35 years in education

 As a leader in the further education sector, Paul Eeles owes his success to years of hard work and a close support network. However, his journey hasn’t always been easy.

“I quite liked school, but the academic bit I wasn’t particularly good at. I remember getting detention every week because I couldn’t get my spelling right. My working memory is very short, so exams were a real challenge. That kind of thing leaves you with a lack of confidence.

“A lot of the things I was presenting would now be diagnosed as dyslexia, but this was in the early 1980s. These days, thankfully, dyslexia is recognised.”

It was in college that Paul started to achieve.

“Something fitted into place. I was good at vocational, practical things. I started to excel and demonstrated I could actually achieve things in a learning environment. So, from that perspective, it took off and my confidence grew.”

Yet, his lack of early educational achievement still felt like a burden for many years.

“I was chair of the Federation of Awarding Bodies. I was on the board for seven years and chaired for just over four. It took me until my second year as chair to admit that I hadn’t got any GCSEs, which were O Levels when I was at school. I stood up on that platform and made a conscious decision that I was going to talk about that, and that was a really big thing for me.”


A fortuitous meeting

Paul’s introduction to Cognassist started with a conversation. Speaking with Cognassist CEO Chris Quickfall, who is very open about his experiences with dyslexia, made Paul think he should do something about it.

“It had been something playing on my mind. My youngest son is severely dyslexic, so there’s always been that likelihood.”

Two years and a pandemic later, Paul sat next to Louise Karwowski, our Director of Education, at an industry event.

“I had been to Louise’s workshop earlier in the day and was really interested in the ideas that came out of that. We just started having a long conversation and she said, ‘Why don’t you do an assessment?’”

Paul didn’t have a diagnosis before the Cognassist assessment, and it helped him accept the reality that he knew to be there.

“Interestingly, I have what’s called a spiky profile. Some things I’m excellent at, some things I’m not so good at. It was like, ‘Oh yeah, I get why that is.’ The outcomes of the Cognassist assessment made sense, and from it making sense means you can actually do something about it. I recognised that I’d put a lot of coping mechanisms in place over a long time.”

Making a statement

Paul has a great depth of passion for his sector and how it can transform lives. He chose to share his journey on social media and talk openly about his experiences.

“It was the right time, and I deliberately didn’t rush into it. So far, 16,000 people have seen that post. I’ve never had a post with that number of views before. It was quite phenomenal to see some of my peers making positive comments. There’s been absolutely no negatives from it whatsoever.”

It’s public statements like this from people in Paul’s position that really can make a difference. It helps create an environment where talking about neurodiversity is encouraged and normalised, raising awareness across the sector.

“It’s about being accountable and saying, ‘I’m going to make a stand.’ Our organisation is about making a difference to the life chances of people we work with, work for and connect with through our educational and awarding services. So, for me, it’s that I could perhaps make a difference for somebody else. You can achieve anything, it doesn’t matter who you are, and it doesn’t matter what you may or may not perceive as a strength or a weakness in who you are.”

Changing the sector

Luckily, the conversation around neurodiversity does appear to be growing. More providers are now thinking about how to support learners.

“This is about people. It’s about equality and diversity. What are we doing for individuals, whoever they are and whatever characteristics they’ve got? I’m a big fan of what Cognassist is doing. The organisation is doing a great job in terms of raising awareness. My takeaway would be to encourage people across the sector to have their own assessment.”

Yet, as always, changes still have to be made as we learn more.

“There’s a lot of work to be done around helping us understand that neurodiversity is much more common than we think. Therefore, we have to think about the way we conduct the delivery of learning. I’m much more interested now in the delivery of assessment. There are so many ways that people can demonstrate their abilities than just through an examination.

“I’d love to see us get to a point where a learner can say, ‘not only have I had training delivered in a way that meets my needs and what I need to be taught. But that the assessment methodology is based on my strengths and what I can bring to the party.’ In an ideal world, we’ll end up with learners who have an individual training plan and an individual assessment plan. I think that becomes a much fairer way of assessing a group of people.”

When we talk about learning difficulties in education, we tend to focus on the areas where people struggle, but everyone has their own strengths.

“As a society, we’re conditioned to focus on our difficulties rather than looking at the talents we have. I have to remind myself of the things I am good at, my visual perception, executive function and non-verbal memory. I think sometimes we don’t see that in everyone. We have to recognise it will take time, but we can change. We know where we’re going, and we know the dialogue that needs to happen now in this sector.”

Paul’s passion comes from personal experiences and seeing the difference in telling our stories. His support and advocacy, alongside many other voices in education, are changing the sector for the better. And it feels like we’re a little closer to a future where no learner is left behind.

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