This spring, I met four dyslexic MPs. I heard some amazing life stories about ability, hard work, timely support and tenacity, from four brave MPs who shared some of their hidden selves, with insights that many of their constituents and fellow parliamentarians will never have heard before.
Talking to MPs – Tom Hunt, Sir Mike Penning, Peter Kyle, and Matt Hancock – we went back in time to when a teacher laughed at one of them in front of their classmates; how another just ‘didn’t know what was going on’ in lessons; and how another ‘just hid’ at school.
From both sides of the house, MPs openly shared their lived experience of being dyslexic at school, through diagnosis, and in the House of Commons. This comes as Parliamentarians consider ways to improve diagnosis and support for the learning difficulty.
It was apparent in discussion with these four MPs that the two from schools with fewer resources had had a much more negative experience, both in terms of recognition of their additional needs, and when it came to receiving support and encouragement. Sir Mike Penning admitted that he, ‘was horrendous at school… I was always scraping and getting the cane.’ With his dyslexia undiagnosed, he felt lost at school. ‘The teacher asked me to read aloud in front of the class,’ and ‘didn’t know what was going on’.
This is sadly not unique: many dyslexic pupils share this experience, which helps to unravel the explanation of why pupils with dyslexia are more likely to be excluded by their school, or why they self exclude/ truant. A common theme in having an undiagnosed learning difficulty is feeling misunderstood, unsupported, and falling through the cracks in the education system.
Similarly, Peter Kyle’s school experience was far from ideal. He can recount the exact moment when he decided that his school was not for him, and he was definitely not for school. His English teacher had asked him to read aloud in front of his fellow pupils, and like most dyslexics he struggled. This affront to his self esteem was compounded by his teacher laughing cruelly at him. He told me that his Local Authority was the last in the country to recognise dyslexia as a learning condition, ‘I just thought I was bad with words,’ and he was put in the remedial class, where he gave up on his education until he was 25.
Late diagnoses is a common thread among dyslexic MPs. As Matt said: ‘I just thought I was bad with words.’ It was only when he was at the University of University that he was sent for a dyslexia assessment by his tutor, who told him: ‘You can talk, but you can’t write.’
For Sir Mike Penning, his dyslexia was only recognized by his Education Officer in the army. He was also later diagnosed as having dyscalculia (difficulty with numbers), after he had joined the fire service. No wonder Mike had a tough time at school. Similarly, Peter Kyle did not get a diagnosis until he was at Sussex University aged 25. Peter is very proud of the fact that he was “the first severely dyslexic student at Sussex University to get a doctorate.”
Tom Hunt also talked about some tricky moments during his education, especially during the transition phases. Tom could not tie his shoe laces until 14 (which is not unusual for a dyslexic/dyspraxic person), but managed to get a first from the University of Manchester, and a Masters from Oxford University. Intelligence has never been in question for our four contributors.
Like most dyslexic individuals (both diagnosed and undiagnosed), Matt Hancock did not share his difference, ‘I kept my dyslexia private for 20 years, across my career in business and as a politician,’ he said, ‘when I spoke about my dyslexia, it was a huge relief for me.’
All four MPs have worked hard to overcome their challenges and their natural empathy, oratory skills, and ability to see the bigger picture – typical traits of dyslexia – have helped them in Parliament and with their constituents. All, however, are quick to point out that they have good support teams around them, who pick up some of the slack in areas in which they know they are not strong. As Tom Hunt said, ‘I have a team that supports me with the skills I don’t have, and I have found that very liberating.’
Similarly, Matt Hancock shared that, ‘I have always asked my officials to write a crisp one-page note on the top of all the long submissions, so I can prioritise the most important decisions.’
It was clear that all four are keen to see a culture change in the way we perceive dyslexia. Consequently, they will be focused on the Schools White Paper; the SEND Green Paper; and Matt Hancock’s call for legislation around universal screening for dyslexia in primary schools, which are all going before Parliament this year.
One of the more striking aspects of dyslexia in Britain today is the numbers that make up our prison population. As Matt Hancock commented, ‘It is a shocking fact that 50% of prisoners are dyslexic, and that 57% have literacy levels below those expected of an 11-year-old.’ Sir Mike Penning also expressed frustration with the situation, describing the fact that we “don’t use the opportunity” to help work with offender’s literacy skills in prison as, ‘a massive problem.’ Other topics discussed included the benefit of one-to-one study support, the digital disconnect, and the range of excellent learning software that can be used to help struggling readers, the costs of which would be outweighed by the life choices that would open up to someone who could now write for jobs or consider getting back into education.
Another key area was the situation of dyslexics in the workplace. All four agreed that there is still too much negativity around dyslexia at work, and this is too often expressed as prejudice against the dyslexic individual. We need to ‘help businesses understand the huge talents that dyslexic people bring to the workplace”, Matt Hancock, adding that, “If we invest in our dyslexic children from an early age, we can unleash their potential.’
When dyslexic individuals find their niche they can thrive – we only need to look at these MPs to see that. And we can also look to other successful dyslexics to see how they can help businesses thrive from:- Steve Jobs to Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and thousands of other entrepreneurial business owners up and down the country.
Roger Broadbent is director of both the Dyslexia Institute UK and also the Empowerment Passport.