As an undiagnosed dyslexic teenager, I just thought I was bad with words. I was a slow reader. Despite brilliant and inspiring teachers, I couldn’t ever envisage myself writing an article for a national newspaper.
I got through school by focusing on maths-based subjects. I won a place at Oxford on an interview, knowing that if I had taken the exam, I would have failed.
I remember to this day, my tutor at university telling me: “You can talk, but you can’t write.” He sent me to be tested for dyslexia, and I was diagnosed. It made sense of everything. The brilliant education department at Oxford helped me re-learn how to read and write. They taught me to deconstruct sentences, looking at words as pictures, not individual letters. This training allowed me to see words in a completely new way. I re-engaged with language, and I learnt to love words.
Even though after the diagnosis and training, I understood more and was able to read and write more confidently, I still held onto what I felt was the embarrassment of having dyslexia. I made some bad mistakes. I misspelt words in important documents. I still struggled, and was only saved by the development of spell-check and later autocorrect. They were lifesavers. I can now function pretty effectively, although I’m still terrible at foreign languages and as monolingual as they come.
For 20 years, I kept my dyslexia private, for fear it would hold me back. When I was appointed culture secretary, at the age of 40, I told my private secretary that one of his jobs was to write a crisp one-page note on the top of all the long submissions from officials, because I was dyslexic. He too was dyslexic – and he told me that I had to speak out to show people you can reach the top table as a dyslexic. I was nervous to, but finally plucked up the courage, and I decided that I would speak publicly about being a Cabinet minister with dyslexia.
I was nervous about what the response would be from colleagues and from the public; I was nervous about the way I would be seen as a relatively new secretary of state.
Thankfully, these feelings were unwarranted. The response was warm and generous. My Cabinet colleague Brandon Lewis said he was dyslexic, too – suddenly, we were like London buses, with two Cabinet-level dyslexics coming along at once. Michael Heseltine texted to thank me, although I struggled to save his name in my phone as I couldn’t for the life of me work out how to spell it.
So many people with dyslexia got in touch to thank me for “speaking up”, saying it gave them the courage to open up themselves. Although what struck me, even more, were the number of people who had had the same experience as me, of being identified late in life and being worried about talking about it.
From my own experiences, and from speaking to dyslexics across the UK, dyslexia causes many challenges. Estimates vary, but around a tenth of the population is dyslexic. Yet we also know that once diagnosed, people with dyslexia can be taught in a way that makes it easier to overcome these challenges: dyslexics think differently.
This is sensible economics, too. Many of the skills that dyslexic people are typically stronger at – lateral thinking, creativity, and thinking in pictures, not words – are exactly the skills that are becoming more important in the modern workplace, as computers increasingly do the straight-line thinking. For example, GCHQ apprentices are four times more likely to be dyslexic because the spy agency searches for lateral-thinking skills.
By contrast, we see all too commonly what happens to people who cannot read or write properly. Lower employment rates, higher levels of crime, and a greater likelihood of ending up in jail. In Highpoint prison in my own West Suffolk constituency I have seen for myself the excellent work of dedicated prison staff and mentors working to help people leave prison with more of the skills they need to go straight.
Simple early screening and education would go a long way towards helping dyslexics into the workplace and out of the cycle of crime, and be so valuable to businesses who can make the most of all that potential.
It is striking that an estimated four in 10 successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic, yet more than half of the prison population are too. This dichotomy shows the challenge, and the opportunity if we get this right.
We know that with teaching that suits our different-wired brains, the opportunities for dyslexics are huge. The key is to be identified early and taught in a way that works for you. We know, for instance, that synthetic phonics tends to help dyslexics and straight-line thinkers alike. And we know that once teachers have been trained to teach students with dyslexia, all pupils benefit.
In truth, all teachers are teachers of dyslexics. Yet it is a scandal that an estimated 80 per cent of dyslexics still leave school with their dyslexia unidentified. This means that young adults are going into work or university with the same incorrect mindset that I had – that they just find reading and writing difficult.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Cheap online screening tools now exist to help identify dyslexia. Universal screening for dyslexia at primary school could help teachers identify whose brains work differently, and teach accordingly so that they do not fall behind and can make the most of their neurodiversity. Screening could also help pick up other forms of neurodiversity such as ADHD and dyspraxia, which can go hand in hand with dyslexia. Then, in turn, teachers need to be trained to teach dyslexics, and assessment needs to measure true capability.
I’m determined to change this. Today I’m launching a campaign for better screening for dyslexia in schools. At lunchtime, I will introduce a Bill, with cross-party support, requiring all primary school children to undergo screening for dyslexia before they leave. I look forward to making the case to the House of Commons for why this reform is so vital. I welcome the new Education Secretary’s recent commitment to a White Paper tackling illiteracy. I will tell my good friend Nadhim Zahawi that we cannot tackle illiteracy without getting to grips with dyslexia.
Everyone has a contribution to make, and it’s our job in politics to help people make it. But the system holds dyslexic people back – when, in truth, the potential has never been greater. Today’s Bill is a small step to releasing that potential. I’m passionate about improving support for dyslexic people – and all those with neurodiversity – because I feel I was one of the lucky ones. I had brilliant teachers and decent maths, so could get to an amazing university which could set me on the right path.
From entrepreneurs such as Anita Roddick and Ingvar Kamprad, to creatives such as Steven Spielberg and John Lennon, dyslexics have always punched above their weight. But many are not given their shot. The first step is early identification. This way we can, as a society, start to see dyslexia as a strength, not a weakness, and give people like my teenage self the support to make the most of their talents.