Response to the Hancock Bill: no starfish left behind
Let’s begin with something we all agree on. We want all children and young people who are struggling with reading and writing to have their needs identified so that they can be supported.
Let’s try another: literacy difficulties are real, they exist and can be associated with devastating impacts on the lives of children, young people and adults who experience them. No argument there. If anything, it seems likely that the impact beyond education of literacy difficulties in adulthood may be underestimated; it can extend far beyond educational factors alone.
Hopefully then, everyone can agree that literacy difficulties exist, are serious and need to be identified and addressed.
What’s the problem with the Hancock Bill
How we go about this, however, is an extremely hot potato and the proposed Hancock Bill reignited discussion on it this week. The Bill would require, among other things, that all children are screened for dyslexia in primary school. At face value, this may sound like a great idea which would mean that all children would access the support they need with their literacy. How hard can it be, right? Think concrete, and then some.
Quite aside the perennial challenge of specifying how dyslexia can be diagnosed as a distinct subgroup of struggling readers and writers (spoiler alert: it can’t), there is no link between a diagnosis of dyslexia and what needs to be done to support a young person with their literacy.
Again, this is not to dismiss the very real experience of those who struggle with literacy and who identify with the term dyslexia to describe them. But just to say that the often-assumed or stated mantra that the most important thing that can happen in order for literacy difficulties to be addressed is for dyslexia to be diagnosed, is not accurate. Nor is it the case that a diagnosis of dyslexia is required for additional support or exams access arrangements. This is likely to come from an understanding of dyslexia from the perspective of a medical model where diagnosis leads to treatment.
Although there are clear biological and genetic substrates to literacy difficulties, how the difficulties present in relation to learning is an educational issue and one which needs to be addressed through an educational response. Having the diagnosis is not the thing that will make a difference.
Issues of operationalising a diagnosis of dyslexia
Even if it were to be the case that a diagnosis of dyslexia was needed, there are huge issues of operationalisation.
First there would need to be an agreement on diagnostic criteria which is aligned with evidence from research. There would also need to be resources to carry out diagnostic assessments in the whole school age population (currently around 9 million). Individual diagnostic assessments are typically charged at between £400 and £900. There is inevitably an enormous cost associated with a diagnosis model.
Even the least observant among us cannot have failed to notice that funding is not something that schools have in sufficiency, let alone in abundance. Prioritising budgets on an endeavour that is not going to make a difference to meeting the needs of the very many children in our schools who experience literacy difficulties (around 1.8 million based on a prevalence rate of 20%) seems a peculiar proposal.
If the aim is to identify those children and young people who are struggling, we already have the information to do so (e.g using the phonics screening check or other assessment approaches that teachers use all the time). Identifying who is struggling does not require costly assessments.
Many people report that they find the term dyslexia important to them in describing the difficulties that they experience. That is a different question and one which requires sensitive thought; it does not, however, require a diagnosis.
What’s the alternative?
It is a shift away from the conveyor belt of individual diagnosis and recommendations (currently only accessible to a small proportion of children and young people with literacy difficulties who can access it). It is a movement instead towards whole-school frameworks which are designed to identify the needs of all who experience literacy difficulties within them and provide support as part of a structured framework.
The analogy of a boy throwing starfish back into the sea to save them one at a time, may be helpful here.
While it is laudable that the boy is saving one starfish at a time (the current individual diagnosis model) there are 1.8 million other starfish on the beach who also need to be helped. What we really need is some sort of coastal mechanism which reduces the risk of any of them getting washed up in the first place and supports them if they do, no matter which part of the sea they come from.
There is consistent evidence that the likelihood of a dyslexia label is currently predicted by income and class in the UK and USA. Conversely, the proportion of children and young people with literacy difficulties is much higher among families with lower incomes. This isn’t about removing support for those who have diagnoses of dyslexia, but rather ensuring that it is available to all children and young people no matter their background. At the moment that simply isn’t the case. This is an issue of social justice.
Are there any examples of such an approach working?
We can, and in some places are, build(ing) the equivalent of coastal mechanisms with systems that screen for literacy difficulties often through school-based information. These provide accessible classroom approaches, which support school staff with evidence-based approaches for teaching literacy and identifying areas of need and which provide targeted interventions as well as making best use of assistive technology.
Ofsted have recently reported on and celebrated such an approach in a group of secondary schools. In Cambridgeshire the Response to Intervention model has been rolled out as a framework for this. There are examples of great practice in many other places including Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Essex.
These are scalable, equitable and effective systems that identify and address the needs of all children and young people, regardless of their backgrounds.
No need for a diagnosis. No starfish left behind.