Interview: Champion of dyslexics - Kate Griggs, director, Xtraordinary People

Nancy Rowntree
Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Steven Spielberg, Richard Branson, Jamie Oliver, Keira Knightley - the dyslexics featured on the Xtraordinary People website reads like a who's who of the gifted and famous.

This is the idea at the heart of the charity founded by mother and campaigner Kate Griggs, celebrating the talents of people with dyslexia, as well as tackling the difficulties they face.

But without the right support and encouragement from specially trained teachers, Griggs believes many dyslexic children may not even become literate and numerate, let alone fulfil their potential.

"Dyslexics invented the car, the plane and electricity. They are five times more likely to be entrepreneurs," says Griggs. "Dyslexia is a combination of abilities and difficulties and teachers need to be given the skills so they can recognise and deal with dyslexia."

Griggs, herself dyslexic, launched the charity in 2004 after battling with her son's school to get his dyslexia recognised and treated. "We know dyslexia is hereditary and I was sure that my son was dyslexic. But his school didn't want to listen, they said it was too early to tell. Meanwhile my son was coming home in floods of tears and saying 'Mummy, I don't want to be alive because my brain isn't working properly'."

So she took matters into her own hands and paid for an educational psychologist to see her son, who confirmed that he was dyslexic, and for an outside teacher to come and work with him which, she says, completely transformed him.

"I realised it was a national problem, not just at my son's school," she says. "There's at least a million children in the UK with dyslexia - that's a huge issue affecting our society. We know what it is that these children need so I couldn't understand why this hasn't been sorted."

Although Griggs still, rather modestly, describes herself as a mum and campaigner, the charity has come a long way. As well as uniting the UK's dyslexia charities around the cause, she has held a raft of meetings with cabinet ministers to discuss the plight of dyslexic children and even stood against Labour minister Ruth Kelly in the 2005 general election as an independent candidate in order to raise the profile of her campaign.

Griggs welcomes the government's personalised learning agenda, which she describes as "an amazingly wonderful idea" but says it can only work if teachers are able to recognise and deal with dyslexia.

"The issue of dyslexia sits firmly within the government's moves to address the issue of children who are failing. But it is not just about children who are struggling at school. It is about children who have an enormous amount to offer society but who are not given life chances.

"Trained teachers are available widely in independent schools and as a result thousands of children with dyslexia are going on to lead successful lives. These opportunities must be available to all dyslexic children."

Griggs' latest triumph is to secure £900,000 of government funding over two years for the No to Failure campaign, a project that aims to make sure all teachers are trained in how to spot and work with dyslexic children.

Working with schools in Southwark, Calderdale and Cornwall, the project champions specialist dyslexia training for teachers and also forges partnerships with charities and businesses to provide support and education for pupils with dyslexia. All this came about through Griggs' national campaigning and lobbying of schools minister Lord Andrew Adonis.

But she wants to see more done. "Given that we already know what these children need, I have to ask why are we still carrying out pilots?" wonders Griggs.

She may have a few battles under her belt but she's not giving up until the war is won.


- Dyslexia is a learning disability that manifests itself primarily as a difficulty with written language. But it also affects maths, organisation, memory and concentration

- At least 10 per cent of the population are dyslexic - including a million children.

- Less than 14 per cent of teachers were confident they would recognise a dyslexic child and less than nine per cent feel confident they could teach one according to research by the NUT

- A study in Chelmsford prison found 53 per cent of the inmates have dyslexia

- A study at a London pupil referral unit has found 65 per cent of pupils have dyslexia

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