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CEO's Blog

Andy Cook, CEO at Helen Arkell

17 November 2017

I think there are probably times in every CEO’s life when you have to pretend to be a grown up, and this week has been one of those weeks. 

The thing is, it’s budget-setting time, and having come into the charity a month ago, the pressure’s on to get up to speed with everything quickly in order to set plans and budgets for the year, that are meaningful and well thought through. In actual fact I joined the team with two months of the year having already gone and ten months remaining so the pressure’s even more on. And if that makes no sense to you, as you are already thinking about Christmas and today’s Black Friday deals, you have to bear in mind that our annual cycle follows the academic year, and therefore starts in September and ends next August. 

Just to complicate things, this is also the time of year when we wrap up all our recording of the last academic year and produce our annual report, which details how things went both operationally and financially. It’s the time when we open our doors to the auditors to have a thorough examination of everything, from which the report will be drawn up, and published. It would be wrong of me to pre-empt their work, but it is already apparent that from an operational perspective, we succeeded in helping over 1,000 people with dyslexia last year, as well as training another cohort of teachers to go back into their schools with additional qualifications for the support of their pupils with dyslexia. 

So what does that mean my week actually looked like, you may wonder? Lots of meetings in a pin stripe suit and bowler hat? Well, sort of. Although jeans is fine in my world. (I don’t look good in hats). Monday was all about the finances, in meetings at Cobham motorway services with our treasurer trustee Gary, and Donna our finance bod. (Gary lives in Kent so Cobham is half way from our Surrey centre). Before finalising budgets for this year it’s important to have a good look at how last year went, and draw up plans for the new year accordingly. The main news, however, was that Donna and I had hot chocolate while Gary had a cappuccino and a ham roll. 

Tuesday was then all about our fundraising plans, looking at what’s achievable this year. To help us with this, expert Isobel joined Sam and me, to draw up a plan of action that will hopefully ensure that we can help even more people with dyslexia next year. The more money we can raise, the more people we can help. It’s pretty much as simple as that. 

Once you have a good idea of the amount of money that is likely to be available, the next step is to get the operational team to set plans for making best possible use of it, to fulfil our charitable mission. Our specialist assessors, dyslexia coaches and expert teachers are headed up by our Yvonne and Katherine who have been working in the field of dyslexia and specific learning requirements for many many years, (although they are both still 21, they tell me). So they know all about making operational plans. 

Then yesterday we were ready to put the first draft of the whole plan together, after considering all the things we would need. Our most important resource are our people: all our Helen Arkell specialist assessors, educational psychologists, our coaches and ‘skills-builders’, and professional teachers, because these are the team who will be directly helping, advising and supporting all those people with dyslexia who will come through our doors this year. Coordinating this activity is a big job, ensuring that everything runs smoothly with over 1,000 assessments and coaching sessions taking place. Which is where the back room staff come into their own, quietly and efficiently getting the job done. People like Gill and Claire, Julie and Samantha, Tracy and Donna. And when I say back room staff, I also mean front room staff, as Alice and Sarah man the phones and reception, and act as the first port of call for most of our clients. They also supervise the children when they are playing with the Lego in reception. (They also supervise the CEO when he is playing with the Lego in reception).

It’s a big team effort, and today my senior managers will get together with me, to check that we’ve thought of everything. There will of course be minor tweaks to the plan, but we should be ready to present everything to the board of trustees in ten days’ time. And the various sub committees of the trustees have already been giving valuable and expert input, bringing lots of professional skills from the world of business management, finance and HR, so they have been very much involved. 

In between times this week, I’ve managed to sit in on a few lectures on dyslexia, given by our brilliant teachers. On Monday Gilly was teaching all those parents whose children have been found to have a degree of dyslexia. And I managed to catch some of Tory’s lecture to specialist teachers later in the week. She was talking about the extraordinary resilience that is frequently developed by people who live their lives with dyslexia. Resilience to keep finding ways to make progress, even if barriers are put in the way. And resilience is probably one of the biggest assets to have in your toolbox, when making your way through life. 

Then just when you thought the week was over, it isn’t. We will reconvene on Saturday, at Weydon School, with over 100 delegates to hear our latest guest speaker, Dr Susie Nyman, talking about how to make learning fun and memorable. And as if that wasn’t exciting enough, our Sharon and Sam (that’s our ‘shop Sam’, as opposed to our ‘fundraising Sam’) will be raffling a brilliant Christmas hamper which is full of all sorts of Christmas goodies that have been kindly donated. So somebody will be going home with a smile on their face. 

It’s been a busy week. Let’s reconvene next week, and do it all again!

I look forward to updating you


10 November 2017

As I write this I’m half way through my fourth week at Helen Arkell and have learned lots more about the world of dyslexia and how this charity was set up back in 1971. 

It all started on Monday, as all the best weeks tend to do. On this particular Monday I found myself up in London (again). I was with Jilly, the chair of trustees at Helen Arkell who, like all charity trustees, is a volunteer. There were many other things she could have been doing, but instead Jilly took the day off work to kindly accompany me to somewhere near Green Park, where she introduced me to Brendan from the organisation CReSTeD (The Council for the Registration of Schools Teaching Dyslexic Pupils). 

Contrary to common belief, many charities work together, and as the new boy at Helen Arkell, it was important for me to meet Brendan who chairs the CReSTeD charity. They effectively accredit schools that make special provision for pupils with dyslexia or other specific learning difficulties. In his day job, Brendan is Headmaster of Ellesmere School in Shropshire, which was the school that first led the way in this field. So I learned much from Brendan about the background of the dyslexia movement in the UK. We will be working together, not least because Helen Arkell houses CReSTeD’s only employee, who coordinates the Register from her office just down the corridor from mine. 

On Tuesday the learning curve continued, as I felt greatly honoured to meet with Peter Arkell, whose mum Helen set up the charity in 1970, along with fellow pioneers Elisabeth Waller and Joy Pollock. Peter is passionate about this charity, and not only because it bears the name of his mum, who still lives nearby. Peter reminisced about the history of the charity, and how his mum was determined not just to support people with specialist help but would also address bigger issues such as their confidence. As Helen herself said (and I quote from page 11 of Helen’s inspirational biography The Spellbinder):

“And when you think you’re stupid it not only affects your school life, your confidence gets a big knock. Since I’ve come to understand dyslexia I’ve felt much the most important thing is not the reading or spelling but the knock to the confidence.”

Throughout this week I have kept bumping into people in our team who are dedicated to building people’s confidence. That’s what Glynis does, particularly specialising with helping adults who are knocked because of their dyslexia. She has worked with several people today, either here at the Centre or through skype calls to people living elsewhere across the UK. All with the aim of helping them develop skills for life. And building confidence. Likewise Vicki, Sheila, Claire, Emma and Sara have all been working with children this week, again building confidence and helping people to understand what’s causing some of their difficulties. Above all, understanding that ‘you are not alone’.  

It’s a dedicated team and we all have the aim of making life better for people who come through our doors. If you would like to come and meet us, we are holding a Christmas Drinks evening on Wednesday 13 December. All welcome. Just register here. Meanwhile I hope you’ve booked your place for next weekend’s course for teachers of all age-groups and for parents too (18th Nov). I’m really looking forward to it! Just click here for more info.

If you’d like an inspirational read, I recommend you buy a copy of Helen’s biography, The Spellbinder, from our shop. (Only £3.99!). Again I quote:

“The Spellbinder is not only a success story, but one with thousands of happy endings for those who have learned from Helen to cope with their own dyslexia”.

And if you want to know why Helen was known as the Spellbinder, you’ll find out on page 18.

I look forward to updating you again next week


3 November 2017

So there I was, sitting on the train, minding my own business and wondering what we were going to eat for tea, when the lady opposite suddenly said “Excuse me, you’ve just sent me an email.”

‘Oh my goodness,’ I thought (or words to that effect), ‘what have I done?!’ My mind was racing, thinking of how on earth I could have mistakenly blue-toothed an email to a random stranger. I started sweating profusely at the thought of what trade secrets I might have mistakenly given away. And then all became clear.

It transpired that the lady is a friend of ours, and has signed up to receive our monthly newsletters. It just so happened that our October latest issue pinged through on her phone just at the moment that she was sitting on a train opposite a man with a name badge on, declaring himself to be Andy Cook from Helen Arkell. We had a great chat all the way to London, where I heard about her personal interest in dyslexia and by the time we arrived at Waterloo she was even considering doing some fundraising for us. As I sit writing this, I hear that she has completed our application form to run the London Marathon in aid of Helen Arkell. How brilliant is that?!

And in case you’re wondering how we would make use of donations like this, it’s all about enabling people to access our services who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it. Just this week I have received letters from various people, explaining how their dyslexia is holding them back and becoming a big issue in their life. And how our help could make all the difference. This includes adults who are struggling in the workplace as well as children who are inexplicably underperforming at school, and feeling like failures as a result. If you think you could donate even just £10 to help us do this work, it would be amazing.

Another person who contacted me this week after receiving our newsletter is a writer, playwright and poet. She has had her plays performed on stage, and also leads poetry workshops. And she is dyslexic, describing herself as having overcome all sorts of hurdles to get where she is today. There are so many inspirational people with dyslexia – and the great thing is that they are getting in touch with us here at Helen Arkell to see how we can work together to help more people. Between us we can make a difference!

From all the above, you may get the gist that I am absolutely blown away by this charity! What you may not be aware of is that this is only my third week in post, so I have a lot to learn. To that end, as part of my induction, this week I attended our own training course for parents of dyslexic children, run by Gilly who knows exactly what she’s talking about because she has three dyslexic children of her own, and is a qualified tutor. I sat with 50 other parents who have dyslexic children (my stepson is dyslexic and an ‘old boy’ of Helen Arkell), learning more about the condition and practical ways to help. It’s a great opportunity to get people together who share similar experiences, and becomes a sort of ‘support group’ for people as well as teaching them about dyslexia.

The other great thing was that, when chatting to other parents on the course, it was clear that many people would like to join in the overall Helen Arkell team effort, either by volunteering their time, or acting as advocates for us out in their local communities. That’s absolutely brilliant and a great help. 

And in case you’re wondering why I was on the train (which you probably weren’t), I was heading to London to attend a meeting of the Council for Disabled Children, of which we are members, working alongside other charities such as Barnardo’s or the National Children’s Bureau. There’s a lot that we can do together.

And so my life at Helen Arkell continues. Next week will be week 4. And before you know it, I won’t be the new boy any more.

I look forward to updating you on how next week goes!


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27 October 2017

I’ve just completed my second week in the Helen Arkell team and it’s been quite a learning curve!

As the new kid on the block it was quite daunting to find myself sitting around a table with the combined brains of the country who are leading the way in the field of dyslexia. This was on Wednesday, during my second week at the charity. To my left was Bernadette McLean, former Principal of Helen Arkell, who has contributed so much to the dyslexia movement in the UK in general, and to the Helen Arkell Dyslexia Centre in particular. Sitting on Bernadette’s other side was Sir Jim Rose, author of ‘The Rose Report’ which is one of the most influential publications on dyslexia that has ever been produced. 

As I was introduced to each other member of this committee by turn, it became clear that each is an expert. It was a real honour for me to sit at the same table and ensure that Helen Arkell has a voice at this level, which can potentially influence government thinking.  

Of course while I myself may be new to the world of dyslexia, I am fortunate enough to head up a team that is crammed full of experts at many different levels. Not only experts in dyslexia, but also experts at treating people as individuals and helping them to find their own strategies in life, which will help them play to their strengths. My induction has so far included meetings with three educational psychologists, Gavin, Anna and Chris, who are part of our team, and who are called in to work with some individuals, whereas our team of specialist assessors, tutors and adult coaches may be called in to work with others. The golden rule is to bring in the most appropriate person to work with any given individual.

And in case you think that it must be scary to have an appointment with an educational psychologist or specialist assessor, I can assure you that when you see them making cups of ribena for the child with whom they are working (other fruit squashes are available!), or finding them a packet of biscuits, you really see the personal touch in action. Likewise every care is taken to put adults at their ease. Everybody’s aim here is to help people find a way forward in life that plays to their strengths, and being born with a degree of dyslexia should not be a barrier and can often be a positive advantage provided that you get the right help at the right time. (That’s a big proviso).

About 1 in 10 of us has been born with some degree of dyslexia (dyslexia frequently runs in families). This was brought home to me yesterday when I was in a room of 22 extremely senior and respected individuals, ranging from Crown Court Judges to chief executives, from Lieutenant Colonels to academic research scientists. At least three of these people informed me that they had personal experience of dyslexia and they would love to tell the world that dyslexia needn’t hold you back. Really really inspiring!

Meanwhile I’ve booked my place on Dr Susie Nyman’s course on the morning of Saturday 18th November, at Weydon School, Farnham. This is the course for you if you’d like to learn more about dyslexia in a very fun and entertaining way – whether you’re a teacher of any age group, or a parent, or just wanting to hear more about this fascinating subject. 

Not only that but it’s a bargain at £25, and I would really love to meet you there!! Come and join in the fun by registering here:

Book Dr Susie Nyman on 18 November at Weydon School

I look forward to updating you on whatever next week has in store for me as my induction continues!


20 October 2017

Wow! What a week this has been! My first week in the team at Helen Arkell and my mind is buzzing!

It all started with the really important things in life, like how to work the dishwasher and where to find the replacement loo rolls. By the end of the day I was so at home I was even trusted with learning the locking-up routine, which felt pretty grown-up. Imagine my excitement when our Julie informed me that I was now officially inducted into the out of hours emergency contact rota, which means that if the alarm goes off at 2am it will be me who sorts it out in my pyjamas?!

I then took part in one of Yvonne’s lessons, in which she is teaching the OCR Level 5 syllabus where teachers and learning assistants gain an in depth understanding of dyslexia. This was a brilliant insight into the nitty-gritty of what we do, and I was bowled over by the feedback from the students who are attending the course, saying what a special place we have here at Helen Arkell, and the ‘personal touch’ that we provide is so appreciated.

The other good thing about working here is that there’s always lego to play with! We keep it in reception for the children and you wouldn’t believe the amazing structures that they build. I am sure we have many budding architects coming through our doors! Our dedicated team of specialist dyslexia assessors and educational psychologists are continually working with a steady flow of children, whose parents are seeking some advice and guidance regarding their children’s progress at school.

And it’s not all about children either. Many adults come here too, seeking help. This week we received a lovely heartfelt note from one such person, thanking us for the sensitive and kind way in which their case had been handled by Hedda in this instance.

Then the excitement went up another notch, as I was allowed out to represent the charity at a meeting with a friendly contact in Farnham. (To be fair, I was accompanied on this occasion by Sam, who is a responsible adult and has worked at the charity for many years and therefore knows what she’s talking about). The meeting went well and could result in some nice donations to our cause. Fingers crossed!

At Helen Arkell we are determined to help more people with dyslexia to get the best out of life, and we can only do it with your help. Please help us to do this life-changing work by making a donation, large or small. You really would make my day! Just click below:

Make a donation using Virgin Money Giving

Thank you so much!

I look forward to updating you on life behind the scenes at Helen Arkell as the weeks go by.



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