Reflections on the first Birmingham local network group event on the theme of dyslexia

My career began in Psychology and Mental health nursing, but I have always loved the idea of education and learning, so when I was in my early twenties I did my Further Education (FE) certificate and applied for my first role at a FE college. The role was to develop, deliver and evaluate programmes for students with mental health needs, which I did for seven years. At the same time, I completed training to become a qualified drama therapist and later went on to complete a coaching course. I was blown away by my learning and experience during this course, and as a result, it inspired me to develop my own coaching and training programmes and to go on to train as a parent and teenage coach, as well as completing further training in Organisational Relationship Systems Coaching and supervision coaching.

I wanted to further develop my business more (kNOw Limits), so I ended up leaving the college and spending the next 10-15 years developing my own work within the business. About eight or nine years ago I embarked on a new role with Fircroft College to develop personal development courses. My role is currently part-time, which enables me to continue to develop and work on my own business, which I think is important as it means I am able to bring a lot of skills, energy and expertise to my role as a tutor.


How did you get involved in setting up the first LNG in Birmingham?

Fircroft College encouraged us as professionals to join SET and helped us look at the benefits of being a member, the training that can be provided, competencies, and how we can use the Professional Standards within our own practice, curriculum and development. So, as I do with any opportunity, I thought this was a great idea, as I am a strong believer in the importance of developing the professional aspect of your work, and I think it’s important to have what I call some ‘rigour’ to the work. I applied to become a SET member and within weeks I received an email explaining about how new local networking groups were being set up, with one being requested for Birmingham, and asking if anyone want to apply – so I did – not thinking for one minute that the application would be accepted.

I think part of my enthusiasm to get involved in setting up the Birmingham LNG was because it also supported other things that I enjoy. I love networking and I think it’s important to be working with other partners. I also feel very passionate about FE and learning, as well as engaging with professionals and upskilling so we can be the best that we can be in the field. In terms of FE, bearing in mind I became involved in FE many years ago, I feel it’s always had that second-class citizen status to it in relation to education and training, and that FE is often misrepresented, so part of my aim is to be an advocate for FE. For a lot of people, not only does FE enable them to get back into education and employment, for many students we work with, it literally transforms their life and helps them develop many other personal skills in their personal life, as well as in work and education.


How did you decide what to feature in the event?

Bearing in mind that from receiving the information to becoming a provider to deliver the LNG, we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare the first event, so I was mindful of that. As a team (I have other colleagues supporting me in the process and some are also members of SET) I arranged several meetings. The first thing we did was decide how we were going to collaborate, what we wanted from our own meetings, how that was going to enable us to work together as colleagues, as well as the priorities for the themes.

Some of those themes I had put on the application to facilitate the event, so we looked at those and examined the expertise within our team. Dyslexia was a theme that kept coming up again and again, and as there seems to be a high number of learners who come through the door of the college who have either identified needs with dyslexia, we felt it would be a relevant theme to focus on. Many learners may also have no formal diagnosis of dyslexia, so as they come through the process and begin to look at their own learning needs and assessments, they may find a range of dyslexia needs that start to come to the forefront and are highlighted.


What was the feedback following the first event?

We had three workshops on the night – one explored the range of practical resources, including digital resources, that could support learners. Another workshop looked at mind mapping and using the Cornell Notes system, which was about engaging a multi-sensory approach and enabling practitioners to understand how mind mapping, and the visual impact of it, can enable learners to make attachments to memory, and how it helps their learning in a different way.

We also welcomed Trish Blackham who shared her own challenges of having dyslexia and navigating her way through both the education system and her role as she progressed her way into management. Trish also talked about her experience of having a son with dyslexia and how she has fought for him to gain support as he has gone on to study at university.

I felt we had an eclectic mix of workshops on offer for our attendees and the feedback verbally – and on paper – was all really positive. I was told about how the event helped them to hear others talk about their own personal experiences, how they enjoyed the variety and knowledge of the speakers and the diversity offered. Because some of the speakers had professional knowledge and life experiences that had been brought into the workshop, this was also well received. Practitioners were able to reflect on their own practice and issues they faced with learners. They loved the sharing of new ideas and different applications, as well as the opportunity to network, collaborate with their peers, and understand dyslexia and how to support learners with dyslexia, which was the ultimate aim.


What I learnt from the first event

Running the event was hard work, but it was worth it, and I have learnt a lot that I will take to future events. On a personal note, I learnt to expect the unexpected! For example, we had a power cut for an hour and a half leading up to the event – in the whole area of Birmingham, not just the college. I had to manage my emotions, try and do lots of mindful breathing and be calm, insisting that even if we didn’t have any electricity and lighting, we could still make it happen! Everyone who knows me knows me as ‘Miss Preparation’, so I had planned to give the speakers an hour before the event began to arrive and show them how to use the IT. We still did that, but it was on a bit more of a tight timeline as the power only came on fully about 15 mins before the event started.

I learnt that you can organise and prepare so much, but at the end of the day there are going to be things that are out of our hands and out of control. It was not until I looked at the feedback and saw how much of it was positive that I have been able to put things into perspective – sometimes I focus so much on wanting things to go so well, I can miss some of the learning. Having some breathing space to reflect on the event was important.

We’ve already got a speaker lined up for our event, which will be on the theme of social justice. Jane Williamson from the Free Thinking Programme will be explaining more about how the programme helps people who have experienced exploitation, such as trafficking. The programme is also about enabling people to be able to access learning in education as a way of trying to help people change and transform their lives through education, work and training. There are other areas of social justice we are looking at covering at this event, but these are to be confirmed. This year marks 110 years of Fircroft College being established, so I feel that having the special justice theme is timely and appropriate.

I am looking forward to being able to establish and develop the events more as time goes on. I would also like to create more opportunities with SET itself, because ultimately being a part of SET and LNG has created a level of energy that I had perhaps lost along the way with the other things I do. Normally I am a very energised as a person and passionate about a lot of things, so this has given me some refreshed renewed energy for learning, for FE, education, and for supporting practitioners in the field. Ultimately, if you are supporting and enabling practitioners to develop their practice, you are also supporting the learners and the colleagues as well – so hopefully it has a ripple effect.


Mandy Gutsell is the founder of kNOw Limits and is based in the West Midlands. Mandy is a member of the International Coach Federation (ICF), the most rigorous independent professional body for coaches worldwide. Mandy is also a member of the AC (The Association for Coaching) and facilitates monthly Co-Coaching forums for coaches wanting to develop their skills further. She is a qualified Mental Health Nurse with a BSc hons in Mental Health Studies, specialising in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. She works at Fircroft College delivering courses on Personal Development and Volunteering for Work skills. This includes courses such as Coaching, Mentoring, Mental Health Awareness and Loss and Bereavement. Mandy is passionate about supporting other teachers and trainers to develop their practice.