PLC faith in radical program

Bethany Hiatt, Education Editor
Year 4s Thea Hinks, left, Asha Campf and Zu Rui McLeay are in PLC's Arrowsmith program. Picture: Bill Hatto/The West Australian.

Presbyterian Ladies' College is the first WA school to introduce a controversial program that aims to rewire the brains of children with learning difficulties.

Parents are paying $10,000 a year for students at PLC to take part in the Arrowsmith Program on top of regular junior school fees of $19,000.

Some scientists and learning experts have warned the program is not backed by scientific trials. But principal Beth Blackwood said the school decided it would be an "injustice" to students with learning difficulties not to offer it.

Teachers had already seen positive changes in the 10 Year 4 girls taking part in just 10 weeks.

They spend more than two hours a day on repetitive exercises, including computer, pen and paper, and listening activities.

Founded by Canadian Barbara Arrowsmith-Young 35 years ago and based in Toronto, the program stems from neuroscience research that shows the brain is plastic and adaptable.

It says intensive brain-training exercises can change the way a child's brain processes information by strengthening the cognitive weakness underlying their learning difficulty.

Now used in 11 Australian schools, it is aimed at children who have trouble with reading, writing, maths, visual and auditory memory, processing speed and dyslexia.

A two-year trial with Catholic high school students in Sydney was extended this year to primary school students because of its "outstanding results".

PLC's head of junior school Heather Pope said the school felt it could do more to meet students' needs and could not wait for research to catch up.

"We're trying to offer parents hope and we're very open about the levels of research that are available, the sceptics that are out there," she said.

One sceptic is Dyslexia-SPELD Foundation executive officer Mandy Nayton, who said Arrowsmith gained credibility through testimonials, not research.

"It is unfortunate that expensive remedial programs such as the Arrowsmith Program are gaining popularity largely due to clever marketing," she said.

Testimonials were not reliable evidence and without controlled studies it was hard to tell if a student might have made more progress with a cheaper program.

Ms Nayton, who is also a developmental psychologist, said claims the program could change the brain in a unique way were "potentially misleading" because everyone's brains changed when they learnt anything new.

Macquarie University cognitive science professor Anne Castles said there had been no trials with randomised control groups to investigate the program.

Though brains were plastic, there was no evidence that the Arrowsmith exercises helped develop reading or numeracy.

"It would be lovely if you could get to the cause of the difficulty - the underlying processing or memory problem - and fix that and that would magically transfer to reading," she said. "It just doesn't seem to work that way."

Professor Castles said though teachers and parents wanted to do their best for their children, they should not commit time and money without a strong evidence base.

Arrowsmith executive director Debbie Gilmore said research was in progress at two universities in Canada and the US and data would be released this year.

The program charged $90 a week for each student but schools added their own costs.

Karen McLeay said her daughter Zu Rui, 9, was more focused since she started the program.

Diagnosed with a visual processing disorder, she struggled to recognise patterns and symbols.

"I know the massive differences I've seen in her," she said.

"Before starting our journey on neuroplasticity, we tried all of the traditional methods - tutors, occupational therapy - and have seen really no gain at all because in my opinion that's a bandaid solution that's teaching children strategies but not actually changing the function of their brain."