Education can really shape who we are as individuals, It gives you the knowledge and power to move forward in your life and acts as a mechanism to break down barriers that prevent you from achieving. During some time I spent in India five years ago, I learned how valued education was and how enthusiastic Indian children were to go to school and learn. The image of children living in quite extreme poverty, turning up to school every day with big smiles on their faces, will stay with me for the rest of my life and I’ve become very grateful for my own education and how much I’ve achieved.
With GCSE and A level results coming out over the last couple of weeks and working with young people in my job, seeing the stress and worry they endure in the run up to getting these results has prompted me to write my next post on this blog. I have also seen many social media discussions on Dyspraxia support groups, from proud parents expressing the great achievements of their Dyspraxic children for actually getting through school. It made me think about my own time growing up, how I had to work hard to prove myself and to make people realise that having special educational needs doesn’t make you stupid. Time and time again I heard ”you won’t be able to do that” assuming that with my labels I have limitations, but I don’t believe this for a second.
As I reached secondary school, I felt lost and in some ways out of my depth in an environment that I didn’t quite understand yet. Most 11 year olds leaving the safety net of primary school will feel like this but for Dyspraxic children the anxiety of untangling the maze of an unfamiliar environment is magnified greatly. As a dyspraxic child I had and still do have terrible problems with sense of direction and getting lost. This meant that for the first few weeks of secondary school, I turned up to classes late or became distressed that I couldn’t find where I had to be. This was because it takes me longer to familiarise myself with a new place and to process information so that I feel confident with the routes. The school realised that this caused me problems, so I had a buddy for my first few weeks to help me find my lessons. This also made me look different and the one thing I hated more than anything was standing out to my peers. I also found the social side challenging too, having to meet new people and feel comfortable enough to form friendships. This led to me going through secondary school with literally no friends, I can’t have been happy but I didn’t let it get to me. I just took everything in my stride and focussed on what I enjoyed- music and reading. Playing fiddle acted as an outlet and a way to channel all the negative and confusing emotions I felt towards school. I would also escape for hours through my books, into a world where I didn’t feel threatened and where my worries of the next school day didn’t feel so important.
At first, before the school got to know me I was put in bottom set for Maths, I really struggled with Maths and still do. I’m convinced that I have undiagnosed dyscalculia because numbers have never made sense to me. In year 6 I achieved level 3 in my sats and because of this the school assumed that I wasn’t capable. My maths class was full of special needs children and incompetent teachers- they always reserve the best teachers for the top sets. I felt very out of place in my maths class as I was a lot brighter than the others, Being in top set English, a keen reader and very politically aware, I was in no way ‘thick’ as school tried to conclude- I just didn’t understand numbers. My maths class had it’s fair share of disruption because people were frustrated, misunderstood and disenfranchised with the system. This was detrimental to everyone’s education and meant that we weren’t able to be taught properly.There was lack of specialist support and to solve the problem we were put at the bottom of the pile away from those that were going to get A’s and A*’s. I don’t believe that young people who won’t boost the schools league tables should be forgotten about- quite the opposite, they should be supported, encouraged and given enthusiasm to break down any barriers preventing them from accessing education and to feel just as proud as those who sail through with A’s. There should be more recognition for those who make it through exams with specific learning difficulties. As I moved through school, I persevered with my Maths, I moved up to middle set and was given extra tuition at GCSE. I would spend hours revising concepts and equations that I didn’t really understand, to the point of exhaustion due to the amount of effort I had to put in to keep up with everyone else. Throughout my mocks I consistently got D”s and E’s, but I didn’t give up. Having a C in maths would mean the world to me, it would open up doors and give me a great sense of belief in myself. Eventually the hard work paid off and I gained my C, It was only by one mark but that didn’t matter- I was finally in the percentage of those achieving A*-C in Maths. However I didn’t receive any recognition for my efforts, the school have a prize giving every year, that I was never invited to. It always seemed like an exclusive event that only those with straight A’s had the privilege of attending. It’s so important to understand the need for these events to be more inclusive and accepting of those of all abilities, in turn this will encourage young people to be more tolerant and understanding of those who struggle. I think with more empathic school communities, we can tackle the wider issues of bullying and encourage young people to support and motivate each other.
In other areas of my school life the physical effects and my poor gross motor skills caused problems in practical aspects of science, food technology and PE. For a while I had an extra support assistant in my science lessons, but I found her to be a hindrance rather than a help. I was very independent and liked to do things for myself, I found someone trying to set up my science experiment for me and sitting next to me watching everything I do very patronising. In the end I pretty much sacked her, on numerous occasions I told her to leave me alone and I think she got the message eventually. In food technology I flourished, I compensated for the motor difficulties I faced and was guided by a very supportive teacher. On numerous occasions I gained ‘chef of the day’ for my efforts and I particularly remember designing and making a pizza that I was very proud of.
However PE, was different story, very few of the PE teachers had any understanding of Dyspraxia and those that did only had a basic grasp of the condition. I have always seen sport as a very competitive environment, one that I have not really understood or taken to. In PE my Dyspraxia was noticed more than anywhere else at school, I stood out and dreaded going to PE lessons. I became physically ill with anxiety at the prospect of athletics or badminton. I knew that I would always be the last to be picked for teams and that I wouldn’t be included in net ball games because I couldn’t catch a ball. I remember one time during badminton I tried and persevered but I couldn’t find the co-ordination to hit the shuttlecock with the racket. I remember everyone laughing and joking about my lack of ability. On another occasion a PE teacher commented “Alice you’re walking funny” in front of others in my class. This made me feel very small and insignificant, and obviously showed a complete lack of understanding of Dyspraxia. It is only recently that I have found a form of exercise that I enjoy, I think that the PE department clouded my judgement of sport and gave me a lack of confidence in my abilities. I have finally taken up swimming again, it is something that I can do at my own pace and not feel under pressure from others around me, my lack of co-ordination is also less obvious and it makes you feel good after- statistically swimming at least once a week is meant to improve your mood and help with anxiety and depression. It is so important to find something that you enjoy and makes you feel comfortable and relaxed. The education system has a long way to go to make PE inclusive and accessible, but starting by listening to young people explain how physical education can exclude many with additional needs will be a positive step in the right direction. Making young people take part in activities that they are constantly going to fail at, just causes low self esteem and a lack of belief in themselves, I was never going to be an amazing badminton player but I found that I took to trampolining- playing to people’s strengths will avoid similar negative experiences that I went through.
I was also really badly bullied throughout secondary school, I don’t understand why people can be so nasty to another human being- but it happened. This really effected my self esteem and confidence, to the point I completely avoided interacting with other people. Sometimes I wished that I didn’t have to go to school because I knew that people would pick on me because of my differences. I’m also certain that it has contributed to me developing a social anxiety disorder later on in life. The majority of teachers tried to help the best they could but they could never be everywhere. When I was around 15 I joined a local youth assembly that totally changed the way I viewed and trusted people. I developed the confidence to go from not saying a word to anyone to feeling comfortable enough to stand up and present the election night in front of a room full of people and local councillors. I finally understood what it felt like to be happy and I felt very cared for and at home in my new environment. The youth assembly definitely helped me to feel positive about myself and to develop a career as a youth worker that I absolutely love- because I finally found people who believed in me.
At school I loved humanities subjects, I found history fascinating, probably the reason why I took it on to degree level. I was also consistently good at English, maintaining in the top set throughout my time at secondary school. I even won an essay competition and the chance to travel to Slovakia with four local councillors when I was 16. I was very good at expressing myself in the written word. I used to write regular letters to the headteacher complaining about various problems I had with school, he probably just humoured me in the end but always used to write back. Once I wrote a letter complaining about litter around school, which prompted the setting up of an environmental club. I remember going around school counting the number of lights left on in empty class rooms, we didn’t get much further than this but at least I tried!
Eventually I moved to sixth form and people’s attitudes towards me began to change. During a meeting about my subject’s before sixth form, the teacher was trying to put me off from taking History, saying that it was a very hard A level and I wouldn’t be able to cope, but I ignored her and took it anyway. In sixth form teachers finally began to realise that I could do it and see that I was capable. I was supported to apply to university and finally listened to as an individual rather than being viewed as someone on the special educational needs register. I continued to speak up for my self, fight for what I believed in and work incredibly hard to pass all four A levels. Having Dyspraxia has made me very determined and driven, not to be the best but to be happy with myself and how far I have come, even without people’s understanding and support at the start of my academic journey. I believe that young people with added difficulties who survive the school system develop a strong set of skills and attributes that can be used in the real world, I learned that it is important to stand up for yourself and to be heard. This is vital for those with special educational needs as they are often forgotten about or written off altogether. I hope that the young people who have picked up their GCSE results last week are congratulated on their efforts rather than on how many A*’s they’ve achieved. I was over the moon with my 5 B’s and 5 C’s at GCSE, I have never had an A grade in my life but I have gone on to be educated to Masters level and have now found a career that I love. This pressure to achieve A grades all the time isn’t necessary in creating well rounded individuals, a generation of happy young people definitely outweighs everything else.
My time in education has taught me tolerance and understanding of other people’s varying needs. I also learned to believe in myself, because I was in a system that was trying to fail me, I developed this determination to show the world what I can do. I have also learned to support people who may be going through similar experiences. Sometimes I wish that I didn’t have to deal with all these difficulties and that things would come easier for me, but without my statement of special educational needs I wouldn’t be where I am today. Dyspraxia, with all the inconveniences it has caused makes me who I am and has definitely been the making of me within the education system and beyond.