July 25, 2004

My thanks to Arts & Letters Daily for picking up on this article from my local evening paper about dyspraxia, which is partly a reason but academic failure, but mostly an excuse for bad teaching.

Here are the key paragraphs of this particular story, about a boy thus branded, and about the expensive tutoring his parents subsequently set about rescuing him with:

So began 18 months of after-school sessions with puzzles and videos, complemented by special teaching from two other psychologists to teach reading. In addition, most evenings a tutor came to the house to help my son with his homework - the cost was phenomenal. By the end of the second year, the situation was probably worse. He was in the bottom set at school and scored miserable marks in exams. He was below the border line to pass the common entrance. Then came enlightenment.

"Your son," announced one educational psychologist suddenly, "is not dyspraxic." "What?" I exclaimed. "He just hasn't been taught maths," she continued. "It has undermined his self-confidence to learn everything else at school." The revelation was astounding. She recommended a maths tutor.
"Most of my work," the maths tutor told me "is with pupils from your son's school. They can't teach maths." Neither could he.

Desperate, I was told about a maths tutor who it was said could perform miracles, at £90 per hour. To save my son, there was no choice.

"No one has taught him maths," announced the miracle worker, "and he's got no self-confidence." Teachers at the school, he discovered, regularly humiliated my son because of his poor results. "Can you do anything?" I pleaded. "Oh, yes," he said. It was October. The exams were in June.

Over the following eight months I witnessed the most astonishing transformation. A cowed child became a confident student. Understanding maths transformed his mastery of every other subject. His common entrance mark in maths was 83 per cent and he achieved five A grades (over 75 per cent) with the rest Bs (over 65 per cent).

When I cautiously raised with one or two other parents the rather sensitive subject of poor teaching in the school, I was amazed by the response. Oh didn't you know, 75 per cent of the boys doing Common Entrance have private tuition at home? Nobody had declared their hand until after the exams. And when I told my story to an old friend, Anne Alvarez, a well known child psychologist, she told me: "Dyspraxia and other labels put on children are often too loosely used. Many diagnostic labels are used as wastebaskets."

Our son's headmaster recently announced the appointment of a new maths teacher. We later learned that this new teacher had not even passed A-level maths.

The writer of this article implies that the misuse of the word "dyspraxia" is more common in the private sector. But my guess would be that this is merely because in the private sector they at least have to provide some kind of reason for academic failure, or failing that, they have to contrive a plausible excuse. In many a state school, I should guess, failure of this sort could simply be allowed to run its course unchallenged.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:48 PM
Category: Maths