All schools are equal but some are more equal than others

I recently attended the Festival of Education at Wellington College and heard Amanda Spielman give a keynote.

I wrote this for The Driver Youth Trust.

Amanda Spielman, OFSTED’s new leader gave a rousing talk at the Festival of Education last week. She listed ways in which schools were gaming the system:  allowing students with EAL to take a GCSE in their first language rather than French, putting learners through the computer driving course to bump up league tables and teaching exam content five years before year 11 GCSEs. What she said made sense; let’s think of the students more and fixing the data less. Let’s give children a broad and balanced curriculum, rich in knowledge rather than one narrowly focussing on skills required to pass exams. Teachers across the country will be cheering her along every step of the way.

Amanda Spielman set out her stall and I was on the whole nodding in agreement.  Until she delved into the realm of SEND, that is. She said,

‘If you are putting more resources into providing exam scribes than in teaching your strugglers to read and write…you are probably doing your child a disservice’.

This was an attack on SEND teachers across the country showing a lack of knowledge in how schools run. Firstly, literacy teaching and scribes go hand in hand. A child who is struggling to read and write will have many interventions thrown at them through their school life but also, if they haven’t reached a standardised score of 85 by the time they are taking exams, then arrangements must be provided. This is stated in law under the Equality Act (2010).

By resources, I assume Spielman means training and TAs.  TAs are deployed to scribe for learners when they cannot show their knowledge to the best of their ability, not at the same time as teaching them to read and write but in tandem. By year 11, scribes are used for GCSEs and TAs are given a memory aid and brief training to ensure they are familiar with the rules.

Examples of students who require scribes (names have been changed):

Timothy has cerebral palsy. While he can read and spell in the above average range Timothy does not have the stamina or speed to write for lengthy periods. Timothy is doing A’Levels.  During his GCSEs he became frustrated with his scribes as they couldn’t write fast enough for him. The school provided and trained him in speech recognition software so he could scribe for himself. It was a perfect fit for Timothy and he got the grades required for university where he will continue to scribe using Dragon Naturally Speaking (if Timothy was doing his GCSEs he would now lose spelling marks for using a scribe despite the fact he can spell perfectly well).

Sandra is from a large family, all of whom have a range of special educational needs. Sandra says ‘I’m the lucky one, I just have dyslexia.’ It is severe however, and despite many interventions and specialist 1:1 instruction, Sandra’s literacy has improved but in no way reflects her attainment levels. Her spelling and decoding scores are within the lowest 10% of the population.  Sandra is predicted Cs and Bs in her GCSEs however and uses a reader and a scribe. She will lose spelling marks in her GCSEs for having a scribe.

Lee is a looked after child. His literacy scores are low enough to require both a reader and a scribe. He came to the school following a very troubled background and remembers more swings in back gardens than he does schools. Moved from local authority to local authority, care home to care home, the gaps in his schooling are huge. There is no diagnosis of dyslexia, lack of education is thought the cause. The school put in literacy 1:1 sessions for him but the lack of time from when he began this school to his GCSEs still mean that while he has made massive progress, he is eligible for a reader and a scribe. Lee will lose SPAG marks in his GCSEs.

To blame the school system for what is a legal requirement for learners with SEND is irritating. There are so many, more pressing injustices to highlight. Earlier in the day, I listened to Vic Goddard giving a talk on ‘The Inclusive School’. He told us the school down the road has an unofficial, ‘no SEND policy’ and encourages parents of children with SEND to go to Vic’s school instead where they ‘can better meet your child’s needs’. Let’s guess which school got the ‘outstanding’ grade shall we?

I heard NASEN’s CEO, Dr Adam Boddison, tell of a school who got an ‘outstanding’ judgement despite not having a SENCO (a legal requirement).  OFSTED knew this. He showed us damning figures on permanent exclusions of learners with SEND; home education for students with SEND is on the rise. The alarming picture shows that students with learning difficulties are not managing in the mainstream and schools such as Passmore’s get no acknowledgement for embracing these children.

The system is failing many learners with SEND in mainstream schools and there is no accountability. When Amanda Spielman spoke so eloquently of gaming in schools but ignored our SEND students, other than to take away their reasonable adjustments which are there by law, I can’t help feeling this neglected sector of society, those with the least resources available to them, are again hidden from policy maker’s eyes (highlighted in DYT’s  ‘Through the Looking Glass’ report). Something which gets in the way of ‘standards’ and platitudes. It is much easier for the narrative to be ‘teach the SEND out of them and cure them with literacy lessons’. SEND students are not going anywhere, we need to stop ignoring them and give them the tools to succeed. OFSTED must give schools incentives to value all learners and reward those who do inclusion well, not punish them or criticise them for giving children scribes.

If teachers feel embattled, as Hugh Dennis acknowledged when opening the Festival, then mainstream SEND ones are lying half dead in the bunkers. Told SEND doesn’t exist, expected to show impossible progress or accused of ‘dysteachia’ (the term coined by a few private tutors to explain why some students can’t read and write); it is always the teachers’ fault.

Let’s give ALL children a broad and balanced curriculum, rich in knowledge rather than one narrowly focussed on skills required to pass exams. But let’s not forget that OFSTED played a part in creating this culture. Like Benjamin in Animal Farm, I am sceptical. Will these shiny new promises amount to a significant shift in values for schools? Or will teachers just be beaten with a different stick? This new positive OFSTED would no longer be judging teachers on ‘how’ they teach, granted, but would they instead be inspecting ‘what’ they teach?

It seems at present that ‘Schools are all equal, but some are more equal than others’.


Day 16 – Do we really need to read and write? #28daysofwriting Assistive Technology

I was recently introduced at a training session as ‘the woman who will persuade you that reading and writing are not required to succeed in school’ – I laughed nervously saying ‘well, not quite but……’.

Reading and writing are vital, of course, (and talking) but Assistive Technology has come on so much that if you cannot do these things it is still possible to achieve in education. I work in mainstream (although I’m constantly bugging nearby Special Schools for advice) so advanced technology isn’t as widely used and my first few blogs in this Assistive Technology series concentrate on free technology which, if there’s an old laptop going dusty in the corner, will suffice for many students.

I do however meet students who do not read very well; ask your SENCO how many candidates require readers for exams – it may surprise you. These young people are not accessing the curriculum in the same way as their typically developing peers. Some students hide this well, some rely on friends or the class TA, some appear truculent and some are skilled at listening and will attempt to remember enough salient information to get by. Imagine if all these students required glasses however, would we be happy to let them cope without them?

Using technology is not without its difficulties – it may require teachers to send electronic copies of text and, being (cough) slighty disorganised myself, I know this isn’t always the first thing on a teacher’s mind; it may be that the work is no longer available in an electronic format or it’s from a text book which hasn’t been downloaded from Load2Learn yet.

Imagine if there was a simple app which took a picture of any (typed) text and then read it back to you?

Well there is now.

It’s done with OCR or something….

Capturatalk and Clarospeak are two apps which do this – it’s not cheap (£55-75) but I’m sure this cost will come down in the next few years. For the type of student who likes to be independent but has to rely on others in class, this could revolutionise how they cope in the classroom.

As I have said previously, I don’t think this technology replaces reading and writing, more so enhances it. Until students catch up with their peers, we need to find some solutions and this, although pricey, could be the answer for a few of them. I’m certainly going to give it a try.

Day 8 – Free electronic copies of text books #28daysofwriting


You have your free text-to-speech –

‘Balabolka’ Day 2 blog TICK

You have your free voices –

‘Ooo Daniel’ Day 5 blog TICK

Your students are ready to go …

Right, you say ‘read pg 64 of your text book’ – oh. CROSS

So, what you now need are your text books in an electronic format – ‘I wish there was a place to download my AQA Geography text book’ you say.

Ta da – the genie has granted your wish.

Your can register with Load2learn then download the text book for your student to read. (If they don’t have a copy of your text book Load2Learn will contact the publishers for you).

Only rules are:

School needs to be registered with the CLA (copyright licensing authority)

Student must have a print disability e.g visual impairment/dyslexia

School must own the book you want to download otherwise you infringe copyright

I find it’s a good idea to have one person responsible for preparing the text books – there are some wonderful TAs who work tirelessly preparing electronic texts for students. And not only do they have the time to assist the student with this, it is also engendering independence in the student – a win win (remote TA?).

Other places to get ebooks for free are:

Book Share

Project Gutenburg

Open Culture

Do look on

it is jam packed with useful information.


Day 5 – Voices – Assistive Technology #28daysofwriting

I’m not quite as famous as Ethel Cain (first speaking clock voice) but I was the voice of Falkland Islands telephone exchange in 2000 – Ethel and I had our voice recorded with a finite amount of things to say however, but a synthetic voice is different because a computer generates the sounds of words – the more accurate and naturally sounding the voice, the more expensive it is.

Because I use various Assistive Technologies with my students, I have become very familiar with free computer voices. I would prefer to listen to Jeremy Irons reading Pride and Prejudice obvs but these are prepared audio books.

If you want electronic text read to you unprepared by a human it will be a computerised voice.

And I’m a computer voice nerd. “That’s Daniel” I yell when I hear a satnav or “ah Microsoft Hazel is not as good as Sangeeta” I say to the bewilderment of other less voice spotting staff.

There are many free computer voices and ones which come with certain software – they’re all fine – Tyler from New Zealand is really rather lovely.

The paid for ones however are better but because I work in state education I rarely get to hear these. Ivona sell and create voices as do Cereproc. There are even children’s voices. I would not hesitate to purchase one of these for a student if nothing else worked but so far I haven’t needed to.

Two, high quality voices (Jack and Jess) created by Cereproc for 16+ students are impressive. I use Jack, he’s Northern. Obviously I have never typed ‘Jules I love you will you marry me?’ and got Jack to say it – that would be weird (awkward pause).

When you introduce voice choice in schools you do need to expect expletives to be typed then read out by the voices to immature chuckles, it’s par for the course. Once staff have got over the novelty however the students take over, choose a voice and usually stick with it.

Jack and Jess are free from JiscTechDis and work really well with Balabolka (Day 2 blog) for a totally free, high quality text-to-speech package. The voices will also work with paid for text-to-speech applications. Don’t forget you could download Jack and Jess if you’re studying (aren’t all teachers these days?), you just need to register with the post 16 provider’s name.

So, trial some voices and let me know who you like.


Day 2 #28daysofwriting – Balabolka

Balabolka means ‘chatterer’ in Russian and it does exactly that on your computer. It’s a free, text-to-speech (TTS) piece of software which enables students to have electronic text read out to them.

Balabolka is one of the best free TTS on the market as it has many features usually reserved for the commercial ones.

It uses a bimodal form of reading which means the students use their eyes and ears; tracking while listening. I have found some tentative research to show this may enhance students’ reading skills rather than replace them. Whether this is true or not, it certainly allows anyone who cannot access text through decoding or visual impairment to read with their ears.

Other features are that you can change the background colour, the highlighting colour and even the skin. You can turn text into audio files so students can listen to text on their iPod/MP3 etc and you can change the speed and pitch of the computerised voice.

This can be loaded onto old laptops and with a set of headphones could be transformative for a student who cannot access the text based curriculum.

A few words of warning:

* if using as a proofreading tool remember that the changes you make to essays opened in Word will need to be copy and pasted back in to Word – Balabolka is the platform you open files into but it doesn’t work in Word

*ask someone IT savvy to download it – it’s very easy to get spyware/pop ups and random search bars


See CallScotland’s Blog –…

Day 1 #28daysofwriting – What is Assistive Technology?

Why should my students use it?

I am cheap. I will do pretty much anything for a freebie. And if I write for 28 days I get a @staffrm mug.

What to write about though?

Well, part of my job is doing Assistive Technology Assessments for students in Dorset. I am therefore constantly looking for software and apps to match up to a student’s needs.

So I am going to write 26blogs which cover a different app or piece of software. This leaves me 1 blogs to introduce the topic and 1 at the end to conclude.

What is Assistive Technology?

Any technology which removes barriers for students. To allow them to achieve and to engender independence.

If you have students who cannot access the curriculum and/or record their work effectively then technology may allow them to do this.

I work with students in mainstream schools so the three assistive technologies I concentrate on are:

Text to Speech – where text is read out by a computerised voice

Speech to Text – where a student talks and the computer types their words


Concept Mapping – where a student can plan work in the form of a spider diagram or mind map.

Understandably, people ask why we can’t just teach students to read and write properly – well if this ever happens for all students I will be the first to jump up and down whooping (most of my job is to teach reading and writing) but until that time what are we doing to aid these students’ achievements?

What are we doing to help them access a text based curriculum if they can’t read?

What do we do until they catch up with their typically developing peers?

If it’s acceptable for students to benefit from a Teaching Assistant then why not a tablet or laptop?

I look forward to persuading you – I have another 27 blogs to do it in.


Dyslexia – How to help in Secondary School

Dyslexia – How to Help in Secondary School


My last blog explained the current definition for Dyslexia/Rose’09. .

Next week I will look at Dyslexia – How to help in Primary

What are the Indicators? requested by @suecowley will be the following week.


‘If you get SEN right in school you raise achievement for all.’


‘I know what to say but I can’t get it down on paper’ – students with dyslexia often say this and it impacts on writing.

I like the comparison to index cards: the idea that all the information is there but not in a neat, A-Z sequential order, rather, it is thrown all over the floor.

Concept mapping may be useful – it’s the ability to brainstorm first and then begin to plan thoughts into a linear, more ordered structure.  I love a programme called Inspiration This allows you to plan in a mind map or spider diagram and then press a button which changes it to a linear format.  I applied for my current job using this and it made the whole process less overwhelming.


Post-it notes are good too as they can be moved around; as a whole group exercise try putting them on different walls in the classroom – this really helps to cluster themes into subheadings/paragraphs etc.

Word processing helps due to being able to cut and paste – it takes away the finality of writing – think of those students who are constantly crossing things out, moving paragraphs around with arrows, using asterisks to add bits in.

Obviously grammar and spell checker is also an advantage.  Be aware of students who appear to have a wide vocabulary when they talk and yet their writing does not reflect this – it may just be that they try to use words they are confident in spelling.


Don’t assume students cannot comprehend what they are reading even if they cannot decode out loud to you.  I know this is controversial but I come across students with dyslexia who have single word reading scores in the ‘well below average’ range but comprehension in the ‘average’ range.  It is not reading in the decoding sense but it is reading.

Teaching reading skills to someone with dyslexia should be phonics based however,  due to phonological difficulties, learning words by sight is easier for many but this will not give them strategies to decode words they don’t recognise.  I advocate (but many disagree with me) a balanced approach. This encourages learning a bank of sight words for automaticity and fluency alongside a more structured, cumulative, multi-sensory phonics programme.

‘Oral language is the precursor to reading’ Snowling ’13.

Although students with dyslexia need support with letter-sound correspondence and phonological awareness, this will not help reading comprehension.  Dyslexia is a language based impairment so here, oral language is key.  And there is bucket loads of research to show spoken language work improves comprehension.

(There is however a difference between poor decoders/good comprehenders and good decoding/poor comprehension – crudely speaking the former may be dyslexic and the latter may have language impairment but there are many overlapping difficulties which does not make it so clear cut).

This by Snowling and Hulme explains far better than I can.

For a more practical look at language in schools, Chris Chivers’ blog is worth reading.  In fact for good, inclusive strategies all his blogs are useful.  In fact he should be in charge of education full stop.


While I think I can teach pretty much everyone to read, I do not believe this is the case for spelling.  Of course I am describing the very severe cases; for most while their spelling may never be perfect; they can get by with ‘near enough’. (a term coined by Neil McKay 2014)

  • Use colour – colour phonic codes, colour vowel sounds, colour different sections of the word – hell, colour everything.
  • Vowels are really important to teach and telling students that words cannot exist without them (including y) is too. Many students I see struggle with the spell checker or predictive text to help them as they miss vowels out.  Library for instance might be written ‘lbry’ which a computer won’t pick up
  • Chunking syllables maybe more useful to older students than phonic codes – if you examine your worst spellers in an Upper school/college setting, look to see if they have used the correct amount of syllables.  Often students with dyslexia will be quite a way off – recently a boy had written ‘fart’ meaning to write ‘favourite’.  The main letters are there and in order but it is only one syllable.
  • Prefix /root word/suffix – this is sometimes a useful strategy to build words ­and linked to word derivation makes it great for key words in subject areas.  Quick question for you with the word du jour on twitter at the moment.  What does meta mean? Now put in the root word and suffix for English – meta/physic/al poets and for study – meta/cognition – this deep analysis of words is interesting and may appeal (you’ll see at the top of the pictures I use a beautifully drawn stick person lying down – head/prefix – body/root and legs/suffix).



  • For subject key words – etymology can help – in Romeo and Juliet – Benvolio (good) and Malvolio (bad)  in Twelth Night – link to other words with same prefix – benevolent, malpractice etc
  • Proof reading – this can be a real nightmare for those with dyslexia – they may not be able to ‘see’ the errors.  I have found using something like Balabolka ( a text-to-speech app which highlights the words as it reads) can be really useful for proofreading or, try turning text into an MP3 so students can listen to it  (thank you to @JaPenn56 for this question).

Revision strategies (thanks to @scjmcd for this question)

  • I have mentioned spider diagrams and post-it notes – I think they help.
  • Turning text into MP3s allows students to listen to revision notes (Balabolka will do this and it’s free)
  • Help with time management and organisation – both these can be issues for those with dyslexia, so advice on  ‘how and when’ to revise is beneficial
  • Students may struggle to filter relevant detail for exam style essays so lots of practice with structuring and planning without having to necessarily write the essay each time
  • Mnemonics are like marmite but often loved  by students with dyslexia
  • Narrative – having a hook to remember information – ‘tights come down for stalactites’ (sorry but I never forgot once my Geography teacher told me this)
  • Using songs to help with remembering poetic strategies:

‘I can see clearly now the rain has gone’ – pathetic fallacy

‘Lady Luck and Sister Vanity were not easy to ignore, opened up a door and let me in’ – personification

‘Light up like a candle burning when he calls me up, melt down like a candle burning every time we touch’ – simile.

More questions sourced by twitter

@Podgainy­_j – ‘How to verify the knowledge gap is shrinking?’

This is a tricky one – I have written about the Matthew Effect for poor readers here

Again, oral language is key: exposing children to books in other ways such as audio, reading to them, text-to-speech for subject based information.  These would all help but I don’t know if we can verify the knowledge gap is shrinking?  Stanovich argues that crystallised intelligence is affected by reading difficulties so you may wish to look at this.  (Does reading make you smarter/

@rashush2 ‘interventions or not? If yes, what helps?’

I have mixed feelings about this – if as much as possible can be done via Quality First teaching then brilliant.  Some students however do need support and 1:1 teaching by a specialist teacher is the Rolls Royce of interventions.  Small group work will never be able to pinpoint precisely each student’s difficulties but it is obviously a cheaper option.

What helps I have discussed above – what doesn’t help however is untrained staff.  This can actually do more harm than good.  The children with the most persistent difficulties need the highest quality support.

@evenicola1 ‘Is technology the answer?’

Assistive Technology has transformed the lives of many people with dyslexia.  There’s text-to-speech, speech-to-text, concept mapping, predictive text, even Captura now where you can take a photograph of any text and have it read to you. (I will blog on Assistive Technology)

I like the new livescribe pen which records lessons, allows you to handwrite and then change it to text with a swipe. One of my students has this and it’s wonderful.

All these technologies remove barriers to learning and often allow students to show what they are capable of without being disabled by reading and writing difficulties.

A few interesting Research morsels from The Dyslexia Debate – Professor Elliot

“Good interventions in early years reduces later incidence of problems but those left are more resistant”

“Effective interventions for young children result in lower success rates for adolescents with reading difficulties”.

“Phonics more efficacious for younger kids but still works for older children pp 127-129 and p 136 onwards but require more work with language and comprehension”.

This has became a marathon blog (hence why I’ve dealt with identification and primary separately) – if you have got to end – phew, well done.  Thanks for all those who asked questions, I hope I have answered some.