When Neville and Brenda Brown first met in the 1950s, they were both students in Staffordshire - he was reading English and philosophy at Keele University and she was at teacher-training college.
More than 60 years on, the couple, both aged 83, are still going strong as they continue to run Maple Hayes Dyslexia School in Lichfield, which Dr Neville Brown founded in 1981.
One of the foremost experts in dyslexia, Dr Brown wanted to set up an educational institution that would enable dyslexic children to learn in a way that is beneficial to them.
Using a bank loan, he launched Maple Hayes and it was one of the first schools to become approved by the then Department for Education and Science under Mary Warnock’s 1981 Education Act. And working alongside him since then is his wife Brenda.
The school caters for pupils aged seven to 17 with dyslexia and specific learning difficulties and they all learn using a unique learning system devised by Dr Brown, which is an alternative to the mainstream phonics system that many dyslexics find difficult to understand. His system, known as the ‘Morphological approach’, breaks words down into segments of meaning which are then assigned pictorial icons. These help pupils to understand, read and spell the words.
More than 1,000 students have gone through their doors since it began - many of whom have gone on to attain university degrees and even doctorates - and even though the school is now headed by their son, Dr Daryl Brown, Neville still works seven days a week.
His working day often starts at 6am and he can often be found writing assessments and preparing reports on behalf of youngsters who want to attend the school. Utilising joinery skills learned from his father, he still designs and makes desks and furniture for the classrooms that suit the school’s style of learning.
And Brenda, who trained as a home economics teacher and reached head of department, also continues to play an active role in the school. Since the beginning, she has worked hard to ensure the school thrived, even helping to build the extension at the school which has become the main teaching block, tending to the 20 acres of grounds and decorating. She has also worked as a cook in the school kitchen and still works as bursar.
They’ve both fixed the roof, done their own decorating and tiling and even before they opened the school, the pair oversaw the building of their first home together. It’s not surprising that they ascribe their active minds and bodies to their longevity in the work environment.
“We still have our mental faculties,” says Neville. “In part this is down to still being involved with the children, working on the academic side and the practical side. Hopefully we won’t lose them for a bit yet. We’re both 83, but we don’t think about it at all.”
“We work together and have have done from from the very beginning,” says Brenda. “We just do what we can see needs doing. We have to accept the fact that neither of us will be here forever, but we have to set it up so that it [Maple Hayes School] goes on. We’ve recently taken on a new school manager to help with the administration, for example.”
Key to the success of Maple Hayes School is that Dr and Mrs Brown have never sought to profit from the fee-paying school. They have always been committed to reinvesting in the school and its infrastructure for the good of the students, most of whom have their fees paid for by the local authority.
It’s not been an easy ride for the couple - when they first moved in in the winter of 1981, the place flooded after the old pipes burst. In those early years, they spent £15,000 a year on heating bills alone - ensuring the radiators were switched off as soon as each child left to save money. But the couple has, in recent years, invested in greener alternatives and it now benefits from ground-source heating and solar roof panels to bring the bills down.
“We’ve never taken a huge income,” says Brenda. “The more we put into the business, the more children can be helped.”
It’s a philosophy that has worked for them and the youngsters who attend the school. This year (2018), 100% of pupils secured eight or more GCSEs, with 44% of them achieving at least a grade 4 (a standard pass that is equivalent to a C) in English - the subject that has proven to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks throughout their academic career.
50% of Year 11 pupils conquered maths with grade 4 or higher, while two pupils at the school achieved the highest possible grade - grade 9 (equivalent to an A*) - for their art and design GCSE.
For more information about Maple Hayes Dyslexia School visit: dyslexia.school.
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