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No Woman is an Island

Helen Ross - No Woman is an Island
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Helen Ross

Trustee, British Dyslexia Association

Dr Helen Ross, Co-Vice Chair of the British Dyslexia Association, Board Member of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars and expert dyslexia/SEND advisor, consultant and researcher.

Nothing – good or bad – is ever accomplished in isolation. There is an age-old trope, ‘behind every good man, there is a great woman’, and I suspect that often, it is true. However, I also believe that behind every good woman, there is an army of great women. We need to be each other’s cheerleaders and supporters in a world where our voices are not heard as much as they should be.

I am a lucky woman who has been supported by great women throughout my career – and I continue to be so to date.

I think a lot of ‘me’ is because of Mum. Mummy Newton was at home for some of the time when I was young but she also worked and made sure that I did too, on schoolwork, house things and generally being a decent human being. I hope that I am. Most importantly, Mummy Newton thoroughly instilled in me that if I worked hard, she and my dad would support me in whatever pathway I chose.

That support, and the leg-up thought process, resides in me, alongside a drive to make provision for children who find learning, and literacy in particular, challenging. But that wasn’t my first job or my first ambition.

I was going to be a chartered engineer by the age of 30; that did not go well and, via a complex and life-defining journey, I went into teaching in Barnsley. It was in my first school that I realised how difficult it can be for some learners to engage with the written word. It was also in this school that I started chatting to a strong, fierce and very kind woman, who suggested I get involved with my trade union. I started at local level and then did a few things nationally, I learnt a lot. My colleague – through her kindness, solidarity and support – and Barnsley – through exposing me to the barriers that some individuals and communities experience in relation to education¾both planted a seed in me. I wanted to learn about policymaking, leadership, literacy difficulties and how structures in society collided to make education, at times, a trauma-inducing experience for young people. I decided to do a PhD but at that point, I wasn’t sure how or what I’d do, so I spent time exploring options.

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Catherine West MP and Chivonne Preston at the House of Lords Dyslexia Commission launch

In Cusco, after spending a lot of time with fellow educators and newly-thirty-somethings, and researching PhDs, I applied for my PhD and the University of Bath accepted me. More precisely, Dr Tina Skinner accepted me as her student, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more fortunate in my life!

She is a powerhouse full of integrity, kindness and honesty, all of which paved the way for me to write a part-time PhD in the same period as some full-timers. Tina was, and remains, one of my biggest cheerleaders. She showed me how to make evidence-based noise and to engage with systems carefully and constructively, with the ultimate aim of bringing people with us.

Alongside my PhD, another strong, integrity-filled team of women was supporting me at work; I progressed from a part-time maths tutor in a little independent school to the Head of Learning Support and SENDCo. That role was the perfect complement to my academic journey. I was working with the exact frameworks I was analysing, supporting students akin to those in my PhD and in daily dialogue with families along their journeys. The team of women pushed me, challenged me and encouraged me through some exceedingly challenging times. Eventually, I left the role, but those women remain dear friends.

I am very lucky to have had the amazing springboard that these experiences have given me, which brings me to the pathway and group of women that have journeyed with me most recently and continue to do so.

I started working with the Wiltshire Dyslexia Association, which is run and led amazingly by Caroline Fowke, who is one of the most gracious people I know. With her insight and support, I started to say “yes” to things that were a little bit of work here and there. Eventually, I was in a position where I was saying “yes” to bigger, more impactful and prominent things; an APPG working with John Hicks in April 2019 was something that changed my life. I started writing for various publications, doing talks, being interviewed and spending time with some amazing people in the world of dyslexia. I was nominated to, then elected as a member of, the Board of Trustees of the British Dyslexia Association in 2021. Then, I was voted to Co Vice-Chair in Autumn 2022, with the support and guidance of Michelle Catterson, our Chair and Chivonne Preston, our CEO.

I am now in a position where my voice is listened to and, at times, actively sought in the development of policy, strategy and support for young people with dyslexia/SEND. This is a position of immense privilege and one that I have worked towards for the last 15 years. I have been supported hugely by women at all levels and I would not be in this position were it not for those people. Being able to say yes to things is an honour and my husband is substantially implicated in that, but not wholly.

Women have helped me ‘blaze my trail’ to the current position I hold and we need to keep supporting each other in that, never pulling up the ladder behind us but rather, building a solid staircase.

Curia’s Dyslexia Commission Report Launch

Curia will be launching its Dyslexia Commission report on the 31st of March at 1:30 pm as a hybrid event. For your tickets, sign up below.

Events – ChamberUK

Dr Helen Ross has been an instrumental figure in Curia’s Dyslexia Commission, as a chair as well as a crucial panellist. She has contributed insights into teacher training, the upskilling of staff as well as providing timely support to children. Curia’s Dyslexia Commission has launched its report with recommendations on how the existing SEND policy can be improved and better implemented. For more information, visit www.chamberuk/curia.

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