On winning awards: light and gloss…

It’s a month since we won the Supplier of the Year award, so it’s about time I put down a few thoughts.

Firstly, yes it was great to win for the second year in succession. Thanks to everybody (usual acknowledgements – boring to hear/read – Oscar winners excruciating blah blah comes to mind! – but nonetheless true).

A little bit of detail about the award.  The Educational Resources Awards are run by the British Educational Suppliers Association. Again – think of the Oscars, and all the different categories: ERA is the same, so there’s stuff like best ICT product, best exporter, even best marketing campaign (I’ve never worked out what that’s got to do with Education, but whatever). Our Reading Rulers were finalists for best non-ICT SEN product (think “Oscar Nomination”) again this year. So – Supplier of the Year is the “biggie” (think “best film”), and there are three categories: under £1,000,000 turnover; £1-3 m turnover; and 0ver £3m. We won the first category this year and last year, and we were finalists in 2011 as well. The company has continued to grow, so next we’re we’ll be in the middle (£1-3m) category.

So where am I going with this? Well this blog is not so much about us, as about all the other winners as well. Like in any industry, the small business like ours rub along with the big names – the £3m + people. Companies like Findel and TTS come to mind, with huge pots of money to spend on product development, marketing etc. I used to know the guy who started TTS – he’s been to our house. But he sold the company to RM Nimbus, who are huge, and I don’t know who owns them. Findel are a public company who also own one of the door-to-door catalogue companies – Kleeneezie or Bettaware among other interests. Companies like ours are usually started and run by teachers with a genuine interest in children and teaching, who have developed something that “works”. In my case it was the card games I devised with my secondary school dyslexic students. Unfortunately the “big names”  of this world are often owned and run by people whose main interest is money, not children and teaching. I’m not painting myself whiter than white here: I enjoy making and spending money! But here’s the thing: not one of the “big boys” won a major award at the Educational Resources Awards 2013!!  Even though their names may have been splashed across the stage as sponsors of the event, their sponsorship bought them nothing – except a four-figure sum on their marketing account.

The £3m + winner was Rising Stars; an independent publisher. I hadn’t even heard of the £1-3m winners. And even though one of the “big boys” had entered their SEN brand into the under £1m category (how does that work??), they didn’t win, because we did. I was really heartened by this: the judges – all teachers and other Education professionals – were not impressed by the gloss that money can put on a company or product, but by the shine that came from its quality.

Which brings me to my last point: if anybody involved in organising conference exhibitions reads this, please take it on board. This year’s ERA awards show that people want genuine shine, not superficial gloss. Light, not polish. Yet some Conference exhibition organisers charge huge amounts of money for the “marketing opportunity” of exhibiting to a hundred or so people at their events. So who is going to exhibit? The companies for whom hundreds or thousands of pounds are just another line on the marketing budget. Gloss, not shine. Polish, not light. If you ever wondered why you only see the same old names  exhibiting at some of the events you’ve been to, just ask the exhibition organisers how much they charge for exhibition space…

And finally – if we do ever end up being one of the “big boys” ourselves, I hope and pray that we don’t lose sight of the values that make us what we are at the moment. If we can be a bit of light in the world, that will be good.

Handwriting and the electric window.


Styli used in writing in the Fourteenth Century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few things I have read recently, plus the fact that there is a reminder on my desk telling me it’s the Corporate Members’ Day of the National Handwriting Association (which we’re part of) coming up, have brought to mind something I’ve written about before – which is the apparent demise of handwriting as a required social and educational skill. Handwriting is no longer taught as a curriculum subject in the USA. Young people in China are losing their calligraphy skills because of increased keyboard and mobile phone use. A Lancashire school was in the news recently for replacing all exercise books and handwritten activities with I Pads (no coloured overlays or tinted exercise books for that school, then…) Where does this lead?

We’ve progressed a long way from the days when  commandments were cut into tablets of rock or hieroglyphs carved on pyramid walls, and no-one writes in copperplate any more; but if “the hand is the instrument of the brain” (Montessori?) what happens to the brain if the dexterity required to express thought is limited to  the use of the thumbs on a smartphone screen?

Without going into detail, it’s well-known that writing reinforces learning through the visual and kinaesthetic channels (as long as understanding is there, of course – but that’s another topic). At the same time, it’s one of the great benefits of our technological age that so much support is now available to people for whom writing is difficult or impossible. But what bothers me in all of this has nothing to do with the socio-educational benefits or otherwise of holding a writing instrument and using it to express ideas. No. What bothers me is the electric window.

Have you ever been driving in the rain, opened the window to press the button on a car park barrier, and found your window stuck open because the motor has failed? Then wished, with all your heart as the rain drives in, for a little chrome handle so you could wind the window up?? What worries me is the idea of a society where we become so dependent on technology that something so fundamental to the human psyche as self-expression needs the agency of a digital device to become manifest. I use the computer all the time, but if you took it away I would still be able to write. I have still got my little chrome window-handle.

We treat our world as if the power behind the mouse will last for ever, and the mobile phone networks were as enduring as the mountains. Just like we thought the banking system was built on something more than parcels of unpaid debt. We need to teach our children to write because what is of real value in society is not the mechanisms that support us, but who we are ourselves: I for one would not like to live in a world where the life – support systems we have created have become stronger than the life itself.

Is that what you mean by a word? Why we must assess weak readers for Visual Stress.

visual cortex

visual cortex (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A six-year-old boy (we’ll call him Joe)  was unable to blend C-A-T to make “cat” when he was assessed with the  Visual Stress Assessment Pack.  The assessor had worked through the single colours in the test, with no significant difference between a single colour tint and white paper. He was now in the final stages of the visual stress  assessment, using double overlays to deepen the tint on the page of text. When Joe was given a double blue overlay, he sat back and said: “Oh! Is that what you mean by a word? Can I start learning to read now?”

Visual Stress is not assessed for, or even recognised, nationally. Successive governments have attempted to raise literacy standards in school, with the latest “push” being for systematic synthetic phonics as recommended by the 2007 Rose Review, followed up by the current government’s match-funding initiative for approved synthetic phonics materials.  Following the Rose Review, Lord Adonis, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools and Learning, wrote in November 2007:

“We now have a clear, tried and tested method of teaching our children how to read. Since we know what works, there should be no question of any child being left behind.”

No child left behind – except of course, for Joe, and thousands like him, who cannot put three letters together because they won’t stay still on the page.  According to research by professor Arnold Wilkins of Essex University, Visual Stress is most probably caused by “cortical hyperexcitablility”: a condition which results in certain cells in the visual cortex being over-stimulated by specific rays in the colour spectrum, and resulting in a disrupted visual image of the word.  Whatever phonics programme Joe is presented with, he will not start learning to read unless that interference is filtered out, in his case by a deepish blue tint. Until then, it is a lost cause. Visual Stress has won the day.  As I am getting tired of saying: no child can decode a word if the letters are moving around.

Visual Stress number crunch

When children like Joe are left behind they eventually lose interest in education, and seek success and self-esteem  in other areas. Some are fortunate enough to succeed in sport or the arts, but many are not so lucky. Many criminal careers start with educational failure:

“Nearly half of male sentenced prisoners were excluded from school and nearly a third of all prisoners were regular truants whilst at school and more than half of male and more than two-thirds of female adult prisoners have no qualifications at all.”
Prison Reform Trust (2003/2004) Report on ‘Social Characteristics of Prisoners’.

There are various statistics on literacy levels among prisoners, but most sources agree that around 50% of prisoners have a reading level below that which would be expected of an 11-year old. Research by Professor Wilkins published in his book Reading Through Colour (Wiley 2003) suggest that as much as 22% of the population suffers with varying levels of Visual Stress . So how many prisoners are like Joe? 10%? 20%? More?

UK Figures from HM Prison Service, National Audit Office and Ministry of Justice tell us that there are 85,419 prisoners in England and Wales ( BBC News, 29 March 2011) and that the average cost of keeping someone in prison is £47,000 per year. That’s over £4 billion a year.

There are about 17,000 primary schools in the UK.  17,000 Visual Stress Assessment Packs  that would pick up the likes of Joe would cost the taxpayer just £850,000. At 6, Joe was still desperate to start learning to read.  Not many years from now he wouldn’t be.   Yet there is no national screening for Visual Stress in schools, in the UK or anywhere else.

The message to decision makers, whether in schools or in governments,  is simple.  Do you want to save a lot of money? Do you want Joe to have a life?  Do the maths. Take Visual Stress seriously.