John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society and a Fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching
“Would you like some help?” “Yes.” This was the first surprise. Alice is almost ten, and her mother was convinced that she would not interact with me at all, as she was refusing to go to school, or to do anything connected with schoolwork. Such cases are rare, but increasingly frequent, reflected in an OBE this summer for Paula Webb, a Trustee of the Pathological Demand Avoidance Society. The Society sees PDA as a form of autism, but autism is so widely defined as to tell us little or nothing about its causes. The cases I’ve seen have all been affected, and sometime clearly caused, by inability to complete schoolwork and the certainty of facing this situation day after day, with no relief and no hope.
Using Zoom, with the promise of ice cream if she spoke to me, Alice asked for help with maths. As I had not met a 10-year-old who did not know 2×2 I asked her that. She immediately started to work it out using her fingers. “Look at my fingers,” I said, and put up two lots of two fingers. “Four.” “Good,” I said, and changed the subject to what she felt about school. When I was quite sure that 2×2 was no longer in her mind, I flash back to the question again, and receive the correct reply. We proceeded, slowly and carefully, to work in the first half of the 2× table. Alice then showed me the book she had been reading, but would not read it to me, turning her head away when I asked. I said I would order a copy and we might talk about it next time. I asked if I’d earned some ice cream too? Alice agreed, and said she was happy to see me again. The session had lasted around 20 minutes.
I’ve gone into this level of detail for two reasons. First, Alice’s mother was astonished that she had been prepared to do anything with me at all. Second, the reason that she had was that I had adopted a friendly tone, and found a step forward from her initial understanding that she had been able to take. I recommended it with confidence to anyone looking to wean a child off counting on their fingers. But how does a child of 10, who does not have severe general learning difficulties – when she did read to me in a later session, her reading was well up to the standard expected for her age – come to be counting on her fingers? Part of the answer is that schools still teach children to count in multiples rather than to learn tables, reflecting official advice. Asked to pick out an item from a table, they often go back to the beginning and count up on their fingers, a catastrophic practice that hinders learning in mathematics right up to GCSE. Most of the FE students who have to retake GCSE maths do not know their tables, and 16 is not a good age to have to learn them.
On one of the occasions on which she did attend school, Alice had a visit from an educational psychologist. The psychologist described her behaviour as “interesting”, but their report did not mention her difficulties with mathematics at all, an astonishing omission, as Alice’s understanding of maths was barely at the level expected of a child starting school. It also makes no mention of headaches. Alice had been complaining of headaches since starting school. A visit to an optician had found no ophthalmic problems. There had been no treatment, and no relief from the headaches. However, Alice had not had headaches during holidays when absent from school.
This suggested that sensitivity to the fluorescent light that was used in school, but not at home, might be an issue. On the British Institute of Optometry’s screening kit, which uses a range of coloured filters to test for sensitivity to light, Alice found some benefit from a range of colours, with a strong reference for a blue filter. Screening kit costs around £60, and takes minutes to administer. Why did nobody think to use it? Professors Arnold Wilkins and Bruce Evans, respectively Of Essex and City universities, have carried out research on this issue for over 30 years, and I have found it a factor in roughly half of the PDA cases I have met. In one case, screening led to a full assessment by Specsavers, which resulted in immediate referral to hospital and a diagnosis of hydrocephalus.
Alice had, predictably, a minimal score on the government’s test of multiplication tables. Again, this should have been a call to action, but also reveals a weakness with the test. It is presented on a screen, and pupils are required to respond immediately, with no time to think. Perfect scores are reported, but other than that, the test provides no evidence of what the pupil does and doesn’t know. The test needs to be refined to give a clear indication of the gaps in pupils’ knowledge, and to give credit for what they do know as well as simply indicating that some are not perfect. Progressive mathematics teachers shun the careful teaching of multiplication tables, often substituting counting in multiples, which effectively prevents children from using tables in calculations and algebra. Their influence is pernicious, and a more subtle and effective form of assessment is essential if it is to be effectively countered.
There are similar problems with Rishi Sunak’s proposal of compulsory A-level maths for 16-year-olds. Well over half of these students are not operating at the standard previously expected of O-level maths, and most of the weakest have not mastered basic arithmetic. Hegarty Maths, which starts where students are, and is the basis of Michaela’s stunning maths results is a more practical proposition, with a proven track record.
Alice’s case is a perfect illustration of the broken system identified in the Government’s Special Educational Needs review. She has presented both the school and her family with problems they are not in a position to handle, and the local authority’s assessment has not even sought to identify and assess the underlying issues. PDA is a term many people will not even have heard of, but it wrecks lives and is costing billions. Cases like Alice’s show an urgent need for sustained and disciplined research.