Left-Handed Children – UK Parliamentary debate
As a result of the campaign by Lauren Milsom, Mark Stewart and the Left Handers Club, the issue of teacher training and the needs of left-handed children was disccussed in Parliament on 22 July 1998. This is the full text of the debate taken from Hansard, the official written record of parliamentary activity.
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§ Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)This is an occasion to stand up for lefties’ rights, and I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the topic. I declare an interest in that I am a lefty, although not of the political kind, and an honorary member of the Left-Handers Club of Great Britain.
This is a campaign which I hoped never to have to fight, but, like the great civil rights campaigners of the past, I have learnt the hard way how discrimination works. An arrogant or unlistening majorityâ€”in this case right-handers, rather than men or whitesâ€”refuses to understand the problem or even to accept that it exists. Only when the oppressed minorityâ€”in this case, left-handersâ€”makes its presence felt do things happen. Today, I hope that the left-handers of the nation are making their presence felt.
My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), whom I am delighted to see in the Chamber, drew my attention to the long campaign of The Economist on the issue. It began in about 1962 and was renewed in December 1986, when it invited its readers to join the magazinein a stroll down Sinister Street.It said:No, this is not an invitation to wallow in dirt, darkness, death and devilry. It is a summons to final victory over handism. How about making 1987 the Year of the LEFT hand? It is time to remove the vile marks with which that hand has been branded, and to restore to mankind a huge potential that has long been cast aside.Come 1987, a quarter of a century will have passed since The Economist, setting out the case for a Universal Declaration of Human Lefts, displayed the slogan ‘Loofers, arise!’ on its cover. ‘Loofers’ referred to the habit dictionaries have of sneering at Left’s derivation from such words as the very Low Dutch loof, meaning weak or worthless.That bears an uncanny resemblance to my name.
I fear that such words are commonplace, and some are a great deal worse. Again according to The Economist, researchers preparing a survey of English dialects found 88 different words for left-handed in local use in the 1950s. Such words include buck-fisted, cack-handed, caggy, clicky, corrie-pawed, cow-pawed, cuddy-wifter, dolly-pawed, gar-pawed, gibble-fisted, golly-handed, keck-fisted, keggy-handed, left-plug, left-kelly, scoochy, scrammy-handed, skiffle-handed, south-pawed, spuddy-handed and plain squiffy.
Most of these terms are uncomplimentary, none more so than cack-handed and its variants, butâ€”in the interests of my language remaining parliamentaryâ€”I shall not pursue that.
We may be a minority, but we seem to be growing. At the beginning of the century, the doctrinaire assertion that only 2 per cent. of mankind are naturally sinistral was orthodox enough to be chosen for citation in the “Shorter Oxford Dictionary”. A 1954 estimate put the proportion in America at between 5 and 8 per cent. A 1976 study of 11-year-olds in British schools showed that left-handed children, who, 12 years earlier, had been rated at 6 per cent., already represented 10.4 per cent. Some people think that the figure now may be as high as 15 per cent. However, even one in 10 is high enough to make us take the issue seriously.
1086 I shall again put the matter in an historical context. According to The Economist:Our ape cousins do not discriminate. Nor did mankind during most of its existence. There is ample evidence, from flint-working and cave paintings, that our Stone Age ancestors were even-handed. Dextral domination began only a few thousand years ago. Moreover, there are some indications that the whole thing could have swung the other way.To justify that claim, the magazine reminds us how many languages read from right to left. It even claims that left-handedness was the dominant condition south of the equator, and that it was related to sun worship and domination by various civilisations. However, that is a whole new and fascinating subject, which time does not allow me to explore.
The explanation of left-handedness is simple. I understand that it is to do with the dominance of one of the hemispheres of the brain. The left hemisphere controls the body’s right side, and the right hemisphere controls the left side. That means that only left-handed people are truly in their right minds. Even so, we are discriminated against, not only by the failure of successive Governments to address our problems but by language. Hon. Members should reflect on words such as gauche and sinister, and their roots. The word “right” is always associated with good.
The Economist offered several reworkings of familiar phrases to make its point. They are:Might is left; his heart is in the left place; wait for Mr. Left to come along; my country, left or wrong; God’s in his heavenâ€”all’s left with the world; the divine left of kings; it will all come left in the end”â€”and on a more European note, “Dieu et mon gauche”.
I regret that even the Bible is not exempt, with the Psalmists particularly culpable. There are more than 100 handist phrases, such as:At Thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.I need hardly tell the House on which side the goats were placed at the final judgment before they were cursed and sent into everlasting fire.
It is not all bad. As The Economist reminded us in 1986, left-handers have the upper hand in some areas. It stated:Six years ago French researchers, who had noted the capture by left-handed fencers of the first eight places in the Olympic men’s foil, demonstrated that in such combat sinistrals reactions are fractionally faster. It seems that a fighting man’s left arm and hand have a split-second advantage because of their direct link with the brain’s right hemisphere which handles spatial skills.This could also have a bearing on the prominence in top-level tennis, baseball and cricket of the relatively small numbers who play left-handed. Nowadays, nobody is surprised when three of the four semi-finalists at Wimbledon are loofers. In his time, ‘Babe’ Ruth held no fewer than 54 major league records. In 1975 that scoochy all-rounder Gary Sobers became Sir Garfield after setting Test cricket records for wickets and catches as well as for centuries and runs scored in one innings.Many people believe that left-handers are above averagely intelligent and creative. Perhaps they have a point. Certainly, famous left-handers are thick on the ground. They include Charlie Chaplin, Denis Compton, W. C. Fields, Judy Garland, Jimi Hendrix, Holbein, Danny Kaye, Rod Laver, Paul McCartney, Compton Mackenzie, Marcel Marceau, Jessie Matthews, Martina Navratilova, Cole Porter, Telly Savalas, Ronald Searle, Mark Spitz, Charlemagneâ€”I do not know how we 1087 know that, but apparently we doâ€”Jimmy Connors, Greta Garbo, George VI, Leonardo da Vinciâ€”another historical mystery, but apparently he was left-handedâ€”John McEnroe, Shirley MacLaine, Harpo Marx, Marilyn Monroe, Pablo Picasso, Joan of Arc, Napoleon Bonaparte, Julius Caesar himself, David Bowie, Noel Gallagher, George Michael, and even, I am told, Melinda Messenger.
There are more. Harry Truman, George Bush, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan are or were left-handed. Indeed, at a presidential election in the United States, all three candidates, including Ross Perot, were left-handed. I should also mention that my colleague on the Select Committee on Agriculture, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) is one of the distinguished parliamentary band of leftiesâ€”but then we all knew that already.
We are part of a distinguished club, but things have been bad for us, although some have got better. Technical advances have continued to level matters. For instance, the word processor has reinforced the typewriter’s liberating power in freeing us from the very real difficulties of left-handed writing. Shops such as Anything Left-Handed, in Worcester and in Brewer street, London, sell all manner of gadgets to make our lives easier. They include pencil sharpeners, scissors, can openers and clocks that go backwards.
It was my then constituent, the proprietor of Anything Left-Handed in Worcester, Mark Stewart, who first drew my attention to the scale of the problem that faces left-handed children in our schools and to the fact that, given the will, something could easily be done about it. I know that Mr. Stewart’s new representative in the House, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), shares that view.
I have worked with Mr. Stewart and his colleague in London, Lauren Milsom, very closely. We had a hard-won meeting with the Teacher Training Agency. It was hard won because the first stage was to work out where on earth responsibility lay. That happened in the previous Parliament, and letters were batted between Department and agency in a Kafkaesque way. However, we got there in the end, and the then Government decided that responsibility lay with the agency.
At the meeting, we were advised to regard the subject as one for the special educational needs curriculum. I took that advice, but I am no longer convinced that I was rightâ€”I have automatically slipped into handist language; I am no longer convinced that I was correct. Left-handedness is not a disability, although, if children are not given appropriate guidance at the earliest possible age, development can be impaired, confidence lost and opportunities permanently damaged.
I think that left-handedness is an issue of equal opportunity. The discrimination at one level may be less than it was, but only this morning I heard on BBC Hereford and Worcester of a seven-year-old boy whose 1088 school had tried to force him to write with his right hand. I do not think that it used the more aggressive methods of our Victorian forebearsâ€”tying a hand behind the back or on to a chairâ€”but it subtly encouraged him to use his right hand. He could not do it. It was only when he had a new teacher, who understood the problems of left-handedness and helped him to cope with them, that his academic work progressed as it should have done. He was absolutely delighted with what happened after the new teacher took control of his destiny.
The problem is that children who are encouraged to believe that there is something wrong with writing left-handed ask, “Why is what is right for me wrong?” They cannot understand it. In class, that manifests itself in all sorts of ways. Children who have difficulty with their writing, their colouring or their cutting out, because they have been encouraged to regard themselves as right-handed, will try to avoid the activities that cause them difficulty, leading directly to slow development and under-achievement.
Teachers need to be trained to recognise the symptoms of left-handedness, respond to them positively and help those children to use their left hands. Left-handed children who try to use their right hand will often cope, but that is all they will do. They will not excel as they might have done, and their development is delayed. Only if teachers are encouraged to recognise left-handedness early will that be prevented.
Even at sport, where left-handedness can be a distinct advantage, schools can penalise us lefties. Failure to recognise left-handedness with a bat, ball or racquet, can lead children to be encouraged to play against their natural instincts with their right hand. I am left wondering how many Wimbledon champions and fine test cricketers we have lost in the process.
Left-handed pupils need to use different equipment in the classroom, yet in some classrooms in some schools, even the simplest bit of kit, left-handed scissors, are not available. One school recently wrote to Mr. Stewart saying that to provide them would be difficult, because it would confuse the right-handed pupils to have different types of scissors. What about the left-handed pupils who are forced to use equipment that does not suit their natural way of doing things?
Left-handed people often need the mouse for their computer to be on the left hand, not the right hand, side of their screen. It is important that schools lay out information technology rooms so that there is space for the mouse on the left if that is what the child wants. The child may also need to have space for his notes on the left of the computer. As it happens, I have my mouse on the right and my notes on the left, so I take space on both sides. We are all slightly different, and teachers need to be sensitive to that information technology requirement. If schools make that possible, we shall be able to cope as well as our right-handed friends, rather than their having an unfair advantage.
Keeping friends can be a problem. If a left-handed child is seated on the right of a right-handed child, there are frequent clashes of elbows. That can quickly destroy relationships between children and even lead to fights in the classroom. We must ensure that a left-handed child sits on the other side of a shared desk to avoid any clashing of elbows.
1089 Above all, left-handed people need guidance in writing. Smudging and being unable to read what one has written is the chief difficulty that I have encountered, as a result of which I write with an exceptionally uncomfortable and awkward style, right over the topâ€”called by experts the hook style of writing. I am told that I have a classic hook style, which avoids smudging and means that I can read what I have written. However, I find handwriting difficultâ€”it is awkward and uncomfortable, and I avoid it whenever I can. I believe that I was penalised in my examinations because I could not write as fast as right-handed children. Yet there are easy techniques available to help children to write properly. It is all to do with where one positions the paper on the desk, and then one can write comfortably and easily, and the problem goes away.
Despite all that, teacher training guidelines contain no specific reference to left-handedness. If teachers are not trained to deal with these issues, if they are not sensitised to them, they will not be properly aware of the difficulties and be able to ensure that left-handed children are afforded the attention they need.
The central issue is one of equality of opportunityâ€”equal access to equipment, equal standards, and no unnecessary barriers in the way of our development. There is a staggering lack of official information on left-handedness, which has led to much ignorance in the educational establishment. For example, the Department for Education and Employment revealed:The Department does not collect information on what proportion of pupils are left-handed, nor on whether being left-handed has an impact on likely educational achievement.”â€”[Official Report, 17 April 1996; Vol. 275, c. 540.]We are dealing with a large number of children. It is estimated that there are 1.1 million left-handed children in our primary and secondary schools. The effect of co-ordinated action to bring out the best in all pupils will have an impact on all of usâ€”particularly on childrenâ€”in later life and at work.
I had hoped to share with the Minister and the House some detailed personal accounts of the difficulties faced by left-handed children and their parents. Shops like Anything Left-Handed receive a regular stream of letters from people expressing great gratitude for the way in which their children’s lives have been transformed by what those shops are doing to help them realise that there is an answer to the problems. I should be happy to send the Minister moving accounts of the difficulties experienced, if she would find that helpful.
This is not a theoretical problemâ€”it affects thousands upon thousands of our children in our schools every academic year. It is not a party political issue; it is a campaign which I began well before the last general election. I have asked questions of, and corresponded with, Ministers for several years. The problem is getting the Department for Education and Employment to recognise that there is a problem. For example, a letter from the Secretary of State’s private secretary, dated 20 November 1997, stated:It is not felt that left-handed pupils will have significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of the same age, nor will it make it difficult for them to use the education facilities provided locally.1090 That is simply wrong. In the absence of proper organisation and well-thought-through classroom strategies, there are real problems.
The Government could easily deal with the problems. Most of all, I want to hear from the Minister today some acknowledgement that there are problems. That would be a breakthrough and a huge source of encouragement for left-handed campaigners throughout the country. The good news for the Government is that taking action would cost them virtually nothing; it is a zero-cost challenge. The Government should instruct the Teacher Training Agency to ensure that left-handedness is on the teacher training curriculum and that qualified teachers are provided with appropriate guidance.
The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart)â€”herself an enlightened teacher when it comes to left-handednessâ€”told me recently that teachers are taught all kinds of details about the finer points of phonics, which are of no practical use in the classroom, when an hour or so on the identification of left-handed children and how to help them would be of immensely greater value.
The assurances that campaigners seek from the Minister are simple. The first is that, for the first time ever, the issue is being taken seriously by the Government. That would be enormously encouraging. The second is that the Government will take practical action to ensure that schools tackle the challenge of left-handedness.
When I was discussing the matter with my colleagues this morning, we came up with the thought that perhaps it could be part of the standard assessment test process, with teachers being required to indicate whether a child was left or right-handed. That would raise awareness in schools and focus the minds of teachers on the need to think about these issues rather earlier than many do at present.
Thirdly and most important, the teacher training syllabus should include left-handedness. It would not take a great deal of time, and it would be simple to deliver. That suggestion was rejected by the Department most recently in a letter on 27 May, but I hope that we can persuade the Minister to think again.
We need now teachers in the classroom who understand the problems. In that respect, I can conclude on an optimistic note. The Post Office is close to finalising a deal with Anything Left-Handed and the Left-Handers Club of Great Britain to produce a video and wall chart to help current teachers to understand what they can do to help left-handers. The video is being produced on the advice of the Teacher Training Agency, which has offered to assist with its distribution. I am a little surprisedâ€”I must be honestâ€”that production of a piece of mainstream educational training material has had to rely on sponsorship rather than Government funding, but there we are.
The video should be produced quite soon, and I sincerely thank the Post Office for its enlightened sponsorshipâ€”which is genuinely first class. I hope that the Minister will welcome that initiative and commend it to schools, to enhance the prospect of their obtaining the material and applying it in the classroom.
The Government’s reply to the debate will be made by one of their most sympathetic and diligent Ministers. A lot hangs on what she says in the next few minutes. If she does not accept that there is a problem, I really 1091 do not know who will. Today is the day that we lefties demand our rights. I hope that we will not be disappointed.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Estelle Morris)I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) not only on obtaining the debate but on the way in which he has tackled the issueâ€”not only while I have been a Minister at the Department for Education and Employment but during the previous Government’s time in office.
I was interested to hear at the beginning of the hon. Gentleman’s speech that he is an honorary member of the Left-Handers Club. I had not known anyone in the club until I met him, and he has certainly put it on my agenda in a way that no one else has.
I know that the hon. Gentleman sincerely cares about the issue and thinks that it is of real importance to many children in our schools. If he thinks that left-handedness has affected his developmentâ€”I have had a quick chat with the Government Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), who also is left-handed and has concurred with some of the hon. Gentleman’s commentsâ€”the issue must be of concern to the Government. We do not want to pretend that it is not an issue. Today, therefore, I am prepared also to stand up for the rights of left-handed people. The debate centres on how great an issue it is and on exactly what has to be done.
We are accustomed in politics to arguing about left and right, and about the differences between the two, but the hon. Gentleman has put a new gloss on that debate. I wondered briefly whether the Government’s search for a third way might be relevant to this debate, butâ€”after 30 secondsâ€”decided that, of all policy spheres, perhaps only left-handedness does not offer a third way. It really is a debate about left and right, and perhaps about achieving equal rights.
I hope that things have changed. My father was left-handed as a child and was forced to write with his right hand; he has developed the ability to write equally well with either handâ€”he is ambidextrous. The hon. Gentleman gave interesting examples of words that were used to describe left-handed people. I hope that none of them would be used now for that purpose.
I accept that there has been prejudice and discrimination against left-handed people, and a feeling that left-handedness was wrong and unacceptable. It was thought that left-handed people, perhaps like people with a squint in their eye, needed to be treatedâ€”corrective measures had to be taken so that they could be like the rest of world and write right-handed. I hope that we have put those days behind us.
I was sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman’s story about the seven-year-old who was made to write with his right hand. Such a practice in our schools is totally unacceptable, and I hope that head teachers and others would act if a teacher ever made a child use a hand to write uncomfortably.
1092 The list of famous people given by the hon. Gentleman partly defeats his own argument, as he cannot for a minute say that those left-handed people have not aspired to the greatest heights or achieved at the highest levels, or have not taken their place among the good and great.
In the past weekâ€”as I knew that I would have the honour of replying to the debateâ€”I have asked everyone entering my office whether he or she is left-handed or right-handed. Initially, they gave me a strange look asâ€”having come for a discussion on the national curriculum, for exampleâ€”they did not know why they had to answer such a question. Nevertheless, I assure the hon. Gentleman that many people in the Department are left-handed. I am thinking of launching an inquiry into a conspiracy in the Department, whereby only left-handed people have been given the top jobs.
I think that the hon. Gentleman and I can agree that left-handed people have not been held back. As someone who is very keen on watching tennis, I have often wondered why so many tennis finalists, for example, are left-handers.
Left-handedness is an issue, and there is probably a genuine debate about how it should be addressed. I was please to hear the hon. Gentleman say that he no longer felt that it was a special need. He took that line in some of our earlier correspondence. However, I entirely accept that I did not realise the basis of his position. Nevertheless, I would not have advised him to take that line, and I think that he was right to abandon it.
Left-handedness is not a special need, for two reasons. The first is that it is a norm for a group of people and should be as acceptable as other physical or mental characteristics. Labelling would be wrong for those who are left-handed. We do not want to give left-handed people a greater hang-up than they might have already about being in a minority. Labelling sends its own messages.
Secondly, I feel very stronglyâ€”having seen many of those who truly have special educational needsâ€”that left-handed people will always have difficulties in competing for resources or expertise against children with genuine SENs, who require an awful lot of resources. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for helping to establish that we should no longer think of left-handedness as an SEN.
We do not count how many children are left-handed. Moreoverâ€”amazinglyâ€”we do not count how many children have special educational needs. There is subsequently a difficultyâ€”which will not apply to left-handednessâ€”in defining various special educational needs. Left-handed people are not being discriminated against, because those numbers are not being kept.
The hon. Gentleman will see that there is hope in the documents that we published recentlyâ€”building on work set in train by the previous Government; I seek no political edge in the matterâ€”on teacher training, children’s needs and the need to be conscious of children’s differences. I am optimistic, and think that there is a hookâ€”I do not use the word as he didâ€”on which we can hang greater awareness of left-handed children.
We are not terribly prescriptive in any of the documents on standards for qualified teacher status or SEN co-ordinators published by the Department or the Teacher Training Agency. We never say, “This is how you’ve got 1093 to look at dyslexic children or at autism.” None of those conditions is mentioned in any of the documents that we have published.
I cannot promise to start including in documents statements that trainee teachers should be taught about left-handed children. However, I can give the hon. Gentleman hope that embedded in the documents will be instructions to teacher trainers that teachers must be able to identify the needs of individual children and know that children must be dealt with individually.
I expect all teachers to know which children in their classes are left-handed. The hon. Gentleman’s comments on elbows were helpful. Teachers have to know who is left-handed so that they can arrange their classroom and offer children specialist equipment and other help.
The issues of left-handedness have been placed firmly in my mind in the past 12 months, and today’s public debate has reiterated issues raised in the private debate that the hon. Gentleman and I have had. I can give him the undertaking that I will talk to the TTA. I cannot deliver on his request to require all student teachers to be made aware of the problems of left-handedness, but, once we have seen the video produced by the Post Officeâ€”for whose sponsorship I am gratefulâ€”and determine that it is of an acceptable quality, we shall be happy to distribute it to all providers of initial teacher training. I am sure that he will be happy to accept that caveat. Perhaps that will be a first step in putting the issues in the minds of the publicâ€”as he and his former constituent have put the issue in my mind.
In my discussions with those who have influence in the matter and who train teachers, I am prepared to ensure that left-handedness is not thought of as a special condition, as part of the SEN agenda or as something peculiar or odd. We should ensure that all teachersâ€”in their work in the classroom of identifying the special characteristics of each of our childrenâ€”bear in mind the fact that left-handedness is an important facet of some children and must be taken into account in planning lessons.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire for drawing the matter to my attention. As someone who writes very badly, though with my right hand, I had not given proper thought to it before. By correspondence and in his speech today, the hon. Gentleman has enabled me to give it more thought. If that helps children and raises standards, the debate will have been worth while.