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50 years of progress

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On Founder’s Day 2020, School Captain Phoebe Fogarty (Class of 2020) met with Ian Simpson (Class of 1969) to discuss the parallels in their Watson’s experiences and to hear about Ian’s motivations to become a donor to the School.

Ian Simpson

I: I was at George Watson’s College from 1956 to 1969. And I had difficulty with my reading, writing and spelling. I believe you had the same.

P: I do, I have the same so I’m dyslexic. I was diagnosed in P2 so when I was quite young and have had a label all the way through which has granted me extra time and use of a word processor from a very very, young age, which I’m sure is very different to your experience?

I: Well my experience was, well, Dyslexia did not exactly exist, it was word blindness that I had. Normally people like me with word blindness were just the village idiots, they could not read, write or spell, but I owe everything to Sir Roger Young, because he allowed Jessie Reid who was doing a PhD at the University of Edinburgh, to come and see the class that I was in at the time. She discovered that my IQ was quite high because she gave me an IQ test, but my performance was very much ‘oh well bottom of the class’ 

P: So it didn’t match up then?

I: She thought this was interesting and went to Sir Roger and explained I was an interesting case and asked if she could see my parents. My father was a doctor and my mother was a teacher. My father thought I was just thick, but my mother thought there was something wrong with me. She went and spoke to Jessie Reid who then monitored my progress while she finished her PhD. Of course at that time Dyslexia didn’t exist, it was word blindness.

P: Had you heard of word blindness before this time?

I: No I hadn’t. But I went to Jessie Reid for a whole year during lunch which worked very well.

P: How far along your journey with Jessie Reid did you get diagnosed with word blindness?

I: Well really she thought this from the beginning. My mother was very involved because she and I did my homework together as there was no way my handwriting and spelling would be good enough. But the big thing that Sir Roger did for me was to go to the Scottish Education Department and ask them if my mother could scribe my O-Levels and Highers. No one had ever done this before.

P: Was that nationally no one had ever done that before?

I: No, well certainly in Scotland anyway, but Sir Roger went to them with my case and they did agree that I could dictate my essays and my exams to my mother and she would write them down. There was an invigilator in the room to make sure we weren’t cheating. That was the major thing that got me through.

P: I think that is probably one of the things that has continued; we still have readers, scribes and invigilators to assist us in our exams. That part is very much the same.

I: So that’s still happening, how many pupils would be doing that?

P: There is a split between people who use a computer rather than a scribe. I think there are more people using computers than there would be people using a reader and a scribe - I would estimate 10 people per year group. So it’s still being utilised, and it’s quite cool to think that that started with you!

I:  Well absolutely, as I say it was Jessie Reid and Sir Roger that had the keys to this, but the other thing that he did was that he went to Stirling University, a new university then, this was in 1970 and thanks to his intervention I was permitted to sit in the back of the lecture theatre mumbling into my tape recorder.

P: For your notes?

I: Yes, my notes, and then the lecturers especially the History lecturer, he would actually read into my tape recorder the sections that were absolutely essential which was a tremendous help!

P: Was there a noticeable difference in studying something like History then after you were diagnosed?

I: Oh absolutely because it gave me the opportunity to take it to the next level, like going to university is. But the other thing is you see, the departmental secretaries would type up my essays in exams so they would appear terribly neat and tidy in order for the lecturers to pass them.

P: And that all came from… 

I: Sir Roger going to Stirling and saying ‘can you buy this guy a tape recorder?’ and they did.

P: Were there other word blind people at university with you?

I: Nope I was the first.

P: How did that feel?

I: Well I was just so privileged to be there, I really enjoyed playing rugby and rowing and all the other things of being at university that build character. But the main thing is that by having a degree I joined Tube investments which was a big engineering company. But having a degree meant that I was allocated a secretary, so from then I dictated all my work.

P: So it all worked out quite nicely then?

I: Absolutely, and since then I have always had a secretary or my wife who does it now, to do the emails or the letters or whatever. I had learned very good skills in dictation from university, and that’s what made the big difference and got my career going. The other thing is that I ended up being involved in the new industry of the time which was of course video production, making TV and TV commercials which is what I have just finished doing. The one that was very popular was ‘Heelys’.

P: Yes! I had a pair of Heelys and so did my sister.

I: I did that advert for the whole of Europe in different languages, and it went onto Nickelodeon and Disney Channels, sadly last year it went onto Facebook because the kids aren’t watching Television anymore. The business had changed and it meant that it was time for me to retire, and I was very lucky that I am 68 and it was time I did indeed retire.

P: When you were working in TV, were you dictating these adverts? Were you writing scripts?

I: No, I always employed creative guys who wrote the scripts and the creative bit, I was the production manager. It was my production company and it was based down in Bath. 

P: Did your Watson’s experience change significantly after the diagnosis?

I: It did in the sense that all the teachers knew that I was suffering from this Word Blindness and I wasn’t just a ‘thicko’, and that my mother was able to help. I think that it made a difference that she and the teachers from the various departments would talk to each other.  

P: Was there more people diagnosed after you?

I: It was really just me up until 1969 when I left, but then Sir Roger got a department set up in the school, and I think that was directly because of myself and my experience with Jessie Reid. I have full belief that without Sir Roger and Jessie Reid there would be no way I would have got anywhere after Watson’s. And that is why I have made the decision to make a gift to the school for another dyslexic child who couldn’t afford to be here, I very much believe in giving back this way. Without George Watson’s College, Sir Roger, Jessie Reid and my mother, none of what followed after Watson’s would have happened. How did you feel when you got your diagnosis?

P: I don’t know, I was quite young when I was first diagnosed, I didn’t quite understand what was happening. I knew I wasn’t a great speller and I was only young so my handwriting wasn’t great anyway. I had a coloured overlay for reading to take the writing off the white background. I had a blue one of those for a couple years. Then increasingly as we got older, more pupils started getting recognised as dyslexic so I wasn’t by myself. Now in sixth year, there are so many people with additional support for learning that actually in the nicest way possible, nobody really bats an eyelid and that’s the type of environment that you want to be learning in when you are someone who is dyslexic. The teachers of course know and can facilitate you in the best way possible, but other pupils - no one has anything to say about it, which is quite nice. You just kind of get on with it and get treated the same as everyone else. Was that the same with you?

I: Well no, that’s very interesting, it shows how this has matured and how education has improved and I’m not just the village idiot as it would have been at the turn of the century. That is really good to hear and it is not just Dyslexia, it is other things as well.

P: And that all stemmed from University and from here.

I: As I do say and I really do feel that it is down to George Watson’s College and Sir Roger Young. Without them there would be no way I could have got to where I am.

P: It’s funny that at a school this big that there would have been other kids that were suffering with dyslexia. And now there must be double If not triple figures per year group that are getting additional support for learning. I can’t imagine how it must have felt being the only person because there are now such a large group of us. 

I: Well it was 50 years ago so it's difficult to know how as a child I would I really felt, I suppose also that I was very into talking to people, and that’s how I communicated was by talking and organising fun days. I’m really pleased that the school has taken it to the next stage, and well done you getting to be School Captain and a dyslexic. 

P: I thought it was something to be mentioned at Open Morning this year, because it is quite something that having dyslexia should not hold me back in any way. There are obviously restrictions when you have a learning difficulty, but nothing that has stopped me from doing the things I love to do at the School and try my best. In my exams there is nothing that has held me back apart from the learning difficulty itself.  Did you keep in contact with Jessie Reid once you left Watson’s?

I: My mother did a bit, but with going to University the whole lifestyle changed, and I subsequently went off to Birmingham to do investments as a graduate trainee. I then ended up running a warehouse in London but my secret was that I had three staff in the office and my Secretary did all my typing and all my letters!

P: What did they think of the fact that you were dyslexic?

I: They didn’t really because my dictation skills were very high. So therefore I said, ‘can someone send this person a letter’. In those days shorthand and typing were much used skills - before computers and laptops. What do you want to do when you leave Watson’s?

P: Well hopefully Philosophy at University. But I couldn’t tell you a job that I want to do. My plans are to keep doing the subjects I enjoy and over the course of those few years find a job that I would be interested in. It’s interesting though that with me hopefully doing philosophy and you studying history -  those are two really wordy subjects and we are both dyslexics trying to navigate them! But there is something about humanity subjects like History, Philosophy and English that I was drawn to, and just like you 50years ago -  nothing is holding me back.

We are incredibly grateful to Ian Simpson for allowing us to share his Watson’s experience and for his particular generosity in supporting future pupils with dyslexia through a donation to our Foundation Places Programme.