Dyslexia can be a gift, but only with the right opportunities

After years of struggle, hard work, and coffee, today my dream finally sunk in: I’m going to Cambridge. My place was confirmed some months ago, but the significance only really hit me on an open day visit to my home for the next three years. Born dyslexic (the local state school calmly reassured my parents that I was just ‘stupid’), I cannot describe the magnitude of this step for me. I was fortunate enough to go to The Unicorn School, Abingdon, a specialist school for those with specific learning difficulties, which both nurtured and tormented me as I grew up. A school of fewer than a hundred people can be both magnificent and stifling, but it was an invaluable experience that was only made possible by my grandmother’s savings.

I was, however, blissfully unaware of this at the time: my only concern during the entire process was when my mother told me I would be joining the school in the coming January. As a young dyslexic, I had no idea what order the months went in and presumed January was in the summer, so I flooded with tears when I found out I only had two weeks left with my previous friends. Nevertheless, I would not be preparing to attend Cambridge without the canny financial investment of a then 80-year-old woman. Without such intervention, my parents, holding very low paid jobs, would have been unable to do anything about my dyslexia and I would simply have been left to fail within the state system.

As a young dyslexic I had no idea what order the months went in and presumed January was in the summer.

This is the reality for many dyslexics far brighter and more hardworking than I am, prevented from furthering themselves due to financial restraints. It is a great failure of our education system that, in my life, my family has had to pay £18,000 per year for a private school for me to be adequately nurtured, and a further £500 on four separate occasions to have dyslexia assessments. These assessments—originally to determine what was ‘wrong’ with me, later to gain examination support, and finally to apply for financial support at university—were again paid for by my grandmother. But again, a less fortunate family would have been unable to support me. I would’ve been left without exam concessions and without the capacity to apply for additional funding at university.

I am forever grateful to my parents and grandparents for their personal sacrifices to me; my grandmother was the first person I called after I got into Cambridge, and she immediately burst into tears. No one in my family has ever been to a prestigious university: no one would have expected the somewhat difficult, hyperactive child who could hardly spell his own name to be the first.

After the Unicorn School, having failed numerous entrance exams to other private schools (an emotional and academic setback that bothered me for many years to come), my parents chose to send me to a state school that was supposedly good for dyslexia: Bartholomew School, Eynsham. This leafy, rural school in an increasingly gentrified village was a real shock to my system: I had never set foot there before my first day, I had not received the uniform, and I had not been in a class of over 15 people for five years. In my final years at Bartholomew I became aware of how lucky I was to attend the school; during my A-levels, I was taught by a Doctor of History, an Oxford graduate and a Durham graduate, all of whom helped me immensely. However, I never particularly saw the side of this school which was supposedly ‘good’ for dyslexic people. I was left mainly to my own devices, receiving additional time and a laptop for my exams due to personally following it up. Other students who came from the Unicorn School to Bartholomew required—and received—more help, but I have always felt that a few intelligent individuals were able to slip through the cracks of the state system, using their dyslexia as a mask for laziness when difficult situations arose. The state system did not fail these people, but it failed to help them fulfill what they could.

Looking back on my journey as I stood before Magdalene College, I owe it to a combination of privilege and hard work, but also to some extent my own self-motivation. From a young age, I have always had a vivid interest in politics, and I always knew I wanted to study it at Oxbridge. I knew that despite being an ‘inferior’ social class lacking in any ‘contacts’, going to such an institution would be the ultimate steppingstone into the world of politics. Yet there is still a sad, uninviting reality of our education system: if a dyslexic boy—who didn’t know what month January was—knows of the elitism and social hierarchy which Oxbridge festers in then I presume most others also do.

King's College Chapel and Clare College, Cambridge
King’s College Chapel and Clare College, Cambridge (Alex Brown, Creative Commons)

As a devout believer in meritocracy, I wanted to go to Oxbridge to flood my eyes and ears with knowledge, give myself the best chance at becoming a politician, and make contacts. I was lucky enough to fulfill this dream. Our treatment of people with dyslexia makes a farce of the meritocratic principles the education system should have, as does my instinctive dream to go to Oxbridge to gain contacts. And this is an attitude and a reality that I hope can change with time. I am sure not all people aim from a young age to go to Oxbridge, and some could argue that my willingness to go reflects total hypocrisy: disdain for the elitism, but willingness to become complicit within it. But my only hope is that I am able to reap the benefits of the elitism I am so wary of, whilst also railing against and attempting to destroy it.

Dyslexia can be both a gift and a curse, but without the right opportunities, it is irrefutably the latter. The stigma surrounding Oxbridge is the same.

If my experience with dyslexia and a wish to go to Oxbridge have anything in common, it is of fixed mentality. Despite being told I was stupid, this only encouraged me to prove them wrong. Despite hating the establishment ideals which Oxbridge represents, I wanted to go there because I knew it was the place I ‘had to go’ to prove them wrong. Both these realities contrive against the very meritocratic principles which we must promote. Dyslexia can be both a gift and a curse, but without the right opportunities, it is irrefutably the latter. The stigma surrounding Oxbridge is the same. The incapacity to succeed in a field such as politics without such institutions, however illusionary, represents an innate flaw.

Ironically, dyslexia is why I am such a motivated person. Without my early inability to do simple tasks, I would not have had the determination to get into Cambridge. Indeed, today I do not see dyslexia as a disadvantage: many dyslexics, such as Richard Branson, feel it enables a higher work rate and capacity to think ‘outside the box’, which opens the door to education and business. But for many other dyslexics, there are irrefutable stumbling blocks in the early stages of education and personal development which they alone cannot overcome. It is a great testimony to a brilliant private school that allowed me to harness the opportunities that a semi-meritocratic education system present. But these opportunities are not there for all, and the elitist mentality that I felt obliged to follow represents a horrific level of cronyism.

I look forward to the opportunities Cambridge will present, but I do so with my eyes wide open about the level of injustice that surrounded me on my journey there—an outlook we as a society must also embrace.

About Alex Baxter

Alex Baxter is a Politics and Philosophy student at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

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