New series The Write Offs explores staggering adult illiteracy rates in UK

To hide the fact that he couldn’t read, Tommy would get aggressive. He’d shout at colleagues, family members, even supermarket checkout workers when they asked him to sign something. Inside he would be burning with humiliation.

Emily became very naughty at school. Her teachers thought she was simply a troublemaker when she kept asking for extra help. So she stopped asking. 

While Craig, after being sacked from five jobs in a row because he wasn’t able to fill in the forms modern life demands, even of shelf-stackers, became suicidal. He even decided exactly how he was going to do it.

The three of them, all profoundly dyslexic, are among the shameful 8 million people in this country who cannot read or write properly – one of the worst adult literacy rates in Europe. 

And it’s shameful because they’ve all been let down by those who could have helped them. But these three are the lucky ones. 

Along with five others, they have taken part in a genuinely life-changing experience on inspiring new Channel 4 show The Write Offs.

Tommy Dawkins, 67, from Newcastle, is among those on inspiring new Channel 4 show The Write Offs where a group of adults who were let down by the education system will learn how to read and write properly

Tommy Dawkins, 67, from Newcastle, is among those on inspiring new Channel 4 show The Write Offs where a group of adults who were let down by the education system will learn how to read and write properly 

Pictured, Emily Dickenson, 23, from Huddersfield

Pictured, Craig, 31, who has been sacked from five jobs

Emily Dickenson, 23, from Huddersfield is a hairdresser and mother-of-two, who says her lack of reading knowledge has always made her feel ‘like an outsider’, while Craig, 31, was sacked from five jobs because he wasn’t able to fill in forms

They don’t win a record deal or a medal. Instead they’re given something far more important – the ability to read. 

And it’s only when you watch the show that you realise how important something most of us take for granted is. 

Tissues will be required for viewers of the emotional two-part series, hosted by Sandi Toksvig, which sees people who have always been told they were stupid, dumb or ignorant get their dignity back.

Sandi had a very particular reason for wanting to take part. Her son Theo, now 26, had profound dyslexia and was more or less written off himself.

‘At that time I found it very difficult to access information,’ she recalls of first learning of the issue 22 years ago. 

‘There were many people who were very helpful in the education system, but there were also those who wanted to sideline him and say that he was obviously not very bright, and so on. I knew that wasn’t the case because just from speaking to him I knew there was a good brain, he just couldn’t read.’

The emotional two-part series, hosted by Sandi Toksvig, will teach a group of adults from the ages of 23 to 67 how to read and write properly

The emotional two-part series, hosted by Sandi Toksvig, will teach a group of adults from the ages of 23 to 67 how to read and write properly 

She says it was only luck that got him the access to the help he needed: ‘I’ve watched my beautiful boy grow into a fantastic playwright and I know that might have been stifled in him under different circumstances and we wouldn’t have had that voice.

‘There is much more help within the education system today, but clearly still not enough. We should be absolutely ashamed of our high rate of illiteracy. I don’t know why people get left behind. 

‘But one of the things that I most hope about this show is not just that people will think, “Oh, I’m not alone in my struggles”, but that those of us who can help will notice the signs and offer help.’

The series tested the reading age of each of the participants at the start of the series. None of them were rated higher than 10 years old. One of them, Craig Cooper, didn’t even have the reading age of a child in nursery school.

The first part of the process involved them sitting at a desk faced with a pen and paper. Craig, 31, found even that too emotional as it brought back memories of the shame and upset he felt at school. 

‘It just reminded me of how no one knew what to do with me,’ he says. ‘Whenever there were tests at school the teachers would tell me to go outside and play. As a kid I thought it was a great opportunity to get out of class, but it was only when I became an adult that I realised how mortifying it was.

‘I was sent to a secondary school for special needs children, but while I had dyslexia there were children with much more serious problems so I never got any attention and never had the help I needed. I was bullied and called thick and stupid.

Pictured, The Write Off Group Shot. .(L-R) Paul, Benny, Dean, Carol, Sandi, Viv, Craig, Emily, Tommy

Pictured, The Write Off Group Shot. .(L-R) Paul, Benny, Dean, Carol, Sandi, Viv, Craig, Emily, Tommy

‘I used to hate myself for not being able to read. I became very lost in the world and I didn’t know what to do with myself. 

‘I would argue with people and I became an angry person. When I lost my last job – it was the fifth job I was fired from when they suddenly needed everyone to start filling in forms – it was my lowest point. I was thinking about driving my car into a bridge.

‘Nowadays, even if you’re washing dishes or stacking shelves, you have to fill out forms. I don’t think people realise how many people there are out there like me.’

Craig’s wife spotted an advert for the TV show soon after he had lost that final job. He hoped that taking part would give him the one big thing he was aiming for – to be able to read his daughter her favourite book The Hungry Caterpillar.

The show paired each person up with a tutor who would see them for intensive one-to-one sessions three or four times a week. 

Every month Sandi would meet them for a challenge, things that would seem easy for someone who can actually read. 

One was being given some travel instructions, a second was writing ingredients down and buying them from a shopping list, then cooking a dish, while a third was performing a short play. 

Celebrity guests Prue Leith and Martin Kemp joined in for two of the challenges, but the real joy is in seeing the difference in the contestants as they improve.

For Tommy Dawkins, 67, from Newcastle, the travelling challenge made him more determined. ‘If you ask for help at a station, people will think you’re taking the mickey,’ he says. 

‘A station guard will point you to the board, and it’s hard to tell him that you can’t read it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone the wrong way and it’s taken me two or three hours to get to where I needed to go.

‘I was once heading to a football match in Lincoln. I knew I had to look for an L but I ended up in Leicester. It can sound funny but it’s frightening. You have sweat pouring down you because you’re panicked and don’t know where you are.’

WHAT IS DYSLEXIA? 

Dyslexia is a common learning difficulty that can cause problems with reading, writing and spelling.

It’s a specific learning difficulty, which means it causes problems with certain abilities used for learning, such as reading and writing.

Unlike a learning disability, intelligence isn’t affected.

It’s estimated up to 1 in every 10 people in the UK has some degree of dyslexia.

Dyslexia is a lifelong problem that can present challenges on a daily basis, but support is available to improve reading and writing skills and help those with the problem be successful at school and work.

Signs of dyslexia

Signs of dyslexia usually become apparent when a child starts school and begins to focus more on learning how to read and write.

A person with dyslexia may:

  • Read and write very slowly
  • confuse the order of letters in words
  • put letters the wrong way round (such as writing ‘b’ instead of ‘d’)
  • have poor or inconsistent spelling
  • understand information when told verbally, but have difficulty with information that’s written down
  • find it hard to carry out a sequence of directions
  • struggle with planning and organisation

Source: NHS  

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A factory worker, he admits that he used to become aggressive to hide the fact he couldn’t read. ‘My way of hiding things was to be a bully,’ he says. ‘If you asked me to write something I would just say, “Do it yourself.” It was no way to behave.’

Over the years Tommy tried adult learning sessions but found the teaching was so uneven that he gave up. It was only when he was given a union job and a discussion emerged when a colleague said he didn’t believe there were people who couldn’t read or write that things started to change for him.

He now has an MBE for giving talks about not illiteracy, even though he had to deliver his speeches from memory. One of his reasons for going on the show was that he wanted to be able to write a letter to all the people who have helped him. When he manages to do it, it provides one of the most emotional moments of the series.

‘One thing I’ve done is bought myself a cookbook,’ says Tommy, who followed his first recipe on the show. 

‘I’ve baked a cake for my family and it’s one of the most fantastic things ever. I’ve also bought a ticket on a railway station. It’s amazing that I can now do something I could never do before. It’s changed my life and the important thing is that it might change the lives of others too, now that they can see they’re not alone.’

The youngest of the contestants is Emily Dickenson, just 23, from Huddersfield. While there was help in her school for dyslexia, she didn’t have enough of it. 

‘The only time I would have someone to help read and write was in exams,’ she says. 

‘But there was no point in doing the exams because by then I didn’t know what I was doing. I couldn’t read the whiteboard. I couldn’t read the books. I couldn’t do any of it because I wasn’t taught.

‘My sister is also dyslexic and was in special classes but I never got that. I ended up dropping out of school because I became so embarrassed and angry. 

‘When I put my hand up to ask the teacher to explain something again, they would shout at me for not paying attention. I just couldn’t read it. I would then ask the person sitting next to me and I would be labelled a troublemaker and told to stop messing around.

‘I would walk out of classes, and I left school as soon as I could. I thought I would never make anything of my life because everything revolves around reading. I don’t think it’s surprising that many of us do become angry. 

‘If you have the right help things can be different. My character at school was judged on my learning ability. I was frustrated that no one would listen to me, and I think you stay angry about it.’

She did manage to train as a hairdresser – and her college was more supportive than her school. But, as a mother of two, her lack of reading skills meant she always felt like an outsider. 

‘My little boy’s school is always sending emails and I could never read them. I would be terrible about missing World Book Day and sending him in to school wearing the wrong clothes.’

Now she’s able to read them herself. What’s more, she’s also about to start driving lessons now that reading signs will no longer be a problem. 

‘Being on the show has changed my life in so many ways,’ she says. ‘It has boosted my confidence. Now I cook meals from recipe books. I can’t explain how genuinely freeing it is to be able to cook whatever you like, or to go wherever you want.

‘I can now send texts to my friends, read menus in restaurants and if I were to apply for a job, I’ll be able to read the forms. It’s also given me the confidence to be able to tell my children that whatever you face, you just need to find the right support. You shouldn’t quit and think, “This is all I’m capable of”.’

By the end of the show, which was filmed over four months, each of the participants, having put hours of work in, are in a much better place than they started. Each of them has had their lives genuinely changed. 

‘I’m sure I’m not the only one who sometimes catches themselves and realises they can now do something that they could never do before,’ says Craig. ‘Now I hope the programme will show people that if they need help, they won’t be alone.’

The Write Offs starts on Channel 4 on Tuesday 22 September at 9.30pm on Channel 4.

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