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A few years ago Bambi Gardiner’s daughter was struggling at school due to her dyslexia. She was anxious to get into a certain secondary school, but her grades were not where they needed to be for her to pass the common entrance exam.
Just a few weeks before the exam, she had a test on the Battle of Hastings. Bambi asked her about William the Conqueror and her daughter looked at her as if she didn’t know what she was talking about. Bambi used Playmobile to create a visual representation of the battle. The next day her daughter could still remember all the details.
Bambi decided to use the same system for all the subjects her daughter needed to revise. She got the grades she needed. Her friends asked how she did it and Bambi, who had been working for her husband’s print laminating business and whose backgrounds is in PR and marketing, decided to see if she could work it up into a concept.
That concept was to break subjects down into topics for children with dyslexia and other special educational needs. “One of the problems my daughter had for her revision was that there was only one revision book per subject and there were so many pages and too much text in them. Our topic-based packs are much shorter and closely linked to the syllabus,” she says.
The packs are full of images and colour, laid out in a clear format. Not only are they short, but they use bulletpoints and easy-to-understand words and sentences. Each pack has an active learning game and question and answer flashcards. Pupils also get a Write Your Own Notes book to complete.
They were created in collaboration with the head of learning support at a local college, Hurstpierpoint College. Oaka Books launched nine history topic packs for Key Stage Three at the TES SEN show in October 2013. “There was nothing like it on the market,” says Bambi. It was the first time teachers had seen it and the feedback was good.
Oaka Books now works with six different teachers from Hurstpierpoint College who write all the material. At the Educational Resources Awards in 2015 it was shortlisted for Best Secondary Product. Many of its products have also recently been endorsed by the Independent Schools Examination Board.
Bambi has promoted the book at education exhibitions and through recommendations from schools to parents. Most of her attention in the last years has been on producing products. Because she is very aware that Oaka is the only company producing such resources she has felt under pressure to produce as many as quickly as possible before a bigger organisation realises the potential it represents.
So far Oaka has produced more than 50 topic packs and a digital version is out later this year. All are aimed at KS3 pupils, but the digital version may extend to KS4. “We felt it was important to get KS3 nailed first,” says Bambi. One of the main targets has been private and international schools, but in the last year it has started to be used in state schools. “It’s frustrating,” says Bambi, “because we know it could be useful for at least 20% of pupils.”
She has been boosted by lots of emails from parents and children. “Parents have told us our products have made all the difference in their children’s common entrance exams. One girl said she didn’t understand science before she read the packs and now she does,” says Bambi.
Bambi adds that in the last few years there has been greater awareness of children’s different learning styles and that some have a more visual learning style than others. While SEN teachers are very good at supporting children with more visual learning styles, she says that a lot of visual-based teaching materials are not linked to the curriculum and that other teachers are not trained in it, even though it could help many of their pupils.
For Bambi, Oaka Books is more than a full-time job, but she says she loves it and feels she “makes a difference”. She works mainly in a corner of her husband’s Portsmouth factory and has three people working alongside her full time. She started with freelancers, many of whom had some form of learning difficulty so have a good knowledge of their market, and her mum, an artist, did the first 1,500 illustrations. “It’s a real family business,” she says, “and we have funded it ourselves.”
Bambi’s daughter is now 17 and has done her GCSEs, getting good grades. “She had been written off, but it shows that if kids are given the tools they need they can achieve,” says Bambi. “I get tears in my eyes when I read some of the feedback we get.”