Raising a snowflake or accepting limitations: When my dyslexic son chooses his GCSEs

When my son chose his GCSEs neither of us mentioned his dyslexia; there was no need. The moment we began talking about academic subjects and exams, he knew we had entered a realm in which he is automatically disadvantaged. It’s a realm that makes him visibly nervous and noticeably reduces his confidence. And he’s only too aware that it’s a realm his siblings have thrived in, easily outstripping him at every turn.

My dyslexic son has always had an uncomfortable relationship with reading and he dreads writing. Spelling is a total mystery to him. He is easily distracted from his studies as printed words and numbers inevitably fail to hold his attention if anything else, from a snoring cat to a buzzing fly, is in the vicinity. We both know his memory is terrible.

Over the years I’ve encountered “experts” who’ve implied dyslexia is a beast best subjugated through hard work and willpower. Armed with the hefty, clumsy weapons of extra work, support and tests, every dyslexic should, according to them, fight the good fight until they emerge victorious. If at first the dyslexic doesn’t succeed they must try, try, try again… until they’re the same as everyone else!

These experts do not understand dyslexia. If my son attended school then I have little doubt we would be pressured to obey this well-intentioned, results-driven but ultimately unrealistic model. Because the majority of children, teachers and examiners do not have dyslexia, non-dyslexics have precedence in our nation’s education system. Sadly, this leaves dyslexics misunderstood and struggling to keep up with their peers. The expert approach swallows up their free time with supplementary work and usually only serves to dent their self-esteem.

Home-schooling has, without a doubt, increased and improved my son’s options. He has more freedom to choose GCSE subjects he feels confident about passing, he can defer exams until he’s ready to sit them, isn’t obliged to study ten unrelated subjects per-week, and isn’t being compared to two dozen non-dyslexic classmates in every lesson. Whilst his results are important to us, we as his family view him holistically, not through the narrow lens of academic performance. His GCSE studies take up part of each day but do not dominate his time as a six hour school day followed by homework would; six subjects are studied rather than ten. This has given him more time to pursue his hobbies and interests, which are the things he loves doing  and excels in – the things his dyslexia doesn’t affect.

All this can lead to the questions, am I raising a snowflake; is he a lad so protected from the realities of life that he’ll melt at the first sign of hard work?

My answer is no. I’m helping my dyslexic son to pick his battles wisely. Amongst the GCSEs he’s chosen are Maths and English Language. He will have to work harder than most to pass these difficult, core subjects even though he is studying less overall than he would do in school – the six subjects instead of ten. Because his progress will be much slower and more laborious than other children’s this is a more realistic and fairer goal.

Dyslexia is not a monster that can be fought and defeated. It cannot be slain by gritty determination and hard work alone. However, I believe it is possible to accommodate the limitations faced by dyslexic children. For my son, this has been helped by our decision to home-educate.

Many of you who are doing exams this year will be revising or starting to think about revising. As a tutor, I am often asked, “What should I revise?” The answer is, unfortunately, everything that you have covered in the course. No one except the exam writers know what is going to be in the exams in any single year, so always make sure that you cover everything.

Barnaby Lenon, an ex-headmaster at Harrow, has recently written in a blog that GCSE students should revise their course at least three times. The same applies for A level students, but officially there is no magic number given as to how many times you should do so. Usually, however, it will be more than once. Some lucky people, the exceptions, can read something once and it will “go in”, but more will have to go through the course over and over again for it to sink it. We are all different, and this is the main point with revising – what works for one person will not work for another.

With all this in mind, there are some tips below. Remember, some will work for you, some won’t.

• Find a good place to work. Some of you will like quiet, others will like some noise. We all work best in certain places. Some students may like to work in a library, others in their room, others in a coffee shop. Find a place that works well for you and stick to it.

• What time works best for you? Some people work better early in the morning, others in the afternoon, others late at night. Again, stick to what works for you. If you are a night owl, it’s pointless to try and force yourself to get up early and study – it just won’t work as well. Use your strengths and find the best time to suit you.

• Avoid distractions. There are so many distractions today: mobile phones, television, emails and so on. It can make it hard to study. If you are reading this now but also looking at your social media feed on your phone, for example, it’s doubtful all you are reading will go in. So avoid such distractions if you can. Turn off your phone. Turn off your emails. If you find it hard to do this, give yourself a time limit, “I will revise for one hour, then spend five minutes looking at my phone.”

• With the above point also in mind, some students find it hard to sit down and study for long periods. Others prefer it. Again, you should do what suits you best. If you do find it hard to sit for long periods, give yourself a reward. One student I worked with played volleyball at national level. He found it very hard to sit down for long periods and study. Consequently he was doing hardly any revision. We came up with a plan. He would revise for 50 minutes, then go outside and play with a ball or go for a jog for ten minutes. Then he would revise for 50 minutes again and so on. This worked well for him. You may find a similar reward works for you, looking at your phone, going for a walk, making a cup of tea, watching TV, phoning a friend and so on. Decide on your time limit and give yourself a reward.

• Aim to study for no more than two and a half hours without taking a break. You are probably not revising as well as you would if you carry on revising after that time.

• Making and reading notes and using flashcards can all work well for some students. Others can make recordings of their notes and listen back to them when they are going for a walk or even when they are sleeping at night – Mind maps and memory palaces can also be useful when revising. Again, find a method that works well for you and stick to it.

• If you are reading something and it isn’t sinking in or you don’t understand it. Try a few of the following techniques…
o Read it out loud. When you do this, sometimes it seems to make more sense.
o Try and explain it to someone else – You may find that you know far more than you think you do when you explain it to another person.
o Read it in another way. There are a lot of resources online today, so if you don’t understand your notes or textbook, look online and find another explanation.

• Making a revision timetable for when you intend to revise your subject is also useful. You may be revising for more than one subject, so work out when you are going to study and make a plan for each subject.

• Practice exam papers and old TMAs under “exam conditions.”

• Try to take off a day a week. You decide which day. Take some time off from all that studying.

• Try to start revising as soon as you can. The earlier you start to revise, the more revision you will do.

Remember, you have revised before. You know what has worked well for you and what didn’t. So if you have a good way of revising, stick to it. But if your way hasn’t worked so well, why not try another option from those listed above? There is also of course a lot of advice out there online and in books. The best way to revise is the way that works for YOU! So find your best method and stick to it.

Finally, though success in them is all about your hard work and revision, I am still going to wish you this – Good luck with your exams!

Essay writing is, for many people, a difficult skill to master. For some of us, in fact, the problems begin almost before we’ve even started. With this in mind, I would like to offer my own top five tips to get you past that first line.

1. Do some reading around your topic in advance of starting

It is better to use few texts well than lots of texts badly. Make notes if it helps you but what matters most is that you digest the information, so that you can build on it in your essay. To write a good essay you need to feel confident enough about your topic to write out a paragraph without stopping to look something up. An essay will always read better if it has been written in a linear manner.

 

2. Begin by thinking about the end point

By this I mean think carefully about what your conclusion is going to be. What is your overall viewpoint? An essay is a chance to put forward a balanced argument for a view you have on a certain topic. Your essay will be more enjoyable to write if you are arguing for a view that you truly believe in.

 

3. Plan your introduction

What are the key concepts that the reader will need to know about to understand your essay? The introduction is your chance to capture your reader’s attention, so keep it snappy and to the point. Any topic can be interesting if it is well written about. If you just want to scribble down some key words and come back to it later that is fine.

 

4. Plan the sections in the main body of the essay

Sit down somewhere cosy and quiet and get the main body planned in one sitting. Libraries are free to use and can provide an ideal workspace away from distractions. You know the key concepts you would like to include and you know your concluding viewpoint. Move on from one point to the next, thinking about how they interact with each other. Each paragraph and sentence should connect to the one before and after.

 

5. Get someone who has little to no prior knowledge of the topic to read through your plan

Your essay should make sense to whomever wanted to read it, not just your teacher who already knows lots about the topic. Ask them a few questions about the topic or the view you’re discussing in your essay to see if it’s coming across in the way that you want it to.

 

BONUS TIP: Do your bibliography as you go along! The feeling of relief when you finish an essay can be ruined when you realise you need to write out a whole bibliography. It will take a lot less time to do if you constantly add in texts as you use them, because you won’t spend so much time trying to find lost details! Make sure you have a guide you find easy to use when writing out the references. There is an abundance of these to be found online, so you have plenty of choice!

 

There’s a reason why parents usually push us to learn as much as we can at an early age and that’s because they want us to have time to learn and refine as years go by. You may remember being told that you need to have a certain set of skills to survive in life and to keep up with its demands. And it’s a question that will just keep on being asked. Indeed, as an adult you are going to thank your home and school environment for this. You are going to need and will start putting these skills to good use, starting at secondary school.

You may be wondering, of course, what kind of skills I am referring to. And you are right to do so. The word “skills” may take on different meanings. What I am referring to in this case are the two most important categories: soft and hard skills. Soft skills are the ones mostly connected to your personality and those around you; in other words your interpersonal or people skills. Even if you turn out to be the most introverted person you know, you will, at some point in your life, have to deal with an issue that requires you to address others around you. This is where soft skills come in to play. But which skills are these in particular? Glad you asked! Take a look at the following most important soft skills to start cultivating in school.

1) Communication: We can’t live in a world without communication. Learning to do it the right way, which means learning to actively listen and constructively contribute in order to find a viable solution to a problem, is the best way to go. You can start with your classmates and see where that takes you.

2) Team work: Combined with communication, this soft skill is of vital importance, starting in the classroom. Working with your classmates and being involved in your shared activities, whether it be sports or classwork, will boost your social skills and help you understand and adapt to the different personalities you will meet later in life as well.

3) Flexibility: This does not only concern your schedule. I would suggest that you look at it in a different light, as being flexible as to your opinions, ideas and beliefs. Tolerance is a powerful skill to possess.

4) Motivation: We all have those days when we want to do absolutely nothing. However, motivating yourself and then others can take you a long way into your relationships. How about starting to push yourself a little bit each day? According to research, it only takes 21 days to establish a new habit. Let this be yours. Start with yourself and see how that helps others around you.

5) Patience: They say that patience is key, and that’s definitely true. You can accomplish next to nothing without patience. How about trying to be patient, tolerant, a great listener, and diplomatic in your conversations with your fellow classmates?

We must not, however, forget the necessity of enriching ourselves with some hard skills as well. So, similarly, what do we mean by hard skills and why are they significant? In a few words, hard skills are the ones that you can learn, the learning process of which most likely starts in the classroom. They are also the skills that a prospective employer will be able to check and quantify later in your life. You can find some examples of hard skills below.

1) Learning a new language: did you see that coming? This is one of the most, if not the most, essential skills that you can learn in life. Apart from the fact that knowing a second language could lead to a more lucrative career in the future, possessing such a skill allows you to enter a culture, become familiar with its mindset, its people, its traditions and customs. Knowing a language other than your own acts as a beacon of cultural knowledge. Combined with soft skills such as communication and flexibility this can help you win people over.

2) Technology & Computer skills: you know you’ve got that, right? Whether you learn these at school or at home, these skills are here to stay. As technology advances, so should our knowledge of it in order for us to occupy a place in society. Of course, not all positions later in life require you to be a whizz-kid, but basic computer functions, such as emails and Microsoft Office are deemed imperative even when you are still in school. Take this opportunity and embellish these skills now, so that later you have time to refine them and learn new and more advanced ones should the need arise.

Now it’s time for you to mix and match! You may already possess some of the above and others you’ll probably wish to refine along with the others on the list. Ready, set, go!

Is the current education system eliminating imagination and artistic potential from our future society?

In recent years the British government has been accused of trying to marginalise the Arts subjects, in favour of Core subjects such as Science, Languages and Maths. The value placed on Art, Music and Drama appears to have decreased, with even the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) having dropped all Arts subjects, bar English, from its list of requirements.

Commenting on his post The Seven Deadly Sins that Prevent Creative Thinking, Psychology Today blogger Michael Michalko said, “Unfortunately, I’ve come to believe that education is a great inhibitor of our natural creativity… To me it seems that in the real world those who know more, create less; and those who know less create more.”

Michalko echoes the opinion that Sir Ken Robinson made in his 2006 TED talk, when he spoke passionately on why we need to create an educational system that nurtures, rather than undermines, creativity ( https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity ).

It could be said that in a modern world, full of technology and instant request filling opportunities, children don’t need to be as imaginative or creative as they have been in the past. In truth, many would argue that the opposite is the case. While the demands of the technology that runs our world means an understanding of science and maths is more vital than ever, the stresses that accompany such ambitions mean that the ability to escape into our imaginations has become just as important.

Creativity, be it through drama, song, playing of a musical instrument, drawing a picture or telling a story, provides a much needed dimension to our personalities, culture, and well-being; In its most extreme case scenario, the sidelining of the Arts would ultimately mean less books to read, less films to see, less songs to sing, and less artwork to enjoy.

In a recent article in the Times Educational Supplement, ‘Too many schools have forgotten that fun is crucially important’, Colin Harris asks if primary schools have become so concerned with meeting the standards of Ofsted and ensuring all government guidelines are met, that there is little time left for children to have fun or learn through creativity.

Mr Harris warns that, “Many of the problems that manifest themselves later at late junior and early secondary phases are due to the insufficient opportunities we have given our children to develop their emotional intelligence through play and creative opportunities when younger… Play and creativity need to permeate all levels of our system. Surely if learning is memorable and inventive then our children will certainly think and behave differently.”

Most teachers would rightly deny that they work hard merely to instil a feeling of dull mediocrity among their pupils. Yet with English teachers having little choice but to teach us what we are supposed to think about the books we read rather than allowing us the freedom to make up our own minds, and decreasing educational budgets meaning that even if a school wanted to stage a play or buy instruments to form an orchestra they can’t afford to, it is easy to see why the lack of creativity argument continues to rage. After all, any school that was seen to put the desire to buy dancing shoes ahead of purchasing new science equipment would lose its reputation fast.

It is fair to say that, on an individual level, the majority of teachers do their best to introduce as much creativity as they can to their daily lessons; but they are up against a system that is, at this current time, discouraging rather than encouraging that angle of education.

August in the UK doesn’t just mean a month of school holidays for many school and college pupils; for those who have sat their GCSE, A level, Standards, Highers, BTEC and equivalent exams, it brings to an end a long wait to see if those exams have been passed, and if so, how well.

After the A level results were released in England and Wales this year it was widely reported that, for the first time in many years, boys had fractionally higher grade marks than girls. A number of reasons have been put forward for what seems to be perceived as a sea-change, including the structure of this year’s exams. However, this may not necessarily be true. For instance, The Guardian also quotes a research group called Education Datalab which comments: “Their [boys] performance has improved relative to girls’ this year, but this might have been as much to do with the academic ability of the boys and girls who chose these subjects this year as it is to the changes to A level structure.”

In other words, the differences between boys and girls grades can depend on so many different factors that stating that boys are cleverer than girls this year, or vice versa, is a bold statement. There are so many variables to take into consideration; geographical differences, the subjects chosen (if more boys than girls do chemistry, then they are bound to have the higher percentage of good grades).

It is understandable that newspapers and the media in general feel duty-bound to report on the annual exam results. After all, those pupils are the very people who will steer our country through the next eighty or ninety years. There is a tendency however, when there is no real news to report about the annual results, to focus in on tiny differences in gender achievements or a tiny rise or fall in the overall grades received overall. More or less A grades than average can make a good newspaper headline- and good headlines sell papers.

In reality, despite what reporters say on the television, radio, in the newspapers or on social media platforms, the students that achieve the best exam results are the ones who have worked the hardest. It is those pupils who will go on to get the university places, apprenticeships, and the careers they hoped for- whether they are boys or girls.

A good teacher is someone you’ll remember forever. But what is it that makes a teacher special? What is it about some teachers that make them people you’ll tell your own children about in thirty years’ time? The best teachers tend to have some of the following very particular qualities in common.

They care
No matter how many pupils they have in their class, they manage to make you feel as if you are important. They want to listen to you. Your opinion and ideas clearly matter to them, whether it is academic or personal. They ask you how you are when they see you.

They get to know you
A teacher who takes the time to get to know about their pupils hobbies, out-of-class interests, and personal strengths and weaknesses within and outside the classroom, will always be a better teacher than one who simply turns up to teach.

They have passion for their work
A teacher that oozes enthusiasm and is excited by their subject is going to pass that enthusiasm onto their classes.

They are intelligent
Being passionate about a subject is only worthwhile if a teacher knows their subject well. The more intelligent and well versed a teacher is, then the better they’ll teach.

They make you laugh
Everyone remembers a teacher who made them smile. They don’t have to tell a joke a minute; just someone that makes their lessons happy places to be.

They are fair
They listen to every side of an argument, be it one designed to be discussed in the class, or an argument that has erupted between pupils. Democracy in the classroom will help pupils cope with future confrontation fairly and democratically. Discussing problems as a group in a calm and fair way will help students be more independent and capable of decision makers later on in life.

They are thoughtful
Favourite teachers are always thoughtful in the way they teach. For example, rather than simply printing out a worksheet for you to do, they take time to make everything visible. They draw pictures, use charts, and explain things carefully. By bringing the subject to life they make it memorable. A history teacher may dress as a Roman soldier to help you learn the parts of the legionary’s uniform; a maths teacher might turn a difficult problem into a quiz.

They challenge you
Teachers who challenge your abilities and limits without making you feel inferior or stupid, are often favourites with pupils. Teachers that want to challenge you kindly want you to succeed.

They are good listeners
Teachers who don’t interrupt their pupils from speaking, and who encourage the shy to take a turn in class discussions without pressuring them, will always be admired and valued by their class.

The memorable moment
A teacher that naturally creates one special moment, one single random thing that makes you remember them forever, is the most special of all. That special something will only ever be personal to you. For example, a teacher who takes the time to read and comment on a story you’ve written in your own time. Or a special moment on a school trip, a conversation about your future that helped you see your way, a kind smile when you needed one the most. That moment can be anything, and when it happens, you’ll never forget it.

Cadw, the Welsh Government’s historic environment service, provides a home educated families scheme, giving you access to its incredible array of castles, houses and monuments. The only problem is deciding which to visit first.

Caernarfon Castle, at the very north edge of Wales in the county of Gwynedd, is one of the most impressive Norman fortresses in Britain. Built on the site of an existing Norman mote and bailey castle on the orders of Edward I, it was to become his largest Welsh castle.

Caernarfon was built with polygonal towers rather than the usual cylindrical ones, made with colour coded stones carefully arranged in bands. The Eagle Tower is the most impressive of these.
Built to stamp Edward I’s power over the region, Caernarfon Castle’s appearance was designed to intimidate the locals into accepting English rule and to warn off any potential attackers. Standing at the mouth of the Seiont River, the fortress still dominates the walled town.

An educational visit to Caernarfon Castle can teach you about the architecture of medieval fortresses, battle tactics, building techniques, and what it would have been like to live and work in both the castle and the stone walled town that surrounded it. Not only can you learn about the medieval way of life at Caernarfon, you can also visit the Royal Welsh Fusiliers Museum, which is housed in two of the castle’s towers and gives insight into the life of the modern soldier. Classes will be able to compare and contrast fighting techniques, weaponry, and the country at large by visiting both the castle and the museum.

In 1284, the very first Prince of Wales, the future Edward II, was born at Caernarfon. Centuries later, in 1911 and 1969, Caernarfon Castle was used for the investiture of the Prince of Wales; thus continuing its role as a royal castle.

Details about booking an educational experience as a home studying family can be found at http://cadw.gov.wales/learning/educational-visits/home-educating-families-scheme/?lang=en

Grayson Perry’s art exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery opened on 8th June. It is the work of a master craftsman. The exhibits of pottery, tapestries, woven carpets and metal sculptures address issues of class and popular culture in post-Brexit Britain. A two headed piggy-bank with faces looking in opposite directions invites the visitor to contribute to a common fund using any of the slots that describe themselves; young, old, left, right, urban or country, rich or poor, etc. The cameo designs on the pig’s body merge Brexit and Remain – an even handed view of the politics surrounding the issue.

At the heart of the exhibition are the glazed pots, their surfaces decorated with miniature images and one-liners like “luxury brands for justice” and “I’ve read all the academic research about empathy”. Perry suggests that we have more in common than divides us. One pot has a cameo of Big Ben, Winston Churchill and Nigel Farage. Marmite adverts, the BBC and the NHS are depicted on both pots. Perry suggests that our common humanity overrides our social and cultural divisions.

In the corner of one exhibit are colleges of English eccentrics: a tweedy woman clutching a cat, a man in a cloth-cap seeking confrontation. All the images are crowded together, drawing attention to the infinite variety of Britain’s subcultures.

The woven carpets and pottery display the teeming social landscapes of Britain, moving from bulldogs, red buses, the flag of Saint George, all the way to street art. A carpet depicts Euro lorries on the motorway, cannabis adverts next to a child’s playground, a camp of homeless people under a flyover, and a boy in a baseball cap on a bike looking at Brexit graffiti scrawled on slum dwellings against a background of fields.

Throughout these visual comments on contemporary Britain, Perry is always even-handed. A beautifully glazed Cheshire cat with hypnotic swivel eyes bears the title, “I really love you, super rich cat”. It reminds the viewer that Perry himself depends on marketing and advertising to broadcast his social comments and to get his art seen. And how fascinated we all are with money and the display of wealth.

The whole exhibition is thought-provoking, one of the best craft shows I’ve seen for years. If you are interested in seeing it yourself, it runs unto 10th September.

Code-named Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk took place during the Second World War, between 26th May and 4th June 1940.

The decision to trigger Operation Dynamo was made when large numbers of Belgian, Canadian, British, and French troops were cut off and surrounded by the German army during the Battle of France.

In England, hundreds of small vessels came forward to assist in the evacuation after an order was issued via BBC Radio to “all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30′ and 100′ in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty”.

Although a handful of fishing boats did travel over to Dunkirk to help in the rescue, the idea that hundreds of civilians travelled across the channel to help is largely a myth. Most of the boats surrendered by fisherman and boat owners were crewed by naval reservists and were used, not to cross the entire channel, but to help ferry men from Dunkirk’s beaches to waiting Royal Navy destroyers. In all, a flotilla of 900 naval and borrowed civilian craft went across the Channel under RAF protection.

The German air force, the Luftwaffe, made the evacuation as difficult as possible. In their attempts to halt the Allies efforts, the town of Dunkirk was reduced to rubble, and 106 Allied aircraft and 235 boats were destroyed, leading to the death of 5000 soldiers. However, despite the attempts of the German troops to sabotage the evacuation, Operation Dynamo saw the rescue of 338,226 people. A further 220,000 Allied troops were rescued by British ships from the French ports of Cherbourg, Saint-Malo, Brest, and Saint-Nazaire.
When the rescued men arrived in England they were welcomed as heroes, but the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, although proud of his troops, admitted that the events that led to the evacuation having to take place had been a “colossal military disaster.” A large amount of equipment had been left behind, and France was considerably weakened, leaving Britain vulnerable to invasion by the Nazi troops. It was this threat of German invasion that led to one of Churchill’s most memorable speeches:
“We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”

Churchill’s determination paid off, and Hitler never managed to invade Britain. The Second World War however, would not be over for another five years.

 

  –  A major film centring around Dunkirk is due in cinemas soon, directed by Christopher Nolan. 

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