When I first began teaching fifteen years ago, the school where I worked was not particularly interested in special needs teaching or differentiating between students in a class. I had a small group of boys that I would take for remedial lessons every week and that was the extent of the help given to them. Some of these pupils had an educational psychologist's report and were deemed dyslexic, but not much notice was taken by the school - which is not to say that their conditions were ignored, they just weren't given much emphasis and no one was excused from doing anything because of their difficulty.
Some educationalists take umbrage at this way of doing things. The last twenty or so years have seen a considerable change in the way in which learning difficulties are viewed. Students taking the University of Cambridge's examinations can apply to have a reader (someone who reads the questions out aloud) or a scribe (someone who writes the answers down on instruction from the student). This is all well and good, and I think everyone agrees that a pupil's individual needs should be taken into consideration when doing something as important as examinations.
However, it is questionable as to how many pupils have genuine learning difficulties. An educational psychologist's report is required, of course, but often no particular condition as such is given; rather the pupil is deemed to have 'slow cognitive skills' or 'weak processing skills' or 'poor auditory skills'. Some believe that the number of pupils with special educational needs is on the increase and there is no doubt that the number of children seeking help has quadrupled in the past thirty years, but is this a surprise considering the range of difficulties has also widened?
However, my own personal belief is that, whether a pupil has slow auditory or cognitive skills or not, is not the real problem. The real problem is a low level of literacy. There are a number of factors which contribute to this, the most important one being the exposure to books. Time and time again when a parent asks me to give their child extra lessons or is worried about their child's level of English, the first question I ask is does their child read. Nine times out of ten, they don't. There is a very strong link between reading and learning and the children at the top of the class are readers.
To announce that the average child does read nearly as much as their counterparts thirty years ago is hardly an earth-shattering fact. We all know that television has replaced the book in many different ways. Children don't read because their parents don't read to them. Bedtime stories are a thing of the past, with many children having to wait until they themselves can read in order to hear a story, by which time the process is strongly linked with school reading books, which are very limited and often dull, and the whole school system which places children into categories of very good, good, and not so good. Reading becomes a chore and very much a school subject. The enjoyment of listening to a story for the story's sake is lost.
Stories, even children's stories, often operate on many levels. Just by listening to a story, a child becomes aware of what is inferred rather than stated and in this way learns to appreciate the bigger story. Inference is an important part of comprehension and what we are seeing today is an increasing amount of pupils who cannot pick up on subtle clues in the text. Unless they are told that the man in the story is unhappy, they cannot deduce this from the way he slouches in his chair and doesn't smile. I have taught many sixteen year olds who cannot grasp the idea of a deeper meaning in a literary text. Literature is now viewed as a very difficult subject that only the most intelligent can attempt. This is ridiculous.
What we have also seen in our education system is a gradual dumbing down of knowledge. Today's A Level students would struggle if presented with an A Level paper from thirty years ago. Yet, the funny thing is that we are constantly being told how things are getting harder. Compare one of Beatrix Potter's children's stories to one written in the last ten years and the differences in vocabulary are striking. Children born in the late nineteenth century grew up with writers such as Jules Verne and Frances Hodgson Burnett - how many children today would attempt their novels without finding them a challenge?
Another barrier to learning is severe emotional distress. Many of the children I have worked with who have learning difficulties have suffered trauma of some sort in their lives. Divorce and disharmony in the home are two of the greatest sources of emotional trauma for children. Children who come from a happy, stable home and who feel loved and valued do tend to be more settled and attentive in class. The child with the short memory span often learns this as a defence or coping mechanism at home.
It may sound like obvious advice, but parents need to spend time with their children every day. They need to sit down for at least one meal together in that day and ask each other what they have done. In far too many families, the television takes precedence over conversation and meals are eaten by individuals at varying times.
Every one of us, even the geniuses amongst us, could be tested by an educational psychologist and found to be lacking in some area. Many of us know our failings and have developed coping mechanisms. The danger of labelling people as having 'problems' is that these are often viewed as irreparable. The inclination is often to opt out of doing something rather than overcoming it. It is also often easier to live with a condition than put in place the mechanisms for addressing it as this may mean changing our lifestyles and forfeiting what we enjoy doing. Simple solutions are not what we want.