There’s no Such Thing as Dyslexia?

They Think FISH Differently


‘Dyslexia is a myth to cover up bad teaching of reading and writing’; so claimed Graham Stringer, MP for Manchester, Blackley. He also said there was a link between illiteracy and crime – because prisons are full of people who are unable to read and write. He made these suggestions sometime ago but there has been a steady groundswell of ill-educated opinion happy to go along with these notions.

Of course there are an inordinate number of prisoners who are illiterate. Statistics confirm that. Some of them will have had a poor education; at home and at school. If they had had a better education they may have been able to perform huge scams with our banking system and have avoided any form of retribution.

There are, it seems to me, two main problems with dyslexia as a concept.

Some people want their family member, or indeed themselves, to be diagnosed as Dyslexic. It acts as a hook to hang a difficulty on. It also may confirm a long held belief – it’s not their fault.  I have heard countless parents say,

“Thank you. Thank you so much. We always knew he or she had something wrong.”

My immediate response has always been to point out that a diagnosis is not a cure and nor is it an excuse. It is more of a signpost, or a possible foundation for an approach to learning; the start of a helpful change of strategy for the teacher and the learner.

The other problem centres around the myths about Dyslexia. So let’s dispel some of these myths. (And yes, I do mean ‘dispel’.)

  • Dyslexia does not mean simply not being able to spell very well.
  • Dyslexia is not just about finding it hard to read.
  • Dyslexia does not mean that a person is stupid. (I am prepared to accept that some dyslexics might be stupid; but only in the same sense that some women are hopeless drivers, some men can’t multi-task and some birds can’t fly.)
  • Dyslexics are good at art. Admittedly there is a link with Dyslexia and creativity. Statistics prove that too. (Here’s some that spring to mind; – W. B. Yeats, Roald Dahl, Richard Branson, Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Zephaniah, Michelangelo, Tom Cruise, Richard Rogers etc…) But not all dyslexics are natural creators.

Dyslexics often think differently and that can be advantageous when looking for solutions to problems. ‘Thinking differently’ is a decidedly beneficial trait in the creative world. I have worked with one teenager who, at fourteen, had a reading age of 5. He could not write a sentence unaided but regularly beat his maths teachers at chess. Some children find the easy stuff hard and the hard stuff easy. They may struggle with basic numeracy, be diagnosed with Dyscalculia – a related problem – but we should make no mistake about it, anyone with Dyslexia, who survives 11 years or more of schooling, has done well. Many don’t. Many become disaffected, withdrawn, the class clown, the truant, the trouble-maker. I know because I have worked with students like this for years. Their self-esteem is shot through. It isn’t always because they have failed; it is more that the education system has failed them; not necessarily through poor teaching but more often than not because of poor resources, lack of awareness, ineffectual training or just pure lack of time. If you have a class of thirty and most of them, ‘get it’, the teacher feels he or she has to move on to the next stage. The pupil who thinks differently has learned to be quiet about not necessarily, ‘getting it’. They bumble along or create diversions. Task avoidance techniques abound here.

When I was at school there were no dyslexics. Not as such. (There were no homosexuals until about 1970 either; and only one in my home town.)

There were no dyslexics but there were thick kids, the nutters, the ones who were laughed at by most, if not all, of us; usually at the instigation of the teacher. I remember, with more than a degree of sadness, a boy called Dawes. He was with me and about 40 other children in what is now called year 4. We were aged seven or eight. Dawes was berated time and time again by the teacher because the fool couldn’t write properly. Droopy Dawes, as the teacher nicknamed him, couldn’t spell words like ‘night’ for example. What an idiot. He couldn’t spell ‘walk’ or ‘talk’ – never mind do the walk! He thought that two times four made six. Oh how you would have laughed if you had heard him coming up with these stupid answers in front of the rest of us. We all hooted. On reflection I would like to think our laughter was caused through some sense of embarrassment, embarrassment mingled probably with a hope that we wouldn’t be next to be asked to answer something; something that we didn’t know. (My own fear was the nine times table.)

Dawes was removed from the class. He went down a level. I would like to say that he went on to much better things but the truth is I don’t know. I managed to cling on to the edges of ‘the bright set’. We weren’t encouraged to mix with dullards. We were just encouraged to laugh.

There were no dyslexics when I was at school. Why? Because the state did not recognise such a condition. And if we are not careful we could slip right back into that Slough of Despond.

People like Graham Stringer, MP, who are out to make a name for themselves, may well provide the groundswell that would pander to the ‘Let’s Make More Cuts’ brigade. I am not saying we should spend more on individual students. In actual fact I think some of the money that is made available is squandered and unnecessary. It could be better used elsewhere. My plea is not for more money, it is for wholesale recognition of a condition. It is a condition which, if you have it, simply means you learn differently. And because of the way most schooling works dyslexia is a learning difficulty. It is something that can affect a child’s ability to develop a strong understanding of language. And we think by using language. (We also think visually but language tends to be most people’s main tool.)

The first diagnosis of developmental dyslexia that I am aware of is called, “A Case of Congenital Word Blindness” written by W. Pringle Morgan, M.B. It was published in 1896 in The British Medical Journal. It was however a long time before Dyslexia was identified in schools.

Dyslexia constitutes a Special Educational Need (as defined by the 1993 Education Act). It was first recognised by parliament in the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. It is seen as a disablement. It is recognised as such and should continue to be recognised. Not so that we can excuse certain people for their disability. Not so that we can accuse others for inventing the concept in order to cover up bad teaching. Not so that we can pity the ‘sick person’ and throw inordinate amounts of money at them. It should be recognised because dyslexics are valuable. They think differently. They are often more able in terms of problem solving. They can provide a different take on things. They are not dissimilar to someone from a different culture, from a different sect, the opposite sex, a different mind set. They can bring something new to us all.

Unless sufferers are given the opportunity to embrace an education they will suffer more and perhaps contribute less. Dyslexia demeans confidence; it can make verbal instructions difficult to understand. It can mean having to read, re-read, and then read again, a text in order to make some sense of it. It can make some early learning irrelevant, even damaging. And, at the other end of the scale, can make lectures virtually impossible to follow especially if the delivery does not consider the different way people learn.

And this is key. Teachers need to use different strategies in order to impart information. It will help not only the dyslexic child. It will help most others too. We all learn using different strategies.*

It has always struck me as ironic that the very word, dyslexia, is, in itself, difficult to spell. It has also struck me that if we called it by any other name it might be more helpful. So let’s call it, for sake of this argument, ‘FISH.’

We should have ‘SCHOOLS FOR FISH’

If you have FISH you might find it difficult to spell. For most FISH sufferers there are tricks, techniques and methods that can improve spelling tremendously. I know; I’ve helped lots of FISH. I wrote a novel about it. **

If you have FISH you might find it difficult to read. This can also be circumvented for many with use of gels – a sheet of coloured acetate that settles the words and helps the reader to focus. Early diagnosis and the right kind of teaching of reading can help here too. I know I’ve seen it work.

If you have FISH you might find it difficult to organise things, to be on time, to understand instructions, explanations or follow a line of inquiry. Again good teaching, training and an embracing approach, can help ensure that even the most severely dyslexic person can have access to a complete education.

To be successful, work needs to begin early. To be effective, the teacher needs more than a day, a week or even a few weeks of training. To improve not only the lives of FISH but the contributions they can make to our society, we need people who acknowledge the condition and are prepared to fund it in a properly thought out way. We do not need gainsayers pretending that FISH does not exist.

You can see that I have already run into difficulty with the alternative word. ‘Fish does not exist’ or ‘fish do not exist’, becomes fraught with unnecessary grammatical difficulty.

I’ll come clean and explain why I chose the word. It is an old joke. One that my grandfather demonstrated to me many years ago.

“What’s this say?” He asked showing me the word GHOTI.

“I don’t know,” I’d reply (even though I did by the third or fourth telling.)

“G-H-O-T-I.” He would spell the word out.

“I still don’t know.”

“It spells FISH,” Grandad pointed out. And then he went on to explain;

The ‘GH’ is pronounced ‘F’, as in ‘enough’. The ‘O’ is the ‘I’ sound, as in women, and ‘TI’ gives us the digraph ‘SH’ as in ‘nation’.

It’s daft I know but it serves to highlight some of the many anomalies to be found in this wonderful language of ours.

It is said that there is less dyslexia in Spain and Italy than here in England. Somehow I doubt it. There are probably far fewer people with spelling problems. Their language is phonetically more plausible. And I do know that spelling, no matter how difficult for some, can be taught. I have worked with a severely dyslexic boy whose fascination with all things prehistoric meant that he could spell, ‘tyrannosaurus’ and ‘pterodactyl’. The same pupil struggled with ‘could’ and ‘doesn’t’.  His low self-esteem meant that he ‘couldn’t’ and ‘didn’t’ for a number of years. But this is to miss the point. Dyslexia is not just about spelling or reading.

Dyslexia is about a different way of thinking. Once we’ve acknowledged that we can begin to include many learners who will otherwise slip through the net.

And that’s all I’m asking for. Acknowledgement.


* The 7 Main Learning Strategies:

Verbal (linguistic): The learner prefers using words, both speech and writing.

Physical (kinesthetic): The learner prefers using, hands and sense of touch perhaps the whole body.

Logical (mathematical): The learner prefers using logic, reasoning, number, charts.

Social (interpersonal): The learner prefers to learn through group work.

Visual (spatial): The learner prefers pictures, images, diagrams.

Aural (auditory-musical): The learner prefers learning through sound, music and rhythm.

Solitary (intrapersonal): The learner prefers to work completely alone with computer/books.


British Dyslexia Association:

The chasm between evidence and educational practice: Video

‘Dyslexia is a Myth’: BBC News

** Perspective: Novel (Also in paperback)

I Have a Dream – Dr Martin Luther King Jr

With Special Thanks to Mahalia Jackson
Martin Luther King Jr. Giving A Press Conference 1961-1968

“Behind every great man there is a great woman.” I have heard that said many times. Most frequently by a husband who is patronising his wife. But I think it is important to acknowledge the debt we all owe to the woman, without whom we may not remember the great man, Martin Luther King Jr, in quite the same way.

I was ten years old when I heard Martin Luther King’s now famous speech. It wasn’t famous then of course. It was just a news item. I had been brought up in the BaptistChurch and although I was only ten I was used to listening to old-fashioned, sometimes fiery, bible-thumping preaching. All that was different here was the vast crowd and the preacher who was a black man. It was something akin to the Sermon on the Mount. I recall being rapt by the emotion in Dr King’s voice and by the sincerity of his beliefs. I remember asking if he was the same religion as us and was told, somewhat uncertainly, “not quite son, not quite the same.”

Having watched and listened to the speech several times since 1963, the exhilaration, the feeling of passion I had has only increased. Joan Baez and Bob Dylan* were there of course. I had a sense that if I had only been four or five years older I might have been there too. It was a time to be proud of being human, proud of being part of the human race, part of a movement that wanted to change things, make the world a better place.

Martin Luther King’s Washington speech was made memorable, in part, by the intervention and insistence of one of his followers. She had heard the great preacher some weeks before, at the Cobo Hall in Detroit, telling a congregation of around 20,000 about his dream.

Of course he had a well-prepared speech ready for the ‘March on Washington’. The march was a Civil Rights affair and was ostensibly about ‘Jobs and Freedom’. It is well worth listening to all of it. But there was no reference a dream in it, not originally.

Dr King however was a preacher. That was what he did and that was what he was good at. Toward the end of his speech the renowned gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson**, shouted to Dr. King – in the way that Southern Baptists would cry out, ‘hallelujah’ – “Tell them bout the dream, Martin. Tell them bout the dream.” She said.

She had clearly been so moved by his vision, his hopes and desires and she instinctively knew what the crowd now needed to hear

Dr. King stopped delivering his prepared speech and started preaching, emphasising his points with the now famous phrase, “I have a dream.” His speech is made all the more memorable because he knows how to ride the lines, how to pace and space each word and phrase. He delivers it with the sort of oratory aplomb that many a burgeoning actor or singer would do well to study. And you know he means it.

But it was thanks to Mahalia Jackson that we have the speech that we still have today. It was her who prompted him to talk about that dream of his. I sometimes wonder whether or not we still have dreams.


*Bob Dylan, Joan Baez

**Mahalia Jackson

The Uses of Emotional Literacy

The importance of Literature in Special Needs Education


I had only been working with pupils considered ‘Emotionally and Behaviourally Disturbed’ for a few years (they were called ‘Maladjusted’ in those days) when an ex-pupil came back to visit the school. She informed me that I had helped her to turn her life around. She had gone from being an angry, spiteful, no-hoper with few friends and no prospects to a contented young woman with a job, a steady boyfriend and a great bunch of workmates.

I wasn’t flattered; I hadn’t effected this change deliberately. I did learn something from her account of events however. She told me that, after I had remonstrated with her over some misdemeanour or other, I had explained to her that other people had feelings too. I had asked her to imagine how she would have felt if the things she had said and done had been said and done to her. She explained that, up to that point, she had never considered other people having feelings. It had never crossed her mind. She was fifteen at the time and had thought she was alone with her emotions. Once she realised that others may have similar feelings to her she was able to approach her life in a much more fulfilling way.

There have been various attempts to quantify our Emotional Intelligence. Some suggest that EI can be measured in much the same way as our IQ can. I think it was the psychologist E. G. Boring who said that, “Intelligence is what IQ tests test,” and I tend to feel the same way about calculating our emotions. Simply testing EI will simply test what the test tests. Emotional Literacy – the ability to recognise, understand and appropriately express our emotions – is perhaps less quantifiable than Emotional Intelligence but I believe it is has more meaning attached to it and is moreover, of paramount importance to everyone’s life.

The ‘Embodied Emotions Project’ explains it well,

“Just as verbal literacy is the basic building-block for reading and writing, Emotional Literacy is the basis for perceiving and communicating emotions. Becoming emotionally literate is learning the alphabet, grammar and vocabulary of our emotional lives. Emotions are an integral part of human nature. Through emotions, we respond to life in many different ways – with anger, happiness, fear, love and loneliness. Emotions influence our thoughts and actions; they inspire our needs; they affect our bodies and impact on our relationships.

Many of the problems in modern society are due, at least in part, to people being unable to understand and appropriately express emotion. Emotional Literacy is a preventive tool, which, properly understood, can help solve many social ills – violence, illness, drug abuse, dysfunctional relationships, and global societal conflicts.” *

Many professionals who work with ‘statemented pupils’ will be aware of the importance of an Emotional Education. Some however may suppose that thoughts and emotions are unconnected and should be taught independently of each other. Others may think that feelings, unlike cerebral ideas, are merely a product of nature and will develop naturally. It is a common assumption that emotions tend to fall into the same kind of areas as morality and religion and should therefore be taught by families or religious groups rather than in an academic setting. I am not saying that Emotional Literacy hasn’t got a place there too. It is simply not an exclusive place.

I was pleased to note that, amongst what may appear to be mundane changes to The National Curriculum 2014, ** there is a statement that,

a high-quality education in English will teach pupils to write and speak fluently so that they can communicate their ideas and emotions to others and through their reading and listening, others can communicate with them. Through reading in particular, pupils should have a chance to develop culturally, emotionally, intellectually, socially and spiritually. Literature, especially, plays a key role in such development.

In accordance with the National Curriculum, good stories should help pupils to recognise themes in what they read, such as the triumph of good over evil, loss and heroism, pain and suffering, the pursuit of happiness. They should give pupils the opportunity to compare characters, consider different accounts of the same event and discuss viewpoints within a text. As they advance, pupils will be able to draw inferences, such as inferring characters’ feelings, thoughts and motives from their actions, and justifying inferences with evidence predicting what might happen from details, not only those clearly stated but also those that are implied.

I am certainly not advocating a purely therapeutic approach. It is possible to teach children to think and talk about feelings without promoting the therapeutic. What I am suggesting is that perhaps the best approach is through literature.

To paraphrase John Stuart Mill, ‘Intellect and emotion should not have to be separated.’ You cannot have an emotion without a brain. But equally you cannot have an emotion without a mind. We think and explain ourselves in words, sounds and images, mainly in words, and our mental lives exist to us in the form of narratives.

Children who have Attention Deficit – those with ADHD, those who have suffered emotional trauma, and those on the Autistic Spectrum are likely to struggle; particularly with the understanding of and expression of emotion. Children with Autism, for example, invariably find allegory and metaphor extremely hard to interpret. And yet, without an understanding of metaphor we are only grasping a part of most of the novels we read, the films we watch (never mind the plays, paintings, sculpture, religious texts etc. that are available.) Without an understanding of metaphor we are not fully involved in what is being conveyed. We are missing out on a full and proper understanding of others’ experiences and subsequently our own.

In short, Emotional Literacy is essential if we are to lead a healthy, meaningful life – a life that is engaged with those around us and with our own responses to that life. Literature provides an invaluable key to the understanding of our emotions. It is surely one of its most important functions.


* ‘Embodied Emotions: History, Performance, Education’. The ‘Embodied Emotions’ project – University of London – is directed by Alistair Campbell:

** The National Curriculum (2014)




Stirring it up – Malorie Blackman, Sex, Literature and Emotional Intelligence

The bygone era, when ‘Health and Efficiency’, ‘Painting Nudes’, and page whatever-it-was of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, epitomised a boy’s sex education is long gone. Jokes like, “I’d been having sex for three years before I found out you could do it with someone else,” hold little resonance today. Girls learned from best friends in the playground or from that Wednesday morning when they had to stay behind after assembly. The modern equivalent – ‘Sex Education’, taught in Personal, Social and Health Education or alluded to in Science lessons –  although more preferable to the Baby Boomer approach – struggles at times, perhaps understandably, in its efforts to deal with the emotional content associated with sex.

Google your adolescent query and you’re liable to find yourself in a quagmire of unsafe, illicit and sometimes just plain wrong material. We know this only too well and various organisations are attempting to give a little more than mere lip-service to addressing this.

There are children who can talk freely and openly with responsible parents but not that many. Some relate better to their teacher or another trusted adult but it is important that questions and discussions are handled with care and sensitivity. Objective information sharing is one thing; talking about physical and emotional feelings and then linking these to ‘private parts’ can be difficult for all concerned. Why has it taken so long then for someone to flag up a literary approach?

She’s not been in the job long but characteristically, Malorie Blackman, the recently appointed Children’s Laureate, has already created a stir. She said that young people should read about sex within the ‘safe setting’ of a book rather than learning about it through, ‘innuendo and porn’. She was saddened and upset by an article she had read, ‘where this teenage girl was saying everything her boyfriend knew about sex he knew from porn. He was brutalising her, because that’s what he thought sex was about from watching online.’ (Daily Telegraph

I would like to add my voice to those who think that no subject should be off limits to children. Teenagers especially need the reassurance, the education and the guidance that can be presented in fiction. Literature is one of the main routes to our understanding of the world. Sympathy for another’s plight, the empathy and compassion that can come from identifying with this or that protagonists’ situation, are invaluable assets to anyone’s grasp of life. Understanding feelings and developing an emotional literacy is crucial to the well-being of the next generation. It shouldn’t be underestimated. In my own writing I allude constantly to the importance and impact of emotion on lives. I must admit however that I tend to avoid direct or lengthy physical detail when it comes to sex. Its not because I’m prudish, I just think it’s rarely done well and I’m aware that I can’t do it.

I know how well received Malorie Blackman’s book, ‘Naughts and Crosses’, was with the teenagers I’ve taught. Her new novel, ‘Noble Conflict’ is already receiving great reviews. (

It is her book, ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ that deals with the areas above in a poignant and meaningful way. ( Malorie Blackman isn’t simply suggesting writers should deal with these issues; she’s done it.

Let’s hope more writers and publishers do the same.

Suffering in Silence Bullying in Schools

Suffering in Silence

Bullying in Schools

There is a superfluity of information on the subject of bullying. Your local library, bookstore and the internet provide a wealth of guidance, facts and suggestions. There is some good advice, some aimed at children, teenagers and some for parents. There are documents, legislation and information for professionals – nursery staff, social workers, teachers, youth workers etc. Every school is obliged to have what is often referred to as a ‘Bullying Policy’. (In my day that would have been a manual for teachers. To be fair the policy is usually prefixed – ‘anti’ – to alert the staff to the fact that we are, naturally, all of us, opposed to the said bullying.)

Some of the information is excellent; some of the advice given is good. Some is so poor it can only be described as quackery; it’s based on little more than, ‘I experienced this’, or ‘this happened to my little one and this is how I dealt with it’.

‘Bullying’ tends to be a catch-all title. It can come in so many different forms, but here are the main identifiable areas:

  • Name-calling,
  • Shoving or hitting,
  • Spreading rumours,
  • Cyber-bullying via phone, computer etc.,
  • Threats and intimidation,
  • Involving friends or peers,
  • Sexual, racist or homophobic comments,
  • Deliberately excluding someone,
  • Damage to property,
  • Theft,
  • Use of weapon or threat of use.

‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone…’ I certainly couldn’t cast one. Most of us have been a bully of sorts at some stage in our lives. Indeed, after over 30 years of working with children, I can think of one, and only one child, who to my knowledge had never name-called, shoved, hit, spread rumours etc.

We can’t simply say, ‘it’s part of growing up,’ (although it is). Nor can we say, ‘it’s always gone on,’ (although it has). Nor is, ‘well, we’ve all done it,’ acceptable. Some of us, it can’t be denied, come out at the other end better equipped to deal with life’s vagaries. Some become expert bullies.

Some remain damaged for life.

Most surveys, and there are many, suggest that at least 20% of school children in the UK experience bullying daily. 25% are bullied rarely. Almost 30% are bullied occasionally and 25% are bullied often.

I am not a great fan of statistics. Data, no matter how good, often provides too quick a snapshot. It can obfuscate and be manipulated to promote a certain point of view. There’s something about recent bullying statistics that really interest me however. One in particular: ‘40% suffer in silence’.*

40% suffer in silence.

How frequently they ‘suffer in silence’ is not stated. How their suffering manifests itself is not clear. And it’s this that intrigues, perplexes and concerns me.

In the sometimes artificial environment of a residential special school, one that I have been privileged to work in, I have seen these silent sufferers. Fortunately there were plenty of well-trained members of staff to whom they could turn, adults who could gain the confidence of the young people in their care, sensitive grown-ups who could encourage a silent sufferer to speak out.

We aren’t able to reach out to everyone of course. Some, for obvious, and sometimes not at all obvious reasons, will continue to suffer. In silence.


For more information and 2013 survey *

Article on Ditch the Label/bullying – Independent –

You never write, You never phone…

You never write, You never phone…

Knowing the appropriate tool is a skill, a skill often acquired after years of training, apprenticeship or else learnt by our mistakes. I learned the hard way when to use an angle-grinder instead of an old wood chisel for example. (I also learned, whilst using the 12 inch grinder, that removing part of the old chimney-stack, in my basement flat, to make room for a washing machine etc. that this was likely to have a deleterious effect on the whole seven storey listed building. That would indeed be another story.) The point I’m almost hastening to make is, that not everyone knows how best to use the tools available to us today.

I am referring to the TOOLS OF COMMUNICATION.

Sixty years ago, for most people, there was the letter, the public phone box or the telegram. People knew where they were. (At home mainly.) And the rules were simple.

You wrote, “Letters of thanks, letters from banks, Letters of joy from girl and boy*…” and so on. Letters were ubiquitous.

You phoned, when there was important news to impart, or because you were a long way from home, or you wanted to keep in touch with a loved one. Phone calls were infrequent and expensive (unless you reversed charge to a phone box).

You sent a telegram to congratulate the bride and groom, or inform someone of a death. Telegrams were extremely rare.

You can still write a letter of course. If you can find a phone box you can even avail yourself of the public phone – if you know how to. (They don’t even seem to vandalize public phone boxes like they used to.)

You can still send a telegram but only if you have access to a computer. It’s been called ‘telegramsonline’ since 2003.

So how do we communicate today? Letter, Phone, (landline/mobile) Text, Facebook, email, Tweet. Some people still fax.

The problem about this plethora of writing tools is this; ‘Where to start’. There are so many tools in the box. The trick is, knowing which one is the most appropriate for the job.

  • Do I text my Gran to say, “Nice 1 X” when she has sent me £100 for my birthday? Or is a letter more apposite.
  • Do I email my new employer accepting the job with, “Hi, yeah, cheers mate!!!! Cool. See you guys next week.”
  • Do I ring the local council about the parking fine from my mobile? “Your call is in a queue. We are experiencing an unusual number of calls at the present time. Your call is important to us. If you are ringing about tree surgery please press 1. If you are…”

You see the dilemma.

I was told recently of someone’s mother informing her two grown up children that her sister, their aunt, had died. The mother, new to Facebook, sent the message via her ‘Status Box’, i.e. everyone could read it. Sadly she fell into the trap Mr. Cameron was caught in sometime ago. She was not up to speed with common parlance, newspeak, current abbreviation – call it what you will. The message read,

“Your Aunt Margaret died in her sleep last night.

There will be a funeral on Friday. L.O.L”**

The point is, there are no clear rules anymore and without them it is so easy to use the wrong tool. Texting can be too abrupt, too often. Yet there can be beauty in brevity viz, “UR dumped”.

Even a well considered email can lack the clarity, the precision, of a letter. Some conversations require a rapid two way response so that phrases like, “no. no, no, I definitely didn’t mean that. What I meant was…” can be included. I know of too many emails that have inadvertently led to trouble. The wrong message can, and frequently does, get through. Everyone has examples. Don’t send them to me. Unless you’re using pigeon post.

Letters require a good pen and should take much longer. But there’s always the feeling that you could be called to account if you actually write a letter.

We should choose with care. Pick the right tool for the job. Think it through. These days though, it seems there can be litigation for the very briefest of tweets. If Paul Chambers had had the conversation about his delayed flight on the phone,

“This is crap!”

“Sorry sir there’s nothing we can do about your flight at the present time,”

“You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together; otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”

“Now, now sir. I understand your frustration but…”

“Frustration! I’m bloody livid.”

Try ringing us in two days sir and if we can’t guarantee your flight we will try make other arrangements…”

All I’m saying is it might have ended better and quicker.

Is there an equivalent of ‘Caveat Emptor’ for writers? Because we really should beware!

Writer is ‘Scriptor’ surely.

That’s it then; ‘Caveat Scriptor’ should be the maxim. Or is that, ‘Cavere Scriptor’. Or maybe ‘Praecaveo…

I’ve already run out of characters and plainly, I never had the Latin.



* The Night Mail – WH Auden

** I assume everyone knows by now. In case you don’t LOL no longer suggests Lots of Love. It means Laugh Out Loud.

“I Blame the Parents.” “I Blame The Teachers.”

The Roots of Bad Behaviour,

the Nature/Nurture Debate

and Mr Michael Gove,

the Secretary of State


(an open letter)

Dear Mr Gove,

Having worked with children who have challenging behaviour for over thirty years I remain flummoxed even now by certain conduct. For example, why would a child purposefully repeat an action that they know will only make matters worse? Explaining consequence – telling them, “If this… Then that…” simply doesn’t work.

If you push those metal prongs into that plug socket you are liable to get an electric shock

If you punch the wall it will hurt. You could end up in hospital. It could mean knuckles so injured that they are permanently damaged.”

Yes, we’ve all had to learn the hard way. Most of us, as teenagers, have toyed with the notion that you shouldn’t trust anyone over the age of thirty. It’s part of growing up. But I am talking about students who have put the metal back in the socket. Repeatedly. And others who, despite having no real knuckles left, continue to punch walls.

Why, when in a certain fame of mind, does the idea of deferred gratification or deferred punishment seem illusive to pupils with social, emotional, behavioural difficulties?

If you continue to threaten that girl with a knife we will be forced to take it from you and things could get very messy.”


If you refuse to go into the examination you will not get the GCSE you said you need for college.”

These are not made up scenarios. This is the daily deal for many who work with pupils like this. Some children, if they are lucky, get referred to Special Schools with teachers, psychologists, counsellors, therapists and residential social workers who are trained and experienced in dealing with these kinds of situations. Some children, if they unlucky, improve in their ability to fail, and then to fail again, by being left in an environment that is totally alien them – a mainstream school perhaps; a school that, with the best will in the world, is ill-equipped (in terms of finance, staffing, training and time) when it comes to understanding the problems associated with really unacceptable behaviour.

This is why it irks me when I hear people say the teachers are inadequate, that the school is at fault and that there’s no wonder the kids of today behave as they do because the education system is getting worse. “I blame the teachers,” they say.

Yes, there are poor teachers. Yes, there are failing schools. Yes, the education system needs to change (continually, as it happens.) But reason and research provide us with only one conclusion.

Poor parenting often results in poor behaviour which in turn produces poor educational standards. So when Michael Gove demands teachers improve and says he wants schools to return to the content and style associated with the, ‘marvellous education’ he had. When he says, furthermore, that under-performing teachers are to be weeded out so that heads can sack them, he should first remove the proverbial beam that is causing his myopia and ask himself some serious questions about his own education – in the broadest sense.

Did he as a child suffer any or all of the following?

  • Abuse – were his parents drug abusers? (Heroin addiction is a particularly pernicious drug in pregnancy, frequently leading to psychological difficulties for the progeny.) Was he himself a serious drug taker from an early age? (That could cause grave problems with his ability to assess and interpret the world around him.) Did he suffer physical abuse in terms of severe beatings, even torture? Was he sexually abused?
  • Neglect – was he physically and/or emotionally neglected? Did he have regular meals or not? Did he eat alone, in front of a TV? Were there no set bedtimes? Did he spend most of the night alone on the internet in his bedroom, or was he out prowling the estate with friends? (I mean a housing estate.)
  • Poverty – was he poor? (Poverty does not simply mean a lack of money. The impact of other kinds of deprivation can be far worse. There may have been no real conversation with family members. There may have been no books at home. There may have been no concern for his welfare at all. Poverty could mean a dearth of interest in the value of education for example – no respect for schools, teachers, examinations, no one at home who cared about any plans for young Michael’s future.)
  • Genetic traits – has anyone in his family ever been diagnosed with specific learning difficulties including Dyslexia, Dyspraxia or is there a history of Autism or Asperger Syndrome. Have they had Psychopathic or Addictive tendencies, Oppositional Defiance Disorder, ADHD etc? (There are many genes that can affect behaviour some more voraciously if the parent is absent.*)

Some children suffer all of the above. Many endure some of the above in large doses. Their day to day experience is fraught with problems. This is probably why they do repeat an action that they know will make matters worse. This is almost certainly why deferred gratification or deferred punishment seems erroneous.

It is no good unless the parents do enough.

Good parenting tends to produce children who are compliant enough

to fit in enough,

who are confident enough

to ask the right questions enough,

and content enough

to be successful enough

in school.

These children tend also to do well enough in later life.

Parents who have had serious problems of their own – parents who have been deprived themselves – are unlikely to raise children who will perceive any need to comply, to value academic success (either for intrinsic reasons or as a vehicle for improving their lot).

Moreover, these parents will struggle when it comes to trusting the teachers who are trying to work with their kids. They will resist what they see as a pointless education system because their life experience tells them it’s worthless and the people who are trying to teach their children are not only, ‘not on their side’ but ‘not even on the same planet’ either. Their children, in turn, will not be able to see any real potential in learning at all, because their parents don’t see any real potential in learning.

Perhaps some of these parents would enjoy a pint or two with Michael Gove.

You can just imagine the conversation can’t you?

“Oi, oi, Micky boy!”

“Oi, oi, geezer”

“How’s it goin?”

“Yeh, alright.”

“Them teachers are all tossers innit.”

“Innit though!”


Perhaps not.


So, if there is blame where should it lie? Is it the teachers? Is it the parents?

The Nature–Nurture debate is one that has raged for far more than 150 years. Psychology, of course, was a branch of philosophy until the 1870s but since then it has been accepted more and more in terms of it being an empirical discipline. However, the question of whether it is our genes or our environment that affects our behaviour was muted millennia ago by Plato, who said,

“Children begin life with knowledge already present within them, they do not learn anything new but merely recollect knowledge that has previously lain dormant”.

Despite the advances in research methods, genome discoveries and so on, I’m not sure we have gone that much further than Plato did. The questions still remain: Are we are all born equal only to materialise as the different people we become through our different experiences? Or are our genes are in charge? Are we are nothing more than elaborate genetically programmed machines? Dare we even consider blaming the parents these days?

Michael Rutter’s book** (2005) sought to address these issues. He asks a rather poignant question, ‘Why is the topic of genes and behaviour controversial?’ Rutter doesn’t preach but he does come to several very persuasive conclusions. He says that, ‘virtually all psychiatric disorders show a significant genetic contribution, with heredity at least in the 20 to 50 percent range’. So where do the 50 to 80 percent on the other side of the equation come from? Rutter points towards abuse and neglect, institutional deprivation with its resulting psychological dysfunction and the impact of poverty and drug abuse on childhood-disruptive behaviour.

Of course good teachers can sometimes help children improve their behaviour. Primary school teachers tend to spend more time engaging with children than their parents do. They can have a great influence. The worst teachers may fall short of correcting bad behaviour. Perhaps some blame should lie there. The important point is, poor behaviour means little learning.

Experience, research and, one could argue, common sense, suggest we should apportion blame somewhere. If you are offended by the ‘B’ word then try one that is less pejorative – ‘RESPONSIBILITY’.

I would like to lay the blame or the responsibility on the teachers; not because they are an easy target but because,

Parents are Children’s First Teachers.

What we are, what we say and what we do, determines what our children become. Parents who spend quality time with their kids, parents who communicate with teachers, generally produce children without poor behaviour. Similarly, teachers who work with the parents, as well as the pupils, tend to get better results both socially and academically. Pupils who have suffered abuse, poverty, neglect or are deemed at risk genetically, require specialist intervention. And there’s the rub. Specialist intervention is, almost by definition, costly. But the price we may have to pay without that intervention could be far higher.

Go to the estates Mr Gove.

Spend time, not just a fleeting visit, in some real schools.

Have a few days in some Special Schools.

Have a pint.

Then ask yourself some serious questions about education. In the broadest sense.


Yours Faithfully etc.


Further Reading: Educational Psychology: Topics in Applied Psychology (TAP) [ By Norah Frederickson

**Genes and Behaviour: Nature-Nurture Interplay Explained Sir Michael Rutter   Seth G N Grant  Seth G N Grant cites Rutter’s down to earth approach as he considers the genome project and rips into certain areas with titles such as, ‘The supposed poor quality of the evidence from twin and adoptee studies’, ‘Fraud and bias in behavioural genetics’ and ‘Acceptance of funding from organisations with an axe to grind’.

*Genes May Contribute to a Child’s Bad Behaviour – From the APS journal ‘Psychological Science



See Michael Rosen’s very amusing blog ‘The Poetry Recitation Police Department: PRPD’

Michael Rosen et al (in fact plenty of ‘et als’ – mainly poets, mainly poets, like Michael, who I admire) recently reacted, I thought rather unfairly, to La Gove’s initiative,

Children should learn some poetry ‘off by heart’.

Andrew Motion supports Gove’s notion and so do I.

No, I am no fan of Mr Gove. If he were a baby I would throw him out and keep the bathwater. That’s where I stand on almost every policy he has spun. However, just because a man is usually wrong about everything it doesn’t mean that he’s always wrong about everything. And just because you take a dislike to someone… You see where I’m going with this. Similarly, just because you are a fan of Mr Rosen and generally agree with what he says…


Let me say why I believe that children should learn poetry by looking for a moment at the arts in general.

Most good composers – of whatever ilk – classical, jazz, blues, rock, pop, have begun by learning other people’s material. Most directors, actors, script and screen-writers have learnt parts from others’ scripts. There was once a tradition amongst the visual art’s colleges; that of copying the sculpture, drawing and painting of the great and the good. There were, and remain, reasons for this methodology; most of which is probably self-evident and needn’t concern us here. The argument about whether children should be made to learn a poem or not does not presuppose we are trying to create future poets by the educative process. That may be a by-product but, in much the same way, we are not teaching simply to create future artists, musicians, architects, actors etc. We do, however, want to educate for a broadly literate society. One that is discerning and appreciative of the arts. We also need creative thinkers.

Above all we, those of us involved in education, are trying to lead out rounded, rational human beings.

So why should we ask pupils to ‘learn’ a poem or two?

  • It helps boost self esteem amongst those who feel they have nothing to say or those who feel they have no means of saying it. From the three syllable poem, Ode to a Goldfish, (‘Oh Wet Pet’) through to, ‘Ode to the Daffodils’ and Shakespeare’s soliloquies.

Rather like an actor with his lines these poems can inhabit someone else’s mind. For a brief period the pupil can have some dominion over the best words in the best order.

I have worked for many years with challenging children and I have seen the pleasure, the feeling of accomplishment, the joy of the words, demonstrated when a poem has been learned. These students have not been shy about reciting the lines either. They are someone else’s words. They do not have to be held responsible for the sentiment expressed.

  • In learning a poem we get inside of the thing. It creates a burgeoning sense of what words can do – the power of words, the playfulness of words, the understanding of the poet’s craft  and devices such as metaphor and idiom … Without a basic understanding of metaphor, for example, we are likely to miss out on the inherent concepts in most works of literature, film, fine art etc.

That understanding can also help pupils who are on the autistic spectrum. If they get it within the poem they often begin to get it in life.

  • It is a natural thing to do. This of course does not make it right. (Any weekend philosopher could point us toward the ‘Naturalistic Fallacy’*.) It is a tradition however, that has given most of the great religious texts, myths, fables, legends and folk tales a longevity and gravitas that may otherwise not have been accorded them.

They do it already. Almost all children learn rhymes, songs, raps, sayings and jokes of their own volition. Because such learning has been part of the human tradition it should be encouraged. I would argue that, at best least, we are doing our children a disservice if we do not give them poems to learn. At worst we are depriving them of something that is both essentially free and priceless.

  • Once a poem is learned you have it for life. Unlike a book you may or may not decide to re-read, a film you might decide to re-watch, a play you may decide to go and see for a second or third time, your learned poems remain with you better than the stored information on an iPod. Learn several and be surprised by the mind’s internal ‘shuffle’ service. Often in early summer when I’m walking through a park or a quiet part of town I hear,

          “It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,

          The holy time is quiet as a Nun

          Breathless with adoration; the broad sun

          Is sinking down in its tranquillity;

          The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea:”

I can’t see quince jelly in a supermarket or on a plate without wanting a slice and a ‘runcible spoon’. Why because I want to, ‘dance in the light of the moon’.

Watching a pint of ale being poured puts me immediately in touch with,

“a draught of vintage! that hath been

           Cool’d a long age in the deep-delvèd earth,

          Tasting of Flora and the country-green,

          Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!

          O for a beaker full of the warm South!

          Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,

          With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,”

I am not saying that poems to be learned should be totally prescriptive. There should be no, “All pupils must learn ‘such and such’ by the age of 7 and ‘so and so’ by the age of 11” (although ‘So and So’ and ‘Such and Such’ are enticingly good, potential titles). That would be a separate argument. I do believe that all pupils should have access to a broad range of poetry, some of which should form part of a common cultural heritage.)

As alluded to above I am no fan of Mr Gove’s approach to Education. But here I am with Mr Motion, where Gove has got it right.

Apart from anything else, learning a poem or two would probably help raise the status of poetry.

It used to be the old rock n roll you know!




The thing I find hardest about writing a novel is how to end it. I’ve struggled with all the techniques. I’ve tried ‘seeing where the story takes me’ – it has never taken me to an ending that I’ve been happy with. I’ve tried planning so tightly that I knew exactly how it would end – and then the story took me somewhere else.

Starting is rarely a problem. I sometimes have three or four stories running in my head at once then a beginning will present itself and I’m happy to go with it. It was the same with the mouse trap.

The Mousetrap – its been running for nearly forty years and apparently most of the audience can’t remember who ‘dunnit’ within a week of having seen it. I know that to be true and I’ve never seen it. No, I have just had the experience. We don’t need to go to the theatre to understand life…

It was someone in the family who spotted the mouse first. It was in our kitchen. I did everything I could to get rid of it there and then. (Broom, dustpan and brush, slamming cupboard doors, kitchen door wide open, pincer movement, wife on table, skirt hitched up…) I promised that the mouse would be gone within twenty four hours. And it would have been Trap, Poison or both were my solution. But I was begged, pleaded with, told, in fact, only to use a humane mousetrap.

The irony of a compassionate entrapment didn’t escape me but the mouse certainly escaped the traps. Yes that’s right. We bought two. Two humane mousetraps. ‘Bait guaranteed to attract.’ That was over two weeks ago.

No one has seen the mouse since. I’m hoping it’s taken the hint, thought of its own ending so to speak. In any event the thing has gone.

And I really didn’t buy any poison.




It seems that reading, especially to children, is seen as the prerogative of women. I don’t know whether I was shocked, horrified, angry or sad to find out that only 1 in 8 of us fathers bother to read to our kids. This, in the news again last week!

It is a privilege to read to children. It is a great way to bond with them, to share a joke, discuss the merits of the tale, the motives of the protagonists or the quality of the illustrations. Bedtime is a perfect occasion – but not the only one – to read something for your children. What better way to end the day than with a few minutes of fiction?

I had a bedtime story read to me almost every when I was young. We weren’t rich or posh, we weren’t middle class. It was just something that happened. I did the same for my daughter. The only time she didn’t get a chapter or two of a story was if she had been ‘naughty’ and then she was only allowed a very short story or a poem or two. The idea being that a point was made but she was still read to.

Some fathers feel embarrassed, some lack confidence, some really struggle with reading themselves. This is something that should be remedied long before boys become fathers – i.e. in schools, or at home; especially if these teenage boys have younger siblings. Most books for little children aren’t too difficult though, and a quick read through while they’re not around can help.

‘Booktrusts’ attempts to ‘getdadsreading’ has been going for some time.  Freddie, so called, Flintoff launched a campaign to get dads reading back in Sept 2011.    ‘Now there’s a bloke’, you might say. Freddie Flintoff: hard man, bit of a boozer, wild, cricketing great, even a sometime boxer. If he can do it etc.

Some dad’s might have been be put off by the Duchess of, so called, Cornwall and her puppets campaigning for the same concern  Nonetheless…

Men, if you haven’t done it, try it. And if you can make it a routine, you’ll be surprised what it does for your credibility, respect and feeling of self worth. You might also find it helps you to relax too. There were several times when I’d be woken with a nudge, “dad, you’re snoring,”

“No, no,” I’d lie, “that was the sound the dragon made…”

It wasn’t a complete lie. It was just another tall tale.