It seems the world of SEND is full of embattled women’s voices. Whenever I attend a dyslexia CPD event or conference, I am struck by the high numbers of mothers I encounter who became dyslexia professionals to help their own children and in so doing, found their passion.
Why does this advocacy role fall mainly to mothers, is it because fathers work away more, work longer hours or is it simply that mothers are so bound to their children and their wellbeing that they have an instinct about their child’s needs, are driven to inform themselves and campaign relentlessly to get their child’s needs met?
In (www.teachers.org.uk) the National Union of Teachers lays out guidelines. ‘In loco parentis’ originally embodied the 19th Century common law principle that a teacher’s authority was delegated by a parent, so far as it was necessary for the welfare of the child. A court held in 1893 that a schoolmaster should act as a ‘careful father’ would toward his pupils.
However, subsequent revisions moved further away from the notion of parental responsibility: care and duty, to that of a professional. The concept of what ‘in locus parenti’ means in practice has shifted dramatically, point seven declares:
‘If it can be shown that a professional acted in accordance with the views of a reputable body of opinion within their profession, the duty of care will have been satisfied, even though others may disagree’. (p.3)
In a recent study into high-performing schools and their support of disadvantaged pupils carried out for the Department of Education (DfE), Louise Booth, head teacher at Beeston Hill St Luke’s C of E Primary School said:
‘What does it mean to treat every child as if they were our own? What does ‘going the extra mile’ mean in day-to-day practice? See the link here:
The report found that high-performing schools had high aspirations for all of their pupils, including those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND)
(Baars et al, 2018).
I can imagine that every child with dyslexia IS my own, because my child is dyslexic, and this puts me in conflict with the institutions in which I have worked.
As a woman, it can be hard to find a voice, to speak with authority and to be heard. In Women and Power, Mary Beard (2017) writes that illustrations of this prejudice in literature go back as far as Homer’s Odyssey, wherein Telemachus tells his mother to go back to her own quarters: ‘…speech will be the business of men’.
‘What interests me is the relationship between this classic Homeric moment of silencing a woman and some of the ways in which women’s voices are not publicly heard in our own contemporary culture’. (p.6)
In the case of dyslexia and my son, I simply had no choice. Like many mothers, I had to speak out, I had to take action.
The term ‘dyslexia mothers’ is slightly disdainful. I had not been politically motivated before, dyslexia politicised me and with that came a new awareness of issues facing women and mothers in society; an interest in feminism.
Ahmed (2017) sees that diversity and feminism go together:
‘First diversity work is the work we do when we are attempting to transform an institution; and second diversity work is the work we do when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution’. (Ahmed, 2017 p91)
Dyslexia and feminism to me seem naturally bound. The world of dyslexia has much to owe to its ‘dyslexia mothers’. Marion Welchman is known as the ‘needle and thread’ of the dyslexia world. In her search to help her son, Howard, she discovered the Gillingham, Stillman teaching programme and ran the first course in England for teachers in Bath in 1969. Her pioneering work lead to the establishment of the British Dyslexia Association in 1972. Daphne Hamilton-Fairley, who founded Fairley House (one of the few dyslexia schools in Britain) said:
‘It was magic from the point of view of parent power, and how they’ll fight for their children.’ (Kirby, 2018).
At the Bangor Dyslexia Unit, part time workers, mostly women ‘were all paid on pinkies’ – claim forms submitted every month or half term. Together with others, this helped to build an evidence base for the existence and diagnosis of dyslexia.
When I visited the Dyslexia Archive at Oxford last year, it was heartbreaking to read the letters written by mothers of all classes, desperately looking for help for their children. It’s even more heartbreaking to think that nothing has changed.
I have often heard SEND mothers (myself included) referred to as over-anxious and over-protective by teachers. The implication is of course that anxious parents are creating anxious children and schools seem unable to reflect on their own role in this; where mothers perceive their child is not safe in a setting, this will create anxiety.
Researchers proposed the following provisions as conceptual ideas for psychological safety (Baeva, 2002; Baeva et al., 2011; Bordovskaia, 2012), points 4 and 5 are as follows:
The main source of psychotrauma in participants in the educational environment is psychological violence in pedagogical and interpersonal interactions.
Pedagogical and interpersonal interactions in the educational environment are psychologically safe if they promote a sense of belonging, convince participants that they are out of danger (the absence of the above-named threats), and strengthen mental health. (p.90)
If a child’s psychological safety is compromised, it is likely that this will impact on the psychological safety of parents and teachers. This issue is referred to by @itmustbemum: parents are sometimes blamed as having poor mental health, as causing the child’s difficulties, and this can become ‘a self-fulfilling prophecy’.
Studies into teacher attitudes are revealing, perhaps an ideological shift is required in order to harness ‘parent power’ as a resource. A YouGov poll from February 2017 of 810 teachers gives an interesting insight into teachers’ attitudes. 57 percent said there was misdiagnosis and 54 percent thought that pressure from parents led to some children being categorised as SEND unnecessarily. 64 percent said they thought parents pushed for a SEN diagnosis because they preferred a medical or psychological explanation for their children’s behaviour, rather than believing that the problem could be resolved by the class teacher. The poll was sponsored by GL Assessment who clearly have an interest in promoting assessment, however, the responses are worrying.
The following studies are not recent but still relevant; included because they illustrate important issues within areas of research and discourse that are often neglected; the parent view. Atkin, Bastiani and Goode (1988) studied relationships between parents and teachers and began to consider that teachers’ claims about ‘what parents were like’ might be rooted in teacher lore and staffroom mythology. There is no evidence that parents of children with dyslexia are any different to other parents. What might differ is the level of knowledge held by schools and how they choose to offer both support and communication.
Insight: how do I look?
Watching rough edits of our dyslexia documentary last year, I saw myself working with my son – using a ‘teacher’ voice, not a ‘mummy’ voice. In one scene, where I am showing him the concept of mixed fractions (using carrots), he tries to tell me something and I talk over him, perhaps wanting to demonstrate for the camera what a good teacher I am. He gets upset and says he wanted to show me he is good at it and has remembered. I comfort him. I am appalled.
When speaking of dyslexia, I might seem desperately trying to assume the role, the ‘mastery’ (Butler, 1997). It is easy to see that this would be irritating for my son’s school: a parent turned ‘expert’. I would infinitely prefer teachers to be the ‘experts’, but seemingly not one had read about dyslexia, or had knowledge to offer.
On reading Holt (1982) I was struck by a particular sentence about a mother he encountered:
‘The only triumphs of his that she savours are those for which she can give herself most of the credit’. (p.268)
I asked myself honestly if this was me, I felt not, but perhaps the teachers would interpret it otherwise. I had been forced into becoming the dyslexia ‘expert’ in the absence of one in school.
The documentary we made last year called ‘Farther and Sun’ was my idea, we wanted it to present a different face of dyslexia, the one we could see in our son. As such, we didn’t cover the extremely negative experiences I had had with my son’s school (most of them whilst my husband was working away), the concern I had for my son’s well being and the sly suggestions from the school that I was a bad mother. Moreover, we did not allude to the fact the SENCO refused to deal with me because she said I was ‘aggressive’ and causing her sleepless nights.
In the documentary, was a scene where I was crying on the bed. In a review, Rachel Cooke refers to this scene and points out:
‘But if all this made Macer’s film seem self-indulgent at times – many parents will watch Arthur’s mother weeping, and think: I’ll take your kid’s problems over mine any day.’
See the review here:
At the end of the film, we show that my son passed his SATs, we don’t detail all the support he has had at home, how hard he has worked and the cost of this to me. My belief is that dyslexic children deserve to succeed and feel smart just like any other kid. A ‘kid’s problems’ are all relative and I would not wish my experience on anybody.
Sadly, I know that my experience is not unique and that other mothers are being bullied, ignored and demonised all over the country.
I am grateful for our challenges, my son is an inspirational young man, I have found my passion.
Thank you for this honest, well written and referenced article and the programme you made. On a personal level, I found both of them moving. On a practical level they will also be useful to me in collecting my thoughts for my next book. There are lots of interesting points to be uncovered by your narrative data in the film and your article here that could not be seen without your total honesty. Thank you to you and your family.
The film and your work in other ways are authentic and evidence social attitudes and impositions, which need urgently addressing. You not only evidence them, you also look for and are finding solutions in a practical way. This is bigger than dyslexia, you are showing a way of behaving which encourages us all to empathise and do good things in our own different ways and situations. There will be parents and teachers out there who do have the intelligence and humility to listen, but may not feel ready/or thought it necessary to reply to you.
Jennifer that’s so kind of you to say. Your supportive words and understanding mean so much x