... and all of a sudden, nothing is impossible.
London's leading day school for specific learning difficulties
‘I can’t …’ Two words that are agonisingly familiar to most children who come here to Fairley House. Two words that sum up a world in which reading or writing or adding up, tying a shoelace, hitting a ball or riding a bike, are things other people do. Two words that are fraught with failure, with the prospect of lives half lived. But it needn’t be so. Here at Fairley House we find out what children can do – and teach them accordingly. If they can’t learn the way we teach, we have to teach the way they learn.
Whether the children are dyslexic or dyspraxic, we show them new ways to learn and help them to feel good about themselves again. All of a sudden, nothing is impossible. We give them back a sense of ‘I can’, then send them out into the mainstream. But Fairley House is more than bricks and mortar. It’s an idea, a philosophy, founded on serious science, ground-breaking technique, three decades of experience, and a great deal of compassion. We have more to say about that, but first we’d like you to hear the stories of some people who have experienced the Fairley House magic for themselves...
“Will’s full scale IQ assessment places his overall intelligence in the superior range of ability.”
Will & Katy Langhoff ‘I knew when I was in first grade that something was wrong,’ says Will Langhoff. ‘I would look at the page and I couldn’t read it. So I’d make it up or just pretend I was reading. But I didn’t tell anyone about it.’ Things got worse as his friends’ reading skills developed. ‘I’d see some of their books and think: How can you read that many words on a piece of paper? How do you do that?’ At school in New York, it wasn’t until Will was in fourth grade that he was eventually diagnosed with dyslexia, and another couple of years before he gained a place at a school for children with specific learning difficulties. ‘We were this really regular, mainstream family,’ remembers his mother, Katy. ‘We believed we could handle anything. Will was a very bright, vivacious kid. He was also someone who has complex, big thoughts. Yet he couldn’t read “The cat sat on the mat”.
Suddenly life had tripped us up. We didn’t have a happy kid. In fact we had someone who was really suffering.’ ‘The schoolwork was killing me,’ Will recalls, ‘and on top of it someone would call me a name – and I’d get so mad. For them it was just a little joke, but for me the dyslexia was pounding, it was a weight.’ Getting to grips with Will’s difficulties took a lot of adjustment. There was more to come when the family moved from New York to London. ‘It was a big change,’ says Will, ‘going to a British school. But I felt comfortable here at Fairley House. You can really talk to the teachers. They make you feel it’s OK not to be mainstream. And they teach you tips and techniques that have helped me a lot. Two years ago I found it hard to write two paragraphs. Now I can do that in half an hour.’
Will is 13 now and about to move to the American School in London. ‘Fairley House has been amazing,’ says Katy ‘Getting into ASL isn’t easy and the fact that Will has says a lot about how much they’ve been prepared to do. We’ve been in very good hands here. They’ve got us to where we want to go next.’ Today Will’s only slight difficulty is with writing. He is good at maths and his favourite subject is history. He has also become a voracious reader. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is his favourite book. He likes the diversity of the school too, recalling how he shared in the excitement of his Egyptian friend Mohammed at changes that were taking place in his country. ‘He was so happy and because he’s your friend you really understand it.’ ‘At my last school there were maybe a couple of guys I’d miss,’ he says. ‘Here I don’t honestly know who I wouldn’t miss from my class.’ Katy has the last word. ‘Jackie Murray promises a future for your child,’ she says. ‘And Will has so much promise.’
Georgia’s basic reading score on 9th March 2009 was 8 years and 3 months
Georgia and Sophie Sweetbaum Georgia Sweetbaum has just spent the morning at the Globe Theatre and she’s full of it – the tour, seeing where the rich and poor people sat, how the theatre burnt down and, best of all, the Midsummer Night’s Dream workshop in which she had to play first Helena, then Lysander. A normal school trip for a London schoolgirl, one might think. Except that two years ago, Georgia, now nearly eleven, was ‘so nervous that I cried every day. I was really scared of everything and shy because I didn’t feel good about myself.’ It’s hard to picture now. She’s bubbly and warm, articulate and funny. Yet she had arrived at Fairley House with zero self-esteem, severely hampered by dyslexia and badly affected by the bullying that had resulted from it.
At her initial assessment, the occupational therapist noted that she had difficulties with her auditory, visual and motor skills, and was ready to accept defeat before even trying the assessment tasks. ‘I’d tried to get support where I could,’ says her mother, Sophie, ‘but the previous school was no help at all. I remember being told by a teacher, “You don’t understand, Mrs Sweetbaum, we have galloping horses in this class.” I was desperate to find somewhere where Georgia would be properly understood. When we eventually came to Fairley House, Jackie Murray said, “Give her to us now.” She just enveloped Georgia and whisked her away. I can’t describe the relief.’
Although Georgia found it hard to tie her shoelaces when she arrived at Fairley House, she had a verbal comprehension IQ of 130 â€“ such are the complexities of dyslexia. In her short time at the school, not only has her physical co-ordination improved to the point that she can catch a ball and ride a bike, but she now has the reading score of a 17-year-old. She has also discovered things she loves doing, drama, art and singing in particular. She explains proudly that sheâ€™s played the Mona Lisa in a school play and sung in a choir of 7,500 people in the O2 Arena.
But it’s not just the arts subjects Georgia enjoys. ‘The teachers really help you here,’ she says. ‘In maths we do fun things like learning division with Smarties. And occupational therapy is fun too, using the swings to strengthen our stomach and leg muscles.’ She’s made friends too. ‘You know everyone else has the same issues as you,’ she says. ‘We all find something hard. It’s why we’re here.’ Now Georgia is about to move back into mainstream schooling. ‘She went into Fairley House as one person and has come out as a completely different one,’ says Sophie. ‘We began to see the difference within a term. Thanks to the wonderful therapists and teachers here, Georgia was learning how to cope and at the same time learning the regular school subjects. ‘Watching her grow in confidence and become the person we always knew she could be has been almost overwhelming.’
Georgia’s basic reading score on 25th May 2011 was 17 years Next School : St Christopher’s School Letchworth
Assessment To really help the children who come here we have to know exactly how they tick. Before we take them on we assess them very thoroughly. Then we pull together everything we’ve found out about them into an individual education plan (known as an IEP). This will typically involve an educational psychologist, occupational therapist, speech and language therapist, and teachers
Every one of the children here has his or her own plan – no two are the same. Throughout their time here we fine tune progress against their plans in regular meetings with parents, staff and the children themselves. Over the years we’ve learnt an enormous amount about dyslexia and dyspraxia. We bring all that knowledge to bear in our understanding of, and planning for, each separate child at Fairley House.
Teaching Once we’ve understood what they need, it’s the unique Fairley House combination of teaching and therapy that allows the children to overcome their personal obstacles. All the evidence – and we have a lot of it – tells us that multisensory learning achieves what traditional learning methods simply can’t. So if getting to grips with maths means chucking tennis balls round the classroom, that’s what we’ll do. If it takes press-ups to understand Shakespeare, down we go. People who teach here have to be creative. There’s no room for chalk-and-talk, no sitting behind a desk in a silent classroom. Our teachers need boundless energy and bags of enthusiasm to develop the tricks and strategies that give children the self-confidence and framework they need for learning. Thanks to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and genetic research, today we have more insight into the distinctive pattern of brain functions that come with specific learning difficulties. Our teachers are knowledgeable about this because they learn about it here on the national OCR accredited course we now run.
Full-time speech and language therapists, and occupational therapists, play just as important a role at Fairley House as teachers. Therapists and teachers work together and plan classes together. They tackle individual childrenâ€™s needs together. Learning becomes not just visual and auditory but tactile and kinaesthetic. Therapists learn about the curriculum. Teachers learn about the therapies. And children learn as much from rolling on giant balls or swinging in slings, as they do from counting with sweets, or spelling with dinosaurs.
Sarah Lederman ‘I have a really strong memory of Eddie Izzard coming to Fairley House wearing eye-liner and a dress,’ says 25-year-old artist, Sarah Lederman. ‘It was quite shocking, but it was also really nice because he explained about being different so well, and he told us how clever we all were.’ Today Sarah paints watery, dreamlike pictures of female figures that have won her much acclaim for one so young. A graduate of Chelsea College of Art, she was 2009 winner of the Catlin Prize for up-and-coming young artists, and today she is one of five resident artists at the Centre for Recent Drawing, in Highbury. But when she first went to Fairley House, aged seven, she was ‘on a completely different planet to other people. I was living in a world of total fantasy. And I just couldn’t comprehend how people could read and write.’ She laughs a lot at the memories now, though they were probably less funny at the time. In fact, she had difficulty relating to other people in any conventional sense at all. Nevertheless, Fairley House worked its magic. ‘The teachers managed to get onto my wavelength,’ she explains. ‘They understood that we were bright and could express ourselves in different ways – through acting or drawing, for example. They had such a different way of teaching, pitching the classes at our level of ability, not our age, and helping us relate to the curriculum through the things we were good at. I remember learning about the ancient world by making pots and being really inspired by that rich Egyptian blue.’ Sarah believes she owes a great deal to the school. ‘Thanks to them I understand what dyslexia and dyspraxia really are, and I’m so lucky to have been taught a different way of going about things. Best of all, they kept telling us we were clever. It helped my family, too, because they’re all dyslexic. They learnt a lot about things in their own childhoods through my experience at Fairley House.’
Gareth Austin A first-class law degree, articles with one of the big City law firms, and now a job as a compliance lawyer with one of Europe’s largest energy producers – not the kind of career progression that most people would associate with a dyslexic person. Yet 31-year-old Gareth Austin remembers a time when he was in an almost constant daydream. ‘That was the way I experienced dyslexia as a child,’ he says. ‘If I didn’t understand things my mind just drifted away.’ Gareth was one of twins. Both were diagnosed with dyslexia and, aged 11, enrolled at Fairley House. It was a life-changing move. ‘The classes were much smaller so you couldn’t just hide at the back and dream,’ he recalls. ‘It was also a very safe environment. They were enormously patient. And I began to realise that there were different ways of learning.’ After Fairley House, Gareth moved on to secondary school. ‘There were many more people there and much less one-to-one teaching. It was a bit of a culture shock at first,’ he remembers. ‘But I did well at GCSEs and although I didn’t quite get the A-level grades I wanted, I still got a place at London Guildhall University. Fairley House definitely laid the foundations for that.’ It was only at university that Gareth discovered his real capacity for hard work. Realising he was going to have to pull out all the stops to qualify for law school, he set himself the goal of a first-class degree and the rest, one could say, is history. Now, since his real work is thinking and analysing, the vestiges of dyslexia cause him no real difficulties. ‘My time at Fairley House was absolutely crucial,’ Gareth reflects. ‘It gave me the confidence to feel that the way other people approach things may not be right for you – and to understand that the method isn’t the most important thing, anyway. It’s the result that counts.’
Fairley House magic Children who cannot read and write as easily as their peers can feel they are stupid, lose confidence and self esteem and so give up. Children feel stigmatised when withdrawn from class for extra help at their existing schools, or discouraged by doing easier work than others. At Fairley House, we believe the solution is to give your child a level playing field; a school where everyone has similar difficulties.Through succeeding, some for the first time in their schooling, children can recapture their self-esteem and confidence. After two or three years most return successfully to mainstream schools. Time and again I have seen the combination of insightful assessment, individual teaching and specialised therapy work its magic on our children. Through this, the trajectory of their lives is altered. What once seemed impossible is no longer so. Having worked for over ten years in the field of dyslexia and dyspraxia, I understand just how wonderful that is for parents and children alike.
Michael Taylor Headmaster
... and all of a sudden, nothing is impossible.
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