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‘I’m very dyspraxic’: Ipswich MP Tom Hunt reveals battle with learning difficulties

PUBLISHED: 11:53 10 February 2020 | UPDATED: 11:56 10 February 2020

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt spoke about his own learning difficulties during a visit to Piper's Vale Primary School. Picture: SONYA DUNCAN

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt spoke about his own learning difficulties during a visit to Piper's Vale Primary School. Picture: SONYA DUNCAN

Archant 2020

As a bright young Member of Parliament clever enough to have studied at Oxford, it might seem hard to imagine that, as a child, Tom Hunt struggled to read, write and even tie his shoelaces.

Tom Hunt speaking in the House of Commons. He has had said that speaking on the famous green benches seemed a long way from the difficulties of his youth. Picture: HOUSE OF COMMONSTom Hunt speaking in the House of Commons. He has had said that speaking on the famous green benches seemed a long way from the difficulties of his youth. Picture: HOUSE OF COMMONS

Yet the man who has today become one of the region's most powerful people has now revealed his struggles with special educational needs (SEN) - as he embarks on a mission to show what young people can achieve, regardless of their difficulties.

The 31-year-old, elected to the House of Commons in December 2019, found school so difficult he was even forced to repeat his reception year because he was so far behind his classmates.

A "really good" learning support assistant helped him get back on track and sat with him in lessons until year-one.

Yet in later years, he still "really struggled" with maths, reading and writing - so much so that at 12, he only had the reading age of an eight-year-old.

Tom Hunt is one of Suffolk's seven MPs. Here he is pictured with the Suffolk flag, in between cabinet ministers Dr Therese Coffey and Matt Hancock. Picture: ELAINE BRYCETom Hunt is one of Suffolk's seven MPs. Here he is pictured with the Suffolk flag, in between cabinet ministers Dr Therese Coffey and Matt Hancock. Picture: ELAINE BRYCE

MORE: Who is Tom Hunt, Ipswich's new MP?

At that point, he was finally properly diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia - the former causing problems with reading and writing, while the latter means coordination difficulties that can hamper what some may consider day-to-day activities.

Mr Hunt, for example, could not tie his shoelaces as a child and was unable to knot a tie until he had left university.

"It's really hard to have special educational needs," he said.

Tom Hunt pictured outside Ipswich Town Hall shortly after his election victory in December 2019. Picture: PAUL GEATERTom Hunt pictured outside Ipswich Town Hall shortly after his election victory in December 2019. Picture: PAUL GEATER

"I felt when I was younger, frankly I felt like I was thick, that I might not be successful.

"I couldn't understand why it took me so much longer to understand things and process things."

'I had to work harder than everybody else'

Mr Hunt dropped French from 12 onwards, replacing it with SEN support sessions.

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt visits Piper's Vale Primary School. With him is principal Kimberly Morton. Picture: SONYA DUNCANIpswich MP Tom Hunt visits Piper's Vale Primary School. With him is principal Kimberly Morton. Picture: SONYA DUNCAN

He also gave up chemistry at A-level because of his difficulty with learning sequences, despite his dream at that time to become a dentist.

However, his diagnoses were a turning point for him.

He "slowly but surely turned it round" from the age of 12 by developing coping mechanisms that enabled him to learn in different ways, even when it wasn't easy.

Mr Hunt - who was given 25% extra time in exams at school and university because of his difficulties - said he soon learned that: "I had to work harder than everybody else, just to stay afloat."

Yet not only has he kept level with his peers, but many would say he has far overtaken them.

As well as good GCSEs and A-levels, he achieved a degree at Manchester University and a Master's at Oxford, before going on to work as chief of staff for the elected mayor of Cambridgeshire.

He said the idea of studying at Oxford, considering his earlier difficulties, felt "just bizarre".

Yet he is now one of the country's youngest parliamentarians, who could well be in with a chance of holding high office in the future.

The Conservative still considers himself "very dyspraxic" and as someone who struggles in a number of areas.

"You don't lose your dyspraxia," he said.

"My short-term memory is not brilliant - even if someone gives me directions, I don't do steps and sequences very well."

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The mass of paperwork and forms he has had to deal with on his arrival at the House of Commons has also posed huge challenges, while a long list of instructions can become "overwhelming".

The politician also describes his own hand-writing as "ridiculous" and says his "brain is wired a bit differently".

Yet whatever your views on his politics, even Mr Hunt's most bitter opponents would have to agree he has brought about a remarkable change in his fortunes.

'We need an education system that leaves no child behind'

As he visited Piper's Vale Academy in Ipswich on Friday to discuss how Suffolk schools support children with SEN, Mr Hunt made clear he believes any child is capable of success provided they get the right support.

He has joined the House of Commons' education select committee, with a personal mission to "give schools the support they need to provide first-class SEN".

In particular he is keen to tackle large class sizes, saying he has "never learnt well in big groups".

He also believes education regulator Ofsted should do more to scrutinise the work of SEN units in schools, saying: "I think there are more and more children with SEN.

"There's a recognition that we have to get it right.

"I think a lot of it is to do with spending and budgets but a lot of it is also to do with the way learning is structured for those with SEN.

"I went to an independent that school that had the resources to make some of the decisions they made with regards to my education.

"There are brilliant, brilliant academies out there and other schools that do provide fantastic SEN support - but some that don't and there are some have struggled with funding as well.

"It seems to me that it's a bit of an injustice that some young children with SEN do get the support and others don't.

"For me, I ended up getting the support I needed and I'm very passionate to try and make sure that as many children who had my disabilities but also other disabilities also get support.

"We need an education system that leaves no child behind.

"This is about fairness, their lives and their families but it's also about us as a society unlocking the potential of those individuals.

"If they're not given the right support, they can go down the wrong road. It must be so sad feeling that your potential hasn't been realised.

"I think it's about realising the potential of people."

It has also been proposed that Mr Hunt becomes the co-chairman of the all party parliamentary group on dyspraxia alongside South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck, a Labour politician who also has dyspraxia.

He added: "There are so many people with SEN who, given the right the support, they can fly.

"They're creative and they can really go on to be not just an average performer but really go and excel."

'Unfaltering belief' in all pupils

On a tour of Piper's Vale Primary School on Friday, Mr Hunt said he was impressed with the Ipswich academy's facilities - particularly its specialist area for additional support for those with SEN.

Before being taken over by the Paradigm Trust about three years ago, the school's forerunner had been rated as "requires improvement" by Ofsted for several years.

Starting as interim principal before later taking on the job permanently in May 2019, Kimberly Morton said a new curriculum had been brought in alongsidea huge investment into resources, such a more specialist music provision.

Ms Morton, who has said she feels "like a rock star" every time she walks into the school, said the academy's spirit is "relentlessly positive" and that teachers have an "unfaltering belief" in all pupils.


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