Matt Hancock’s toughest jungle challenge is championing neurodiversity says leader of education

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By Stephen James.

The Rt. Hon. Matt Hancock MP, has reached one of the highest public offices in the land, despite his neurodiversity – this should be celebrated (regardless of your politics) says Specialist Leader of Education Stephen James.

When MP for West Suffolk, Matt Hancock entered the jungle, the media and predictably Labour put the boot in.

But even some fellow Conservatives rounded on him. The Deputy Chairman of West Suffolk Conservative Association, was quoted as saying: “I’m looking forward to him eating a kangaroo’s penis. ‘Quote me. You can quote me that.”

Lords of the realm and Members of Parliament alike have exchanged the voting lobbies for the “I’m a Celebrity… Get me out of here” Voting App and they are taking pleasure casting votes each evening to put Matt through various forms of public humiliation. 

Matt being welcomed into the Jungle by roaches and sludge in the Beastly Burrow trial. Photo credit: ITV

There are some more positive voices, former “I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here” contestant – and Boris Johnson’s father – Stanley Johnson has said he thinks the public will “respond well” to Matt Hancock’s appearance. Even Georgia Toffolo has warmed to him despite a frosty start.

Other commentators are questioning his motivations despite the fact that Matt is rumoured to be donating his £600,000 fee to good causes. Indeed, a spokesperson for Hancock said:

 “Matt will be making a donation to St Nicholas Hospice in Suffolk and causes supporting dyslexia off the back of his appearance…This is an amazing opportunity to engage with the public and talk about issues he really cares about – including his dyslexia campaign.”

Amazingly, some have even gone as far as questioning whether he is dyslexic!

WHY IS MATT HANCOCK SO PASSIONATE ABOUT DYSLEXIA?

Matt Hancock has dyslexia and he is amongst the 10% of people with dyslexia in the population.

Sadly, like many others, he wasn’t diagnosed until he was an adult. This means he moved through Primary School and Secondary School thinking he just wasn’t very good at reading, writing and subjects that rely heavily on these skills (lots).

The fact is, Matt Hancock was failed by each and everyone of those teachers and schools who didn’t identify his additional educational needs. 

Imagine going through school during your formative years and not being able to fully develop a meaningful love of reading. A skill which opens doors to a whole world of adventures and new knowledge. Furthermore, we know reading is a gateway skill that helps us to independently learn new knowledge and develop a whole host of key language skills (such as speech development and vocabulary building). 

Add to this, the mismatch between cognitive ability and written communication can lead to low self esteem and mental health problems – not because dyslexics are less intelligent but because they compare themselves to what society deems “normal” or “neurotypical”. In more extreme cases, people with neurological conditions are actively bullied for their differences.

Matt Hancock hasn’t let dyslexia hold him back. He is amongst the 10% of people with dyslexia in the population. Photo credit: UK Gov.

For many dyslexics, a diagnosis is a lightbulb moment. It allows dyslexic individuals to deal with the challenges of dyslexia BUT also maximising the advantages of this neurodiverse condition. After all, dyslexia can also have some huge advantages over non dyslexics. 

  • Dyslexics see the big picture
  • Dyslexics are imaginative innovators
  • Dyslexics are master communicators and storytellers
  • Dyslexics have strong emotional intelligence

By being diagnosed late, Matt missed out on ten years of these “super powers”. In fact, with that extra time under his belt… maybe he would have developed those super powers enough to have beaten Boris in the Conservative Party Leadership contest in 2019?

MATT HANCOCK’S DYSLEXIA SCREENING BILL

Given the systematic failures that led to his late diagnosis, it is unsurprising that Matt would take advantage of his privileged position as a parliamentarian to introduce a Private Member’s Bill that would require schools to screen all children for dyslexia. 

This is not only proactive but comes from a place of personal experience – it should be applauded. If the Bill passes or if it is adopted by the Department for Education in full, it will be a major victory for dyslexia advocates, who have long argued that early screening is essential for ensuring that dyslexic children receive the provision and support they need to succeed in school.

As it stands, screening for dyslexia is a postcode lottery and there is no law in the UK mandating that schools screen for dyslexia or other neurodiverse conditions. As a result, many dyslexic children go undiagnosed until they reach adulthood, at which point it can be much more difficult to overcome the challenges posed and take advantage of the benefits. 

DYSLEXIC YOUNG PEOPLE ARE BEING FAILED 

Every child that goes undiagnosed is a failure, not just of the State but of the teaching profession. Early diagnosis and intervention is crucial for dyslexic children; without it, they are at risk of falling behind their peers academically and struggling with mental health problems. 

Hancock’s Bill would require all schools to administer a dyslexia screener to every child at least once between the ages of four and seven. If a child shows dyslexic traits, they would be referred for further assessment by a qualified specialist. Teachers would also receive additional training to make provision for dyslexic children in class. This could be as simple as just using the correct font for worksheets or more complex such as a completely new approach to reading.

Rightly, the Bill has received strong support from dyslexia charities and organisations, as well as from many parents of dyslexic children. In fact the biggest criticism has been that it doesn’t go far enough. Joanna Reeves who is a qualified teacher and parent of a dyspraxic son said:

“We have a long way to go before the many conditions that fall under the umbrella term of ‘neurodiversity’ are properly understood and recognised. If Matt Hancock going into the jungle shines a spotlight on dyslexia, then good for him. 

The neurodiversity champion added:

“The Bill is a purposeful step towards normalising dyslexia and I hope that, in time, other conditions will be added to the screening, such as dyspraxia and Asperger’s”

MATT HANCOCK: THE MAN, THE MYTH, THE LEGEND.

Matt Hancock has reached one of the highest public offices in the land, despite his dyslexia – this should be celebrated (regardless of your politics). He ran to be leader of the Conservative Party (and our Prime Minister) and it should never be underestimated how much harder he would have had to work in comparison to a “neurotypical” person in the same position. 

Former Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock. Picture by Tim Hammond / No 10 Downing Street.

If Hancock had a visible disability and his so-called ‘shortcomings’ were related to this, I’m sure these ‘commentators’ would think twice about drawing attention to them. So why is it ok to do this with an ‘invisible’ disability?

  • Why point out “oddness”?
  • Why point out “nonlinear” thinking?
  • Why critique the way he recalls a memory?
  • Why draw attention to the way he approaches unfamiliar situations?

Why highlight behaviour (as a negative) that could easily manifestations of his neurodivergence? 

Agree or disagree, Hancock is in the jungle today because his dyslexia has made him the man he is. Just because you don’t understand his “thinking” doesn’t make him wrong and you right, after all we all think differently. For him, this makes sense and that is all that matters.

Like many with people who are neurodivergent, I’m sure he’d never use his dyslexia as an “excuse” and I’m not saying he shouldn’t be held to account for a variety of reasons – he absolutely must be (just like any politician). But, what I cannot tolerate are the undertones of intolerance, lack of compassion and outright bullying. 

In my view, it is absolutely right that neurodiverse people are represented in Parliament – we need their “super powers”. However, “neurotypical” people need to show a little more empathy and separate “the man, the myth and the legend.”

If after his appearance some dyslexia charities are better off from a donation of his fee, the Screening Bill is closer to passing and awareness of neurodiversity has been raised, it will have been worth every inch of Kangaroo penis.


Author Stephen James is an Award-Winning Teacher, Specialist Leader of Education, Conservative Friends of Education Founder and Chairman of Folkestone & Hythe Conservative Association. Follow Stephen on Twitter here.

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