Article in The Times
09/05/10. Journalist: Caroline Scott
The three teenagers sitting round my kitchen table eating pizza refer to themselves as the Specials, a defensive reference to the special educational support they get at school. As in: "Er, no, sorry, we can't clear up after ourselves 'cos we're special." They think this is hysterically funny and fall about laughing.
Max and Nick are dyslexic, Max so profoundly affected that even his friends can't understand his texts. Nick says that when his mother read his GCSE geography coursework, she cried. Poor woman. I know how this feels.
Felix, my 16-year-old, has developmental dyspraxia. This is essentially an immaturity in the organisation of movement — children are late to walk and struggle with balance and co-ordination — but it also affects the way the brain processes information. Dyspraxics typically have poor memory and difficulty organising their time and they struggle with tasks that require planning. Some have an inability to get anything down on paper — which just about covers everything you need to get through GCSEs and A-levels.If you have a teenager who shares any of these issues you will be dreading the next few weeks as he or she is turfed out of school for study leave, clutching, at best, a revision timetable hastily drawn up by the learning support department, at worst, an incomplete set of notes and a series of good intentions.
This time last year, we hired a GCSE English tutor who came highly recommended. She charged ?35 an hour and worked a schedule so tight that she took the stairs two at a time, still wearing her coat. I found her fantastically reductive approach to the language I love heartbreaking — she gave Felix a template to learn: "Get the three things the examiner is looking for into the first paragraph and he won't bother reading the rest." But it worked. Having been predicted a D, he got a B, and an A in her sideline, chemistry.
Felix was adamant he didn't want to take what he calls "flop subjects" at A-level. He chose a sixth-form college that offered psychology, classical civilisation and law — challenging subjects for anyone, let alone someone who is, um, "special". It'll be fine, I thought, he loves the subjects. Something will click. However, it isn't fine and nothing has "clicked". Three U grades in January's AS modules have reduced the boy to a pulp and his mother to a sleepless wreck. I feel panic, chased by a wave of compassion.
Patrick Wilson, the 31-year-old founder of The Tutor Crowd (TheTutorCrowd.com), an online tuition company geared to support children with learning difficulties through exams, is himself dyslexic. His trump card is that he has insight into the mind of the child for whom everything is a struggle. "Some students who are doing badly feel constantly overwhelmed," he says. "You make a huge effort, you're trying your best, but your best is never good enough. And that feeling freaks you out. There's this tension, this fear: "I have low potential. I am going to fail'."
For parents of children who, as Wilson puts it, "learn differently", the anguish is unending. When he was nine, Felix had the reading age of a 13-year-old but was unable to write more than an indecipherable scrawl. "He is distracted, disorganised and slow," wrote one pitiless teacher whose retirement I did not mourn.
The hot guilt you feel about not being able to make things better makes you especially vulnerable to suggestion. Over the years we've bankrolled an industry stuffed with bonkers therapies — including one where Felix had his neural pathways stimulated by a lady wielding a set of sable paint brushes. Oh, how we laugh about it now. But I always feel inordinately positive when we're trying something — anything — new. At the moment, I genuinely believe that clearing his room and getting organised will affect his results. Shelves full of Muji files, all unused, suggest I am wrong. "Thing is, Mum," Felix drawls. "I can see how all this makes you feel better, but it doesn't help me."
What does help? I think specific individual tuition probably does. The Tutor Crowd approach incorporates a structured five-step plan for every student, beginning with the question: "Where do you want to be three weeks before the exam?" For most this will be: "I want to be able to recall the facts I've learnt. I want to have practised enough exam questions so that the answers and how to structure them are second nature to me."
Nothing new in this. Except the psychological message. "School — and parents — will say, "Work harder'. We never say that," says Wilson, "because these students think they do work hard and it's got them nowhere. It's a destructive process. They're failing because they're distracted in class and they're ineffective readers."
The Tutor Crowd tutors, working via Skype from an online classroom, begin by going over answers verbally. This is an important device for students who fall apart when they try to write. "The first time the answer might be awful: jumbled, unfocused," says Wilson. "Typically the knowledge is there, but they don't structure it properly. The student tries again with the mark scheme in mind, say two marks for information and four marks for evaluation. By the fourth or fifth time, they can talk through the right answer. We also get students to read others' work and grade it, pointing out the gaps.
"The message is positive and liberating: your potential grade is commensurate with your grasp of exam technique; it has nothing to do with you failing as an individual because you have low ability."
Felix has been having psychology tutorials with The Tutor Crowd for a couple of months. I've also resorted to bribery. If he gets an A grade for his weekly assessment, I've promised him tickets to see the Libertines. Most evenings, having had his phone and guitar removed, he ploughs through exam questions (and okay, Facebook). His first assessment scored a U. After a couple of weeks, it was an E. Last time, he got a C. I've a feeling he may be going to that gig.