on my journey of creativity. The wonder of being able to enter my imaginary world and walk through it with another person has stayed with me all my life.

What did I need for this journey? I needed words, obviously, and I found them in books I read and stories I was told; and I needed to know what sounds the letters made when I wrote them down. Actually the wheel of  phonics that we used then was hardly different from the one that has been re-invented, to the sound of great trumpeting and the ker-ching of much cash, in the last 15 years. And the children it didn’t work for then would probably be the same as the ones it doesn’t work for now. But that’s an aside…

I needed to put words together in sentences, so full stops and commas appeared pretty soon; and then paragraphs and soon the magic semi-colon. I needed these things because they helped me to write, and writing is something I wanted to do: my writing was my world, and it was the place I wanted to visit most of all. In all the beauty and wonder that makes up the brain of a child, isn’t it the imagination, that faculty to compose and create, that we possibly cherish more than anything else and whose passing we lament as the demands of adulthood crowd in? Can anything be more important to a child’s education (from Latin roots Ex out and Duco to lead) than the springboard of his or her creativity?

Of course children need to understand the technical aspects of language, but it must be to the extent to which it serves them  in their journey. If we give a child a pair of wheels, a handlebar and saddle, a chain and some brakes, and ask them to learn their various technical attributes, they will soon walk away and look for something better to do. But if put them on a bike and help them to ride, we have started them on a glorious journey that will last for years and go on for many miles. As  they get older and more competent we introduce the gears, we show them how to oil the chain, maintain the brakes, raise the saddle, mend a puncture and the rest. And as they take ownership of the bike, the richer the journey becomes.

So it is with language and writing. Mr Gibb and your army of auditors: will you please get on your bikes,  and let creativity and composition loose in the classroom again.

Bob Hext is author of the Crossbow publication “How to Write Like a Writer“.


“Pupils to be taught maths the Chinese Way” (The Times headline, 12 July)

So: we’re going for wholesale adoption of “Shanghai maths” in the UK. 8000 primary schools will be switching to the traditionalist style of maths teaching used in South Asia. There will be greater emphasis on class teaching; children from age five will learn through drills and repetition; more work will be done from textbooks, and who knows – maybe in a few years our children will have made up the three years that we are behind Shanghai?

We have a Chinese lady at our church whose husband is a doctor in Beijing. They have a five year old son, who has just started school. Why has she chosen to live away from her husband for most of the year? Because of the education system in China. Because the pressure on children to achieve is such that they spend practically every waking hour either at school or doing school work at home. The average school day runs from 7.30 – 5.00, with two hours for lunch. A 12 year old will typically spend 3-4 hours a day doing homework, knowing that when he or she graduates in a few years they face the dreaded high school graduation exam, the Gaokao or “big test”, which examines high school leavers on their Chinese, mathematics and English, and another science or humanities subject of their choice. Shanghai maths is not just a system that can be cherry-picked off the whole Chinese education  cake: it is part of the mix. The 15 year olds who have achieved “mastery” have done so because they have survived spending their childhood in a pressure-cooker. However we are told nothing about those who haven’t…

The Gaokao
As a recent BBC TV documentary showed, a student’s Gaokao result will determine which university they can attend, and therefore much of the rest of their future, so they are under huge pressure from an early age. For the first time this year, any candidate caught cheating could face jail. Gaokao revision is all-consuming, often at the expense of the necessities of life. A good result means status and a high paid job; failing the Gaokao almost guarantees a lifetime of low-ranking employment, and family disappointment. The shadow of the Gaokao falls right back through the education system, so that even children of primary school age are under its thrall. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) recently announced that about 500 children commit suicide each year under academic pressure brought about by the examination-based education system, often by jumping from the balconies of their high-rise flats.

From what I remember from my first school days 60 years ago, we used the Shanghai system at Hedsor infant school – or something pretty similar. Maths drills, chanting tables, whole class teaching – isn’t that it? And those “thick” children who just couldn’t keep up, and fell further and further behind – weren’t they in the picture too?

Of course the text book publishers will feast on this like sharks, and doubtless there will be children who will achieve higher standards. Meanwhile we will be around with our new dyscalculia kit, which will be out in September, to pick up the pieces as our schools are Shanghai’d back into a bygone age. Sadly, though, there are some pieces that can never be picked up. The cost will be a lot more than £41 million of textbooks and training.

Plus ça change…

This has nothing to do with phonics or visual stress, but there is a connection with spelling, and also some mathematical content…

On a day when our woeful performance on the football pitch has “booted” us (sorry) out of Europe for the second time in a week, I’ve just found some material on our fileserver that I’d picked up some time (ie years) ago that serves to illustrate that, in the broad scheme of things, appearances may change but realities remain the same. So with acknowledgements to whoever it was who compiled these anagrams, I hope you enjoy the following…

Dormitory Dirty Room
Desperation A Rope Ends It
The Morse Code Here Come Dots
Slot Machines Cash Lost in ’em
Animosity Is No Amity
Snooze Alarms Alas! No More Z’s
Alec Guinness Genuine Class
Semolina Is No Meal
The Public Art Galleries Large Picture Halls, I Bet
A Decimal Point I’m a Dot in Place
The Earthquakes That Queer Shake
Eleven plus two Twelve plus one
Contradiction Accord not in it

This one’s truly amazing:
To be or not to be: that is the question, whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

And the Anagram:
“In one of the Bard’s best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten.”

And for the grand finale:
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” — Neil Armstrong

The Anagram:
“Thin man ran; makes a large stride, left planet, pins flag on moon! On to Mars!”


Hands off or hands on: what has happened to multi-sensory learning?

multipurpose clear spinner

An instant multi-sensory resource creator.

Hands off or hands on: what has happened to multi-sensory learning?

I spent a day down at the BETT show in January, and came back with a bagful of fliers about the latest developments in educational technology. I sifted through what I thought to be the pick of the bunch, and put them up on the wall in the main corridor of our offices. Everything was apps and robots. At the time I thought: “This is the way education is going. We need to be doing more of this sort of stuff ourselves.”

Fast forward to the Education Show in March, where we had a stand. My attention was arrested by a product that I designed 17 years ago taking centre stage on a huge stand in the middle of the show. It was a simple thing: a clear plastic spinner, with rubber feet, that you can put on any surface or sheet of paper to create your own spinner game or activity. Except it wasn’t my spinner – yet there it was: smaller than mine, and circular rather than square, but exactly the same principal, even down to the four rubber feet. The company launching it clearly hadn’t pinched my design – they had literally re-invented the wheel; nonetheless I suddenly regretted the fact that I hadn’t patented the idea when we brought it out in 1999.

Since then it’s made me think, though – not just about the fact that we could have done a lot more to market such a useful little learning aid, but about where education is going and what learners need. I came back from BETT with an image in my mind of the technology train heading off towards the horizon, and Crossbow running after it with our suitcaserunning-after-the-train full of board games, card games, spinners, dice and other hands-on stuff. But there were computer games around – and good ones, too – when I designed my first card games with the dyslexic kids I was teaching at the school where I worked; and given the choice between playing a computer game or playing a card game, it was actually the card game that they usually preferred.

Have things changed that much? And more to the point, to what extent should we be encouraging activities in school where social interaction is removed? With today’s digitisation of leisure in a world where “all things are possible through the screen that strengthens me” (corrupted from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians), school is rapidly becoming the last remaining place where children can be positively encouraged to play socially.

This isn’t  about the social benefit of games, however, so much as the educational benefits of the type of materials that traditional games employ. Research evidence of the benefits of multi-sensory learning are overwhelming – not just for dyslexic learners, but for everyone. And multi-sensory means what it says: the exercise of multiple learning channels. Visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. Put that in the context of a well-designed social game where game play requires reading and vocalisation of target language, and add to it some of the shortcomings that can still affect both the process and the outcome of reading on screen as opposed to paper*, and some of the educational benefits of digital learning seem to be disappearing along with my imagined train that is carrying them.

This is not to say that all digital learning is bad: far from it. Paper media cannot compete with the accessibility, the versatility, the wealth of content, the level of engagement (so strong that it can become addiction in some cases) that good digital games and other resources provide, and there has to be a place for the best that technology can offer. What concerns me is that we don’t lose track of what we have learnt about the benefits of  multisensory learning in the rush to pile on board the next all-singing, all-dancing app train that pulls into the station. Because when it moves off, we (that is Crossbow Education) will now be quite happy to tip out the contents of our old-school suitcase into the gap that it has left behind.

Anyone fancy as game of cards?

PS Check out our conference SpLD Central on June 9th. Lots of multisensory stuff going on there.

Bob Hext, April 2016


*(Dillon, A. (1992) Reading from paper versus screens: a critical review of the empirical literature. Ergonomics, 35(10), 1297-1326.)

Coloured overlays, bad science, and the B B C (The Windscreen Analogy).

Last week the BBC reported on a study by researchers from Bristol and Newcastle which cast doubt on the efficacy of using coloured overlays to help with reading difficulties. Now that the storm  has died down a bit, I thought it’s time I put in my penn’th (is that how you spell it?).

“Dyslexia not linked to eyesight”, trumpets Sean Coughlan of the BBC. Absolutely right. But who said it was? Therefore coloured overlays don’t work for dyslexia, infer the researchers. Indeed they don’t. However, what they do work for is visual stress, which happens to be a condition of the visual cortex that quite a lot of dyslexic people suffer from, but which has no direct connection with any of the ophthalmic data that the researchers analysed.

Basically there are four separate threads here: Dyslexia, the eyes, coloured overlays, and visual stress (linked with the visual cortex). Because (despite the efforts of Bruce Evans, Arnold Wilkins and other academics), confusion and ignorance still generally prevail over the relationship between dyslexia and visual stress, the researchers have looked at their data on eye conditions (short-sightedness, convergence problems etc) and responded to questions from concerned parents with the following logic:

“We find no statistical correlation between dyslexia and eye problems, therefore a coloured filter can’t make any difference to how words appear to the reader” .

I was trying to think of something that would illustrate the failings of this logic, and decided it was a bit like saying “The demister in your car doesn’t affect the rain on the windscreen, so you’re wasting your time using it on the condensation.”

If you don’t make sure your car windscreen is free of condensation, you run the risk of crashing your car. Sadly, some parents will have listened to the bad science promulgated by the BBC, and run the risk of crashing their child’s reading as a result. And the BBC will be responsible for the crash. You can phonic a child to death, but they will never read with ease and comfort until the words stop moving around – and in many cases the only way to achieve that is by reading through colour, because nothing else deals with the hyper-excitation of the visual cortex that causes visual stress.

Incidentally the Daily Mail, who picked up on this story as well, ran an article on our reading rulers a few years ago entitled “Now you can read through colour”. Obviously it made a good story at the time – 2008, I think it was. Now, in 2015, it makes a good story to say the opposite. Hello? Is anyone out there interested in the truth?

Bob Hext, 5th June 2015.