Aston 50th Anniversary: Michael Thomson Q&A

50 Aston Greats: Dr Michael Thomson

Dr Michael Thomson

Dr Michael Thomson joined Aston University as a postgraduate in 1970 where he worked alongside Margaret Newton on what would become the Aston Index: a ground-breaking test for Dyslexia. He is a Chartered Educational Psychologist and for 27 years was the Principal of East Court, a leading specialist school for Dyslexic children. He has been involved with Dyslexia and specific learning difficulties for 35 years as a researcher, academic and teacher, and is both an Associate Fellow of British Psychological Society and a Fellow of International Association of Research into Learning Difficulties.

How did you first become involved with Aston University?

I came up to Aston in 1970 to do a Masters degree in Applied Psychology. That’s how I met Margaret Newton [pictured, bottom right] - she was the course tutor at the time and I was interested in doing some work with children’s reading, which had been a project that I’d done as an undergraduate. So I did my Masters dissertation with Margaret as my supervisor, and some of the things we worked on then would eventually became the Aston Index.

What is the Aston Index?

The Aston Index arose out of Margaret’s observations of children who had difficulties with reading, writing and spelling that could not be explained by other factors such as low ability or home or behavioural background. She put together a list of observational criteria, which she then thought that she’d like to be made more widely available to teachers, because she had been seeing many children in her child guidance clinics who were struggling with reading. She felt that if only she could have got them earlier and taught them appropriately when they were younger, it would have been a lot better. Eventually she got some research money, which was Cadbury’s in the first instance, and meanwhile, I went off and did some other work, including teaching, and I came back in 1972 to develop the Index. The term Aston Index came from Professor Singleton who was the Head of the Department of Applied Psychology at the time. The Index was a very new idea. In those days if children struggled with reading, the child guidance clinics would send them to a psychiatrist (if it was a behavioural issue) or an educational psychologist (if they had low ability) or a social worker (if they had family problems). The professionals in those days were very closed - they had all the skills and tests - teachers didn’t. So the idea was to give teachers the ability and the toolkit to assess the children in their class. Nowadays it’s accepted that teachers do the testing, but when the Index was published, Margaret used to get a lot of letters saying “Why are you publishing this? Teachers should not be allowed to do testing, it should be psychologists only.”

View the Aston Index

View the Aston Index

View an extract from Dyslexia: The Aston Perspective

View an extract from Dyslexia: The Aston Perspective

What is your fondest Aston memory?

I can remember being interviewed for the Masters degree. Margaret was a really warm, kind person but she had this gimlet eye - she sort of pinned me with her eyes and said “How do you think you’re going to do on this course?” She asked me some very difficult questions. Once the research unit got going it was just the most exciting place to be. In those days only Aston and Bangor University were doing any work on Dyslexia, so it was very cutting-edge. That was exciting but at the same time it was very anxiety-provoking because we had a lot of criticism and people saying “There’s no such thing as Dyslexia”, but at the same time we had teachers endlessly coming to the Unit and asking “Why is this child failing at reading?” 

Gradually, as the team developed, it became a really fun place to be - Margaret was just a great person to work with. I can remember doing the Index research - testing kids at five years old and sitting on infant chairs every day of the week for about half a term. That was quite hard work. The idea of clinical work - children coming in for assessments - is still carried on today [at the Aston Brain Centre]. The whole notion of the interaction between research and practice was really important and the philosophy that Margaret had, looking at the cognitive side of Dyslexia, has also continued at the University. There’s absolutely no question that Aston shaped my life. I could have stayed on, but I founded a school for Dyslexic children, and that and now my Educational Psychology Service been my life for 30 years since then. That was as a direct result of being at Aston and being at the Dyslexia Unit. And all of the children who have been helped as a result of Dyslexia awareness due to Aston's research, then directly by my school, and that have  identified by the Aston Index - that is Margaret’s legacy.

What is your best advice to today’s graduates?

My advice is to go on a course that gives you a placement year option. I find that if you’ve done a third year out, you get jobs. It’s so important. If you’re becoming an educational psychologist, do some voluntary work in a nursery, in a school - get as much experience as you can with children of different ages and educational skills because that’s what you’ll need on your courses. The other advice is to have fun at university - try out all the different societies to find out about yourself and choose a course you will enjoy!