Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

“All Learners in Scotland Matter”, No They Don’t – Dr Gillian Evans

I eagerly awaited the publication of the National Discussion on Education final report and ‘All Learners in Scotland Matter’ was published on 31 May 2023.

The report, typical of other Scottish Government commissioned reports into education, was disappointing. It had vague calls for action but no concrete detail on how the system should change.

As one of the 38,000 who took part, I was keen to read it. During an online session, I had spoken directly to Professor Carol Campbell, one of the independent authors of the National Discussion, and provided her with an example of the ‘right actions’ to take to improve Scotland’s education system, specifically for increasing literacy rates.

I explained to Professor Campbell that, in 2018, I had to remove my 10-year-old son from a South Ayrshire Council (SAC) accredited Dyslexia Friendly School to teach him how to read, and to protect his mental health.

I had taken SAC to the Educational and Health Tribunal, claiming that the Council discriminated against children born with dyslexia by failing to teach them how to read – a serious equity issue. A key argument was that my son needed instruction in a systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) programme to ensure he could learn how to decode words, and in turn, could then read sentences.

SSP was actually developed in Scotland by Professor Rhona Johnston and Dr Joyce Watson and made available to all Scottish Councils in 2000. In 2005, when England conducted a review of reading led by Sir Jim Rose, he witnessed SSP being used in Clackmannanshire, and he recommended this method of teaching reading be mandated for every child in England. No such mandate was given by the Scottish Government; the First Minister at the time, Jack McConnell, announced that a development officer would be appointed to ‘share good practice on synthetic phonics with the rest of the country’.

The Active Literacy programme (produced by North Lanarkshire Council and promoted by the Scottish Government in 2011) used by my son’s school was a balanced literacy programme which meant it used whole language with minimal phonics instruction. The design of the Active Literacy programme is detrimental to children with dyslexia because it does not teach decoding effectively. Children are also taught to memorise words as visual wholes (sight words) and to guess words by looking at the picture clues, the first letter, or the shape of the word (multi-cueing). These programme elements have since been essentially banned in schools in England.  

I was convinced I was going to win my claim because I had expert witnesses: for dyslexia, Professor Linda Siegel (Ontario, Canada) and Dr Tim Conway (USA), and for systematic synthetic phonics, Debbie Hepplewhite (recommended to me by Sir Jim Rose). This was supported by  a wealth of evidence that the schools my son attended never taught him how to decode, a basic requirement for learning how to read.

South Ayrshire Council paid for an Advocate, and they instructed Dr Tommy MacKay as their expert.  Dr MacKay is an educational psychologist and has never published any work in the field of dyslexia (unlike Professor Siegel) or taught hundreds of children with dyslexia how to read (unlike Dr Conway).

If I had won the Tribunal claim,  I would have confirmed that failing to teach a child with dyslexia how to read was breaking the UK Equality Act, 2010.  However, I lost my claim.

The Tribunal rejected all the evidence from internationally recognised experts and agreed with Dr MacKay’s opinions that my expectations of my son being able read to his chronological age were too high and that my son had received the best ‘support’ that was available in Scotland.

The school staff knew from standardised assessments that my son’s decoding age was 3.5 years behind his chronological age, but the fact that no-one provided him with a SSP programme or decodable reading books to practise decoding, was irrelevant.

The Scottish system believed that the reason my son couldn’t read was because he has dyslexia, essentially it abandoned him.

Happily, I can confirm that my son – who has the severest form of dyslexia – is now reading above his chronological age. I taught him to read myself using an SSP programme.

Taking a council to a tribunal is a long and stressful process and I was grateful to have found Anne Glennie – a passionate advocate for SSP instruction in schools in Scotland. Anne was my supporter throughout the Tribunal hearings. Starting in 2017, Anne petitioned the Scottish Government (PE1668) to improve literacy standards in schools through research-informed reading instruction, specifically having teachers trained in SSP literacy programmes. The petition’s journey came to an end in May 2022 when the Education, Children and Young People Committee decided it was not the Government’s job to tell teachers how to teach.

This contrasts with England. Their introduction of mandated SSP programmes, and a Phonics Check in 2012, have led to England rising to 4th out of 43 countries in the Progress International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). It is anyone’s guess as to where Scotland would rank today as we were removed from PIRLS in 2010.

I was anxious to give an account of my son’s experiences to Professor Campbell in particular as she been a member of the International Council of Education Advisers (ICEA) since 2016. The ICEA was established to advise ministers on how best to achieve excellence and equity in our Scottish education system.

The suggestion I gave on how to improve the Scottish education system was that Scotland should follow the recommendations given in the 2022 Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Right To Read Inquiry report.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission were concerned with the possible violation of human rights of students within their education system. The inquiry found that Ontario’s public education system was failing students with reading disabilities (such as dyslexia) and many others as it was not using evidence-based approaches to teach them to read.

The lead dyslexia consultant for the inquiry was Professor Siegel, the same expert whose evidence was rejected by my Scottish Tribunal. Professor Siegel was appalled by what happened to my son in a Scottish school and described the system as ‘woefully inadequate’. The Ontario inquiry findings do not just impact Canada but every country that says they comply with the United Nations Conventions for the Rights of the Child.

Learning to read is a human right. 

It is worth nothing that the ‘All Learners in Scotland Matter’ report notes that Scotland should have a ‘rights-based education… that upholds the United Nations Conventions for the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)’.

I’m now campaigning for the UK Equality and Human Right’s Commission to conduct a Scotland Right To Read Inquiry. The previous Education Secretary, Shirley-Anne Somerville confirmed that the Scottish Government does ‘not prescribe specific approaches or pedagogies for any aspect of learning to read’.  That means that it is a complete lottery as to whether a child in need receives the SSP programme that ensures that they can learn to read.

A new, external approach needs to be taken to protect our children’s right to an effective education and to ensure their right to be taught to read

All Learners in Scotland Matter — unless you are born with the neurodevelopmental condition, dyslexia or struggle with learning to read… then, you are on your own.

Dr Gillian Evans is a home educator and Science of Reading advocate. Previously she worked as a Clinical Research Scientist and Quality Management Lead