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18 April 2016

How a sugar company taught me to read

The New Statesman's special correspondent tells us how it was luck, as much as effort, that allowed him to overcome his dyslexia.

By Stephen Bush

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My biggest regret in life is that I never found out what happened at the end of the Magic Key books. The Magic Key series is designed to teach children to read, and the books were intended to be read from the ages of four to nine. A group of ethnically diverse children had – spoiler alert! – a magic key that transported them through space and time.

Today, the Magic Key franchise is serious business; there’s a television series and over 300 books, but when I was at school there was just a small series of them. In the second-to-last volume, the key was lost and our heroes were faced with being stuck in their own time, with no more adventures.

We made our way through those books in our reading groups, and although my primary school took great care to sort us under innocuous-sounding names such as “Dandelion Group” and “Waterlily Group”, my group was painfully aware that we were vegetable matter. As a result, we reached the conclusion of the Magic Key books some time after everyone else, something that our classmates had held over us for what felt like an eternity – so probably about a week, given the snail’s pace that time passes at when you’re a child.

Yet the week before we reached that last book, I was moved from the bottom reading group to the top – and I never got to read it.

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What happened? I hadn’t been sorted into the wrong group before; far from it. I had been one of the weakest readers in the group. When you can’t read, you make up for it by cultivating a sort of low cunning: I memorised logos and shapes, so I could do an impression of reading from maps and signs. I would take note of who had been next to read one lesson and sit as far away in the circle from them as possible to reduce the chance it would be my turn, and I’d use the illustrations to help me guess what the words might say.

But about a year before I made that move, I’d got incredibly lucky. My mother – who, unlike me, took to reading so naturally that she went to primary school unable to remember a time she couldn’t – had been worried for some time that I just wasn’t learning to read.

She harassed my teachers and the school, sure that something was up. It was an uphill battle, not least because, until my teachers met my mum, they had assumed that my first language wasn’t English. Eventually, mainly to shut her up, they sent me off for a special needs assessment at the Bloomfield Learning Centre, a specialist centre in south London.

My overwhelming memory of the asses­sment is that, as a treat, my mum – a tin-rattling, Nestlé-boycotting woman who regards me as embarrassingly right-wing – bought me a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

I was diagnosed with dyslexia. But though my problem now had a name, there wasn’t a solution, or at least not one we could access. The Bloomfield offered classes, but not at a price that my mum could afford.

That was when I got lucky. Tate & Lyle, the sugar company, had agreed to pay for the teaching of one child from the East End of London. (Their sugar is refined in Silvertown, a few miles from where we lived.) That bursary paid for one-to-one classes at the Bloomfield and, very quickly, things ­began to change.

If you’ve always been able to read, I don’t think you appreciate just how much text there is in the world. But if the written word has not just been alien but hostile to you when you start to be able to read a map, or help find things when you’re at the supermarket, you notice. Before I learned to read I would occasionally pick up a book and pretend to be making my way through it during “wet play” – those unhappy playtimes when rain forced us to stay inside and there were never enough distractions to go around. And I remember one day realising I wasn’t pretending to read the book any more: I was reading it.

It’s an understatement to say that the Bloomfield changed my life. If I hadn’t had those classes, I wouldn’t just have had another life, I’d have been another person. Ever since that first accidental book, I’ve always had a book on the go. I have, as Julian Barnes puts it, “lived in books, for books, by and with books” – I’ve even lived off books, working for two years in a small bookshop not far from Tate & Lyle’s factory.

But the fact is that there were – and are – many children in situations like mine. At the same time as my mum was fighting my school to recognise that I had a problem, countless other parents were doing the same thing. I probably wasn’t the brightest, or the best of those children, but I was the first. I sometimes think about the life I’d have led if another East End child had been diagnosed first: a life that not only would have been someone else’s life, but is someone else’s life. There’s an adult somewhere out there who could be writing this now – but didn’t, because I was lucky and got there first.

Nowadays, things are better, and worse. The Bloomfield is London’s most heavily subsidised dyslexia learning unit, with many more bursaries, and the most that either a school or a family pays for a class is £30 (the actual cost is about £85). But the centre lives hand to mouth after losing its LEA funding and has to raise £70,000 a year to keep going. A child born in my circumstances today is still all too reliant on luck.

You can donate to the Bloomsfield Learning Centre directly online.

This piece is part of the New Statesman’s literacy week. Read an introduction here.