If you misdiagnose the problem, you will misprescribe the solution, and who knows what harm you will do?
In my early childhood, I was extremely quiet and shy. I had low self-confidence, and problems reading, writing and paying attention. This came after an infancy during which I had been late learning to crawl, walk and talk.
A couple of years into my primary education, the problem was diagnosed this way: my school was utterly hopeless and my teachers were failing me. The solution then prescribed for me was to move me to a private prep school.
Nobody seemed to take into consideration the fact that my friends were doing very well at our local county primary school. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that the problem was not the school, but was in fact some kind of developmental issue specific to me.
Nevertheless, that was deemed the solution, and I was therefore moved into a school where all my peers were way ahead of me, and where the head teacher seemed to think I shouldn’t be there.
My prescription, it seemed, consisted of me being taught repeatedly that I was lazy and stupid, which would carry on all the way until I left school at sixteen, and I met tutors at sixth-form college who told me I was brilliant. Go figure.
Nowadays, a child with my difficulties would most likely be referred to a speech and language therapist, or some other educational specialist, to explore precisely what was actually going on. But I suppose those were the 1980s, when such interventions were largely unheard of.
Over the next few years, there were several opportunities to investigate what was going on with me, if anyone cared to pay attention. Tricky though, for the view of several teachers at the private secondary school I subsequently went to was that common learning disorders did not in fact exist, but were just an excuse rich parents make for their lazy children.
Hence lazy and stupid stuck. I don’t know how true that was, though, because I left school with nine decent GCSEs, including an A and three Bs. Perhaps that was just a sign of my desperation, doing anything to get away from that school, even if it meant hard work.
But reasons to investigate whether I was okay: take PE. Anyone who looked at me could see that I was very thin, my skin pulled taut. I had no muscles and was extremely awkward. A PE teacher might have thought to mention it to my parents, rather than bullying me because I was rubbish at sports.
Take that stupendously humiliating athletics lesson during which we were asked to throw the javelin. Did no alarm bells go off with anyone that I could barely lift the thing, let alone throw it? Mine landed about two metres ahead of me, much to the amusement of my peers.
Today I would hope a teacher might pick up a phone at the end of the lesson to speak to the parents or make a referral to investigate why that boy seems to be malnourished and weak. No, but the narrative was set in stone by then: this boy was just universally lazy, a diagnosis which informed everything.
Difficulties socialising: he’s lazy. Difficulties concentrating: he’s lazy. Poor at sports: he’s lazy. Poor muscle tone: he’s lazy. Lack of energy: he’s lazy. Extremely thin: he’s lazy. Naturally, if asked to describe myself, I will say, “I’m lazy.”
That explanation of everything in my youth and the subsequent self-esteem issues it planted in my image of myself have stuck with me my whole life. I have never been able to escape my lack of self-confidence and self-belief, because eight years of private education excelled in drumming into me that I was useless. What a valuable education that was!
Funnily enough, when I started at sixth-form college, my form tutor immediately knew there was something wrong with me. Not so much the physical health side, but my acute depression and anxiety. Clearly she had been trained to look out for signs of problems; or perhaps she was merely a compassionate human, capable of seeing with her eyes.
She referred me on to the college counsellor, who worked with me for months to help me overcome the worst of my distress. Admittedly, I was extremely hard work, for I wasn’t ready to be fixed. But one thing she did for me was film me and play the video back to me to show me how other people saw me. It turned out that my outer manifested my inner. Strange that those closest to me never saw that.
So let’s come back to the start. There was a diagnosis to be made in the first couple of years of primary school. Unfortunately I didn’t get a diagnosis until a decade after leaving secondary school. That diagnosis helped make sense of a lot of things: the low energy levels, the difficulties socialising, the fact I looked much younger than my age.
And the prescription: so yes, I was finally able to access treatments, two decades too late. Better late than never, I suppose. No, but the damage had already been done, irreparably so, to my self-image and sense of self-worth. And that, right there, is the value of a private education to me. Absolutely zero.
Bitter, much? Yes, sorry. I’m still working through these issues. Such is the harm of misdiagnosing and then misprescribing.