Success for Dyslexic Family After a Decade-long Battle for Education


A mother of two has won her third tribunal battle against the local council which she says has failed her family for generations.

Children at School

Bethany Cook from Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk is ten years old and suffers from severe dyslexia. After a lengthy battle with Suffolk County Council, she has finally be granted a place at a specialist independent boarding school where children like her are taught in small classes by specialist teachers.

After a life spent struggling with dyslexia herself, Bethany's mum Sam, 45 was determined not to see her children suffer. "I didn't get appropriate help until I was almost 16 when my mum went to tribunal and won. I was sent to Ravenscroft; a dyslexia specialist independent boarding school which has since closed, but that was too little, too late. I can't believe that children with dyslexia are still having to fight for their education two decades later. For severely dyslexic children, mainstream education is a place to be bullied and left behind."

Determined Not To See Her Daughter Suffer

From when Bethany was only a young age, Sam suspected she might be dyslexic. "There were little red flags now and then and when she got older, I knew for certain that she had the same problems that I and my older son had. It tends to run in families and in mine, no one escaped."

Bethany was given a special educational needs assessment and a statement was issued, setting out the support that she needed. That should have been enough to open the door to all the help she needed. However, Suffolk County Council decided that her needs could be adequately met by attending a local learning centre twice per week and a mainstream school the rest of the week.

"Over the course of two years, her learning progressed the equivalent of two months. She was slipping further and further behind. I knew where she needed to be, in a specialist school with a team of qualified teachers, and I was determined to get her there," says Sam.

Aside from difficulties reading and writing, dyslexia is also believed to affect short-term memory, maths and concentration skills. Shapwick School in Somerset is one of the country's largest specialist schools for children with dyslexia and boasts an impressive track record in helping students overcome their challenges.

"So Happy I Could Cry"

Two years ago, Bethany spent a brief trial period at Shapwick. "She came home and told me that finally things made sense. I was so happy I could cry. When the local council told me she couldn't go, my heart sank."

Sam fought the council's decision in court – a battle she initially lost. She remembers: "They claimed Bethany was too young to be away from home, yet continued to fail to provide the speech and language therapy she so desperately needed locally."

Sam made a further request for the council to fund a placement for Bethany at the school, which they refused again when it was clear to her that Bethany was not making progress at school. With the help of niche education law firm, Simpson Millar, Sam appealed the council's decision and won.

The family's lawyer, Samantha Hale from Simspon Millar says: "Although local authorities are required by law to provide additional support to children with dyslexia, we are frequently asked to help secure suitable provision and placements in order for the child's needs to be met. For parents it can be frustrating watching their child fall behind in mainstream education while the local council stonewalls their efforts to get additional help. Bethany clearly needs specialist provision and her brother, Connor flourished at Shapwick. It took a legal battle to get the same opportunity for Bethany but my fear is that many parents who aren't as determined or resourceful as Sam might simply give up without a fight. Fortunately Sam did not."

Suitable Provision Not Available

"Nationwide, parents are frequently having to fight local councils for support, in particular for children and young people with dyslexia. Unfortunately, there isn't always suitable provision available locally, which was the case for Bethany, so we are really pleased with the outcome for her."

Sam says she misses her daughter, but that she knows she made the right decision. "This is her future and I know it is the right thing for her. I dropped her off for her first day at Shapwick on 6 September; the next day I was told she was walking around grinning like a Cheshire cat."

Sam's son Connor is also severely dyslexic and, as with Bethany, the council refused to provide the funding for a space for him at a specialist school until a tribunal ordered it to back in April 2008. Connor is currently undertaking his BTEC Level 3 in Extended Diploma in Uniform Public Services. "He wants to be a police officer, and I know he will make it. But he wouldn't have been able to pursue his dreams without having received specialist education."

Sam says her record against the system speaks volumes for her determination: "My children and I are all severely dyslexic but instead of support, we have had to fight the council every step of the way to an education. So far, my batting efforts against the council is three for three; twice for my son and once for my daughter. But why I have to fight at all is beyond me."

"The system has failed me, failed my son and failed my daughter. But I won't. And I will bat for any other family out there struggling to get the help they need for children with dyslexia."

In 1986, Samantha's mum, Alison Cornell similarly had to fight to get her dyslexic daughter specialist education. At the time, pressure from her local paper, the Bury Free Press, finally helped secure three years of multi-sensory teaching at Ravenscroft School, near Bath.

According to Sam, Suffolk County Council is currently failing another member of her family who are also dyslexic and are facing a tribunal to get specialist help.

UPDATE (from the British Dyslexia Association) [18/09/2015]:

Katrina Cochrane, Head of Education and Policy at the British Dyslexia Association commented: "Sadly stories like Bethany's are all too common and parents often face a huge battle against schools and Local Authorities, in order to find appropriate help for their child with dyslexia. The British Dyslexia Association's mission is to allow every child to reach their full potential and for society to be dyslexia friendly."

The BDA Helpline on 01333 405 4567 is often the first port of call for concerned parents and they will help signpost for further support. The website also gives further tips and ideas.

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