With World Autism week 2021 upon us, I’ve been taking time to reflect upon how the demand for my tuition services has changed in recent years.  Whilst most of my tutoring involved GCSE students, younger learners struggling to achieve at school and adult EAL students wanting to improve their conversation and understanding, there has been a marked rise in SEND students who find learning literacy especially difficult.  I must share with you probably the student success story I’m most proud of;  the story of one young man who achieved way more than I ever expected!

I met Richard (not his real name) in September 2018 when his mother contacted me about 1:1 tuition to support him working towards GCSE English Language.  Although Richard had gone through mainstream education, he had a range of disabilities including Irlen syndrome and autism.  This had seriously affected his potential and, at 22 years old, he was enrolled at a local FE college on a level 2 vocational course.  Although Richard had successfully passed Functional Skills, he would not be allowed to progress to level 3 of his vocational course without achieving the mighty GCSE.

I knew from the outset this was going to be a tall order and, must admit, I started his weekly tuition with some trepidation.  Richard had an easy going character with a cracking sense of humour, desperately wanting to please and progress.  Of course, this made motivating him a doddle, but I was acutely aware that there was certainly a ‘ceiling’ on what he would be able to achieve and letting him know this wasn’t an easy thing.  Of course, although he was partly aware of this, he positively brimmed over with enthusiasm and spoke regularly about passing the exam (exam being a ‘banned’ word) and going on to study what he was most interested in.

We had about 8 months to bring Richard to a level which would put him in a good position to sit the exam in the summer.

Firstly, Richard’s writing structure was all over the place.  He had clearly missed some learning in the early years which had left him unable to structure his own thoughts and ideas in a sentence that wasn’t 50 words long!  Secondly, although his spoken vocabulary was pretty wide ranging, his written vocabulary was poor, being simple and restrictive.  Thirdly, and on the positive side, he had an incredible imagination!  And, for those in the know, the creative writing element of the exam was clearly going to play to his strengths, especially if I could improve his structure in a major way.

What followed was a serious and intensive learning programme working almost entirely on past exam questions to familiarise Richard with the expectations of the GCSE, increase his confidence and improve his skills.  Time management was also proving to be an issue and by breaking questions down into more ‘bitesize’ pieces, we were able to improve his time proportion so he had more time to attack the big markers.  Richard could clearly see what I was trying to do;  to give him the skills to achieve a pass by incorporating strategies to overcome the challenges he faced.

And this is where he excelled all my expectations!  One week, towards the end of our time together, Richard presented me with, what he called, his ‘bible’.  In this, he had broken each question down into sections outlining what he needed to do for each one.  Using a prescribed format, he had used his critical thinking skills to creatively put together a sort of instruction leaflet which clearly explained what the objectives were, a writing format to help with his structure and the minutes allowed for each question.  I was impressed!  Why hadn’t I thought of that? Using this enabled Richard to tackle the questions without becoming overwhelmed.  Going forward we actively used this together, with him adding notes and pointers as he edged nearer to the exam, and I became more excited that he may well do it!

With his mother, we approached the college and negotiated extra time and a quiet space as vital conditions for when Richard sat the actual exam.  I discussed with him what he needed to do to prepare himself eg having the right equipment to hand, eating breakfast on the day and drinking plenty of water along with some anxiety coping mechanisms to help with the stress.  From what I could tell, all went well on the day.  Richard relayed in great detail how he’d approached each question, what he had found in the texts and how he’d expressed his creativity for each question.  We were hopeful that he’d done enough, although I did caution Mum that it was going to be close!

Results day eventually arrived and I sat waiting, staring at my ‘phone willing it to ring.  I had many GCSE students that summer waiting on results and of course, I was keen to know their outcomes, but I was barely able to breathe waiting for Richard’s result!  I knew how much it meant and what a difference it could make to him going forward.  Finally, the text came.  He’d passed!!  Even now, I count this experience as probably the student success story I’m most proud of and it just goes to show that, even with the limitations nature has given us, there’s always a chance to achieve way more than you could ever imagine!

And now?  2 years on from that eventful day and Richard has thrived at college, on the path to achieving his level 3!  This summer, he’ll leave student life after several college years, but he has the knowledge, the skill and the qualifications to go forward into the world with confidence and capability.  Job done!