Many experts believe that the diagnosis of dyslexia can gain children an unfair educational advantage

Exam season is upon us. Around the country school pupils and university students are swotting and sweating as they prepare to sit papers that could decide their future. Pressures and expectations are high, but none more so, perhaps, than for the growing number of young people who struggle even to read the exam questions. One in ten Britons – around 375,000 of whom are schoolchildren – suffer from dyslexia, the learning disability that makes it difficult to decode the written word. So prevalent is the condition that record numbers are now given extra time in exams to compensate for their reading short-fall. But is such assistance necessary or, indeed, fair? Not according to the academics who question whether dyslexia even exists.

Despite countless studies, some experts claim, there remains no scientific proof that dyslexics have symptoms or problems that differ from those encountered by others with reading difficulties. In more than 30 years of working in this field, Professor Julian Elliott, an educational psychologist at Durham University, says that he has found no concrete evidence that the condition is clearly identifiable and therefore would not have the confidence to diagnose it. “As yet, nobody has been able to demonstrate scientifically that there is this subgroup of poor readers that should be termed dyslexic,” he says. “There are all sorts of reasons why people don’t read well but we can’t determine why that is. Dyslexia, as a term, is becoming meaningless.”

In Elliott’s view, the condition is a reading difficulty – no more, no less – and should be renamed as such. Currently, confusion even surrounds the criteria – or lack of it – for its diagnosis. No one seems to agree on what defines the condition; one recent analysis of research identified 28 definitions of dyslexia, each slightly different from the next.

Several recent studies have shown that dyslexia could be a consequence of struggling to read, not a cause. Yet to be labelled with the condition has somehow come to redefine an individual’s academic and social standing so that their inability to read well becomes acceptable.

For parents, in particular, a diagnosis that their child is dyslexic can be a relief, says Elliot. He believes the diagnosis serves an emotional, not a scientific, function. “There is huge stigma attached to low intelligence. After years of working with parents I have seen how they don’t want their child to be considered lazy, thick or stupid. If they get called this medically recognised term, dyslexic, then it is a signal to all that it’s not to do with intelligence. That is crucially powerful.”

So many parents now seek a diagnosis for their child that it has led to claims that they are seeking to gain an unfair educational advantage. Professor Tony Monaco, head of neurogenetics at Oxford University and a dyslexia expert, argues that parents who put their child forward for reading abilityassessment are simply trying to understand what is wrong with them.

“If their child is doing well in other aspects of their education and there appears to be this anomaly, then they just want to know why,” he says. “They want to know if intervention can help.”

“There is a sense of justification when children are diagnosed,” adds Dr Michael Rice, a dyslexia and literacy expert at Cambridge University. “It gets them off the hook of great embarrassment and personal inadequacy.”

There are plenty who oppose such views vehemently. Dr John Rack, a researcher at the University of York and head of assessment and evaluation for Dyslexia Action, says that the charity has its own definitive means of assessment. “Our methods are pretty well established,” he says. “We conduct a 2½hour assessment that looks at reading, writing, spelling and maths skills but also at positive signs, such as their cognitive ability.”

Tests of intelligence are considered crucial by those who believe that dyslexia exists.

Their theory is that whereas slow learning skills can make someone a poor reader, dyslexics are intelligent people who have difficulty in processing information. As Dr Rack puts it, “Dyslexia is not the same as being a poor reader and a reading problem on its own does not mean someone has dyslexia.”

Elliott disagrees. He does not believe that there are people with different IQs who require assistance above and beyond that provided to other poor readers.

“The irony here is that the decoding of information – ie, reading – does not require a high degree of intelligence,” he says. “Comprehension of information is linked to IQ, but reading is not.” Furthermore, he says, so-called symptoms of dyslexia – letter reversal, clumsiness, poor short-term memory and inconsistent hand preference when writing – are commonly found in all who struggle to read, not just those considered to be dyslexic.

Other critics say that addressing dyslexia is not like treating a broken arm and that the intervention provided is more often ineffective, expensive and time-consuming, diverting attention and funding away from helping all children with reading disorders.

There have been some positive moves. In the past few years, the Government has removed the need for a diagnosis of dyslexia for children at primary and secondary schools to receive help with their reading. Now, a child whose “accurate and/or fluent word reading develops incompletely or with great difficulty” is entitled to extra assistance.

In theory – although not yet in practice – this should mean that reading help should be provided across the board, not just to those with a diagnosis of dyslexia. “The schools have sort of got their act together in this regard,” Elliott says. “Provisions for help with reading are no longer sidelined only for dyslexics. And there is plenty of evidence that shows the earlier intervention is provided the better.”

Nurture is as important as nature when it comes to reading progression, he says. A child who is never encouraged, coaxed or taught how to read is never likely to read well. While schemes to provide help are still few and far between, a reading intervention programme, providing one-on-one support for children with reading difficulties, which focuses heavily on helping them to make links with letters and sounds, is running in primary schools in North Yorkshire and Cumbria, and appears to prove the theory that early help can be successful for all slow readers.

The Government has recently invested £4.5 million in another scheme, Reading Recovery, in which specially trained teachers are sent to schools to help those with reading problems.

Still, Elliott says, there is no greater abuse of the current diagnostic system than in the establishments of further and higher education, where the guidelines are much more open. “The disability lobby is so strong and the advantages, financial and otherwise, so great that they are diagnosing dyslexics all over the place,” he says. “At universities students can get laptops, extra books and other equipment, sometimes to the value of almost £10,000 each. It’s a very problematic area.”

Some students, he says, are milking the situation for what it’s worth. “They ask for different coloured exam papers, extra photocopying, anything they can get. And the numbers of people who do this are just growing. If you are giving special needs provision without any particular criteria, it is obviously going to proliferate.”

While no precise figure is available for the amount ploughed into helping dyslexics at colleges and universities, it is estimated to be around £50 million. It is leaving the teaching profession disgruntled. One lecturer at a university in the South East of England, who wishes to remain anonymous, despairs at the increasing number of students who claim to be dyslexic.

“On one degree course I teach, about one quarter of the year get extra time in exams, extra help with their course work and other assistance because they have this label,” she says. “You become quite cynical. Dyslexia was virtually unheard of when I was a student. Now every other person has it.”

Another university lecturer, based in Sheffield, describes the situation as “laughable”. He says: “There are obviously a few who genuinely have a problem, but the majority seem to be jumping on the bandwagon for any extra time and help they can get and there is nothing we can do to stop it.”

Naturally, the doubters do not support dyslexia charities and sufferers of the condition – estimated to be at least 10 per cent of the population. Two years ago, when a Dispatches programme on Channel 4 first publicised the concerns of dyslexic-sceptics to a wide audience, the backlash was severe. Complaints were made in their dozens to Ofcom, and the British Dyslexia Association and Adult Dyslexia Association claimed that the programme had set back their research and damaged efforts to raise awareness of the condition.

There is, they claim, ever-increasing evidence that dyslexia is a very real disability. Monaco’s studies, published in the past two years, have confirmed a genetic link to dyslexia, with others showing that 50 per cent of reading problems are inherited. “It is highly hereditary,” he says. “We identified a gene on chromosome six that we suspect is linked to the disorder. Studies on twins have also confirmed genetic influences.”

There are other signs of progress. Dr Rack says that the Government recently established a committee, of which he is a member, to establish clearer guidelines about how to categorise and standardise dyslexia. “They want to improve the consistency of assessments,” he says. “At the moment there are too many who could be on the borderline.”

For Elliott, the question remains: on the borderline of what? “Dyslexic organisations have these checklists, but the symptoms cross over with so many other disorders, such as dyspraxia, that they could signify many disorders,” he says. “The fact remains that a dyslexia label meets a lot of our emotional, financial and personal needs. Even if it means absolutely nothing.”