Exams with a ten-minute rule

June 30, 1995

Gavin Fairbairn questions whether dyslexic students should be admitted to primary teacher training courses.

Twice recently I have invigilated exams in which one or more students have been allocated extra time for reasons relating to disability. The students in question were said to have dyslexia.

Students obviously should not suffer academically simply because they are disabled. I am in favour, for example, of the use of an amenuensis for students who have problems with fine motor control, or some other disability which makes writing difficult for them.

However, I question whether it is always right for students who are dyslexic to be given special treatment. This is a matter I have been discussing recently with colleagues in a variety of institutions all over the United Kingdom who, like me, work in teacher education.

My work as a teacher educator has led to a concern about the academic literacy of students. I have even more concern about their basic literacy. Many students at both undergraduate and postgraduate level display surprising ignorance not only of matters of style, but even of the basics of grammar, punctuation and spelling.

Problems with basic literacy are particularly important in the case of trainee teachers. So I was intrigued to hear of a recent incident involving a student undertaking a course of initial teacher education who was awarded extra time in his examinations because of his dyslexia.

My intention here is not to point the finger at individuals or institutions but to raise a matter of principle. At the time of the exam in which this student received extra time, the staff who were involved in invigilating thought nothing of the instruction to give him special treatment. If anything they thought how good it was to see that their institution seemed to be putting into practice its stated commitment to equal opportunities.

However, when I began to think about the situation more closely, doubts began to arise. Here was a student, not of physics or chemistry, not of engineering or art, history or geography, but of teaching. He was training to teach not secondary school children but primary school children; and his problem could hardly fail to have an effect on his ability as a primary school teacher.

I do not doubt that students who have dyslexia should be enabled to take academic examinations on an equal footing with their peers by being given extra time. Nor given the university rules, about the correctness of the decision to allow this student extra time. But I do question whether a student with dyslexia should have been admitted to a course of training for initial primary teaching in the first place.

How can a student who is dyslexic to such an extent that he needs extra time with examinations have been admitted on to an initial teacher training course?

One of the functions that teachers in primary schools are likely to have to perform (indeed, I cannot imagine a situation in which a primary teacher could function without having to do this at least part of the time), is to teach children to read and to write, to spell, to record mathematical operations and so on.

None of these functions can be performed adequately by someone who is themselves having specific learning difficulties of the kind that may be labelled "dyslexia".

However liberal our approach to the primary school curriculum, however much our culture moves towards a televisual age, however much we are overtaken by information technology, primary school teachers cannot avoid having to give at least some of their time to the teaching of basic skills of literacy and numeracy.

However much it may seem to breach the notion of equal opportunities in education, there cannot be a place for a student in primary teacher education who is not competent at least to write his own assignments and exam answers under the same conditions as everyone else.

A teacher might function in secondary education with dyslexia. Such a teacher would probably have more difficulty than most of his or her peers in contributing, for example, to the general literacy of pupils. But at secondary level, where specialisation is the rule rather than the exception, a teacher could conceivably develop a role that did not involve contributing to the correction and remediation of pupil's mistakes in basic skill areas.

But to have teachers in primary education who are, for reasons of dyslexia, incompetent to assist children in developing basic skills in literacy and numeracy makes no sense. Given a shake-up in the way in which primary education is organised, it obviously could; and there is undoubtedly a place in primary schools for people who have highly developed specialist skills (in, for example, music or art, or gardening or cookery, or storytelling) to share them with pupils, without undertaking any of the day-to-day "hack-work" of the regular primary teacher.

But there has been no such shake-up in primary education. And the student in my story was undertaking training for the primary classroom - as a class teacher.

There is a coda to my story. It relates to the memo by which the head of department informed his staff of the decision in allow this student extra time. The memo in question stated: "Please note that the following student is to be allowed ten minutes extra at each examination. He found out the week before the examinations began, that he is mildly dyslexic."

I do not propose to discuss the possible meanings to be attached to this memo or the sudden discovery part of the way into one's career as a student on such a course, that one is "mildly dyslexic", except to say that perhaps a student who is only "mildly dyslexic" may be considered to have overcome his difficulties sufficiently to be able adequately to undertake the duties involved in teaching the three Rs to his pupils.

But in that case would it not also imply that he had overcome them sufficiently to be able to undertake his examinations under the same conditions as his colleagues?

Students with disabilities of whatever kind, I believe, should not be excluded from education at any level simply by virtue of their disability. However, how can a case be made for admitting a student to a course of professional education for which their disability must exclude them?

A student who is dyslexic must be excluded from inclusion onto a course of initial teacher education for children in the primary age range, however much his or her personal attributes and motivation suggest that in other respects he or she would make a fine teacher of young children.

In the story I have been discussing, the student only discovered he was mildly dyslexic part way through his course. That is why he is in no way culpable for the situation in which he finds himself. It is also the reason that the authorities in his institution had no choice but to give him special treatment - after all they accepted him on to the course.

Gavin Fairbairn is a senior lecturer at North East Wales Institute of Higher Education.

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