In the midst of the open day crowd, a young father taps me on the shoulder. He carries a toddler in one arm and pulls a pushchair along behind him. He’s sporting a sweatshirt covered in splotches of white paint, a pair of old, grey Nike’s, and large dark circles under his eyes. His other daughter, who looks about secondary school age, trails behind him, transfixed by her phone.
“Excuse me, Miss,” he says.
“How can I help?” I beam. “Are you interested in sending your daughter to Michaela this September, Sir?”
“Yes, Miss,” he replies. “They said you was the one who I can speak to about special needs, Miss.”
I nod, smile, introduce myself. He glares at me for a moment as he gathers his thoughts. Shuffling awkwardly from foot to foot, his eyes scan the floor briefly before returning to mine.
“The thing is, right,” he begins, “my daughter, yeah, she’s got special needs, innit, Miss,”
“Okay, well you’ve come to the right person! What is the nature of your daughter’s needs?” I reply.
“Well, she can’t read, Miss. She hate reading. She don’t like it and I can’t never get her to do no reading ever.”
“Right. I understand. Lots of parents struggle to get their kids to read. It’s not unusual. There’s a lot we can do to help. I’m really glad you came to speak to me, Mr…?”
“Daniels. My name is Shaun. My daughter here is Georgia. Come here, Georgia, and say ‘hi’ to this lady what’s gonna be your teacher next year at Michaela.”
Georgia lifts her head momentarily from her iPhone and throws me a brief smile. Her eyes dart back to Whatsapp.
“The thing is, right, she’s got special needs. So I’m not sure if there’s anything you can do because it’s her special needs what stops her from learning to read. Me and my wife are so…. frustrated because we really want her to do well at school but she don’t do no reading ever and we knows its important, you hear me?
“I didn’t do so well at school myself, you know, and I don’t want that for my daughter, Miss. You understand? I am desperate for her to learn reading, Miss. Can you help? Please teach my daughter to read. Do whatever you can. Honestly, I am really meaning this right now.”
His speech is passionate. I sense that he’s delivered it before. There is an air of desperation behind his words.
I ask him, “Does Georgia have any other needs, other than her difficulties with reading?”
He looks baffled. “No. She can’t read. That’s it, Miss.”
The conversation continues and I try to reassure him. The reality is that I can’t make promises. I can’t say that his daughter will definitely learn to read in the next few years. I simply don’t know what her needs are. I tell him what we do, how we teach reading, the programmes we use, the number of hours of support she’ll receive each week, the homework requirements, and so on. I tell him what I think will happen, but I avoid making any concrete predictions at this stage.
And yet, looking at Georgia and her father, I have a hunch. I’ve met a number of children with all sorts of special needs in the past, and I am yet to meet a child who can’t be taught to read. I’ve never met a child in mainstream education whose needs are so profound that they cannot be taught to decode the 120 or so graphemes of the English language with proper instruction. Whilst Georgia may have another special need that presents her with various challenges, I cannot shake the thought that perhaps she has been labelled as ‘SEN’ because she hasn’t been taught to read properly. I know I’m making assumptions, but I think of all the people on Twitter who stand by their whole word approaches to teaching reading, and all the primary schools I have visited where mixed methods are still the norm, despite vast swathes of evidence to the contrary, and I wonder whether Georgia is yet another victim of our profession’s ignorant mistakes. I wonder how many of the 1.3million ‘SEN’ children in the country have no genuine cognitive disability, but have simply been let down by poor reading instruction over the years. I wonder how many fathers and mothers and aunts and uncles and grandparents and carers have trusted schools to do their job and have been catastrophically let down.
And it is catastrophic. I don’t have to convince you of the consequences of a child not learning to read, but here’s an interesting article that I found particularly enlightening on the subject.
18 months later, and Georgia has received rigorous reading instruction and reads thousands of words per day, including the classics. She is no longer on the SEN register and her reading age has improved by 4 years. She still has lots of catching up to do, but she is making rapid progress. I’m not suggesting that we are superheroes who have a unique ability to cure the illiterate. Rather, I’m trying to point out that it is incredibly easy to teach a child to read if you use the correct methods. It’s a downright disgrace that kids like Georgia are let down in primary schools, and whilst I know lots of primary teachers who do teach reading properly, many still don’t.