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One Woman’s Battle: Jo Nolan

One Woman’s Battle: Jo Nolan

As parents we all know how tough it is finding the perfect school, one that suits both parent and child, yet for those with children diagnosed with learning difficulties the search is always infinitely tougher.

Whichschooladvisor met with Jo Nolan to learn more about her her journey across the special educational needs landscape in three countries, and how she found her perfect educational solution right here in Knowledge Village, Dubai.


“Johnny was at a normal Kindergarten back in Northern Ireland,” says Nolan, “but at that transition going into Year-one, we were told he couldn’t go, and we had to get him statemented.”

“At that time, he had already had one diagnosis in Hong Kong where I was told he wasn’t autistic, that he had a language delay.”

“We’d thought, ‘phew’ everything’s OK, it’s just a language delay. You don’t want to suspect, and if you’ve just got a report saying he isn’t, you think Hallelujah… get out the champagne!”

“So we went back home… and were told he couldn’t go to a mainstream school and he was sent off for a second round of assessments.”

Johnny was then enrolled in a school for moderate learning difficulties. However, as the students were predominantly mute, Johnny’s language began to flounder. Jo says, “it was only when I went to collect him and he talked to me, that staff realised he wasn’t mute.”


“That was a dent in my confidence in the school.”

The final crunch came when the class teacher told her, “take him out of here by the grace of God, do what you have to do.”

Jo did, and she hasn’t looked back.



It wasn’t long before Jo heard about a new home-schooling company being set up in Northern Ireland called CEAT- and linked to the Canadian ABA centre WEAP and LEAP in London.

“We were one of the first families to join up,” she says.

Jo says of the time, “taking Johnny out of school and start a home-schooling program was probably the scariest decision we ever made as a family.”

“Just admitting that the schooling we were being offered, just like everyone else was not good enough was a huge step… it felt a bit like going off-piste, and you never know how that’ll turn out….”

“However, it was without a doubt the best decision we’ve ever made. I’m sometimes hit by a cold chill when I remember that we could’ve taken the advice of so many well-meaning people who said we should stick with what we were being offered in school, and thought that we were crazy.”


For the next three years, Johnny worked intensively on the home-schooling programme, yet Jo was still forced to fight, this time for local authority funding. In fact, Jo, (originally a lawyer), sued and won a landmark case against the local education authority who had persistently refused to fund Johnny’s home-schooling.

“I knew for a fact they were funding other families… they just changed the policy… and would pay one but not the other.”

The authorities just kept telling her, “there’s no money for it, off you go… if you don’t like it what we offer, there’s no choice.”

“They told me they had a policy of not paying for home-based -school programmes for children with Autism… so I took it to a judicial review to say the government had an unreasonable unfair and rigid policy in refusing to fund home-schooling programmes for children with autism, which they did, and we won.”

On the basis of this… 10 other families who were also in the process of suing the education board, and 50 families trying to access funding also won; a significant victory for both Jo and Johnny..


At the time, the UK government was also rationing SEN therapies, “so we set up our own OT and Speech and Language centre,” she says.

“So we thought, OK, we can’t get any (therapies), we’ll get our own! The centre went from strength to strength and was at one-point outsourcing to the NHS, however the economic downturn happened and as these services were not funded by the NHS, demand dropped.”

“We had people coming up from Dublin and Cork to try and get it (the services) … so there was obviously a need.”

Between the regular therapies and the strong home-schooling programme, Johnny was flourishing by eight years old. So well, in fact, he was able to transition back into mainstream education, simply with the help of a shadow teacher.


The Move To The UAE

In 2009, the Nolan family moved to Ras Al Khaimah, and Johnny joined RAK English Speaking School, for one academic year.

“We then heard about St Andrews and came to Dubai because we knew we wanted OT and Speech and Language. So he had about a year and a bit there (St Andrews).”

“By that point I had been at home doing ABA home-schooling for so long, doing courses, everything, course on Dyslexia, and realised Johnny had not been diagnosed as Dyslexic as the Autism had got in the way, but I felt he was Dyslexic, so I took more courses on that.”

“Basically every time I hit something I couldn’t get an answer for, I went off and did it myself.”

At St Andrews Nolan applied her Dyslexia knowledge and began assisting with reading support, however, shortly after a year at the school, “St Andrews basically collapsed,” she says.

As the 2012/13 academic year commenced, owner Christopher Reynolds, left the country absconding with the funds.

Fifty-three special needs children were left without a school and most parents were left out of pocket and wondering where to try next.

“As a prototype, it was a good idea (St Andrews) it just expanded into Abu Dhabi, lost a lot of money and the financial crash brought it down,” she says, “but we knew it was going to collapse, I’d been a reading coach and there’d been difficulties with staff salaries for months, (although we did all get paid in the end). At that point we knew we had to jump somewhere.”

Even before the school closed its doors, Jo and Johnny left together with another teacher and 12 other students to what was then K-12 (iCademy).


Jo enrolled Johnny with K-12 in Knoledge Village, where he studied the K-12 American home-schooling materials within the centre.

“K-12 had a really good reading remediation programme called ‘Mark Reading,’ so all the years I had been trying to support the reading, I had made a lot of progress he just hadn’t clicked into fluency.”

“We’d done Toe by Toe phonics, you name it, we’d done everything, but he just got to a point where he was reading at an age of seven… but I just couldn’t get him on any further, but Mark Reading, just flipped it.”

“I became a learning coach (within K-12) with six students all coming out of St Andrews, then one of the other teachers (from St Andrews) brought another six,” says Nolan.

We found ourselves a little enclave upstairs, (in the K-12 centre), at that point we were offing just 4 academic subjects… based on the K-12 programme. We used the grade level which was appropriate… that was the beginning.”

The special needs group at K-12 group grew and as Jo says, “we realised we didn’t want to just offer the K-12 courses, we wanted a balance… so we developed K-12 Plus.

“We were doing the K-12 programme plus other activities, then we got the Asdan stuff, the ‘school’ now utilises a mix of all three.”

The Asdan programme is a UK based curriculum offering programmes and qualifications. Developed in the 1980s, it grew out of research work at the University of the West of England and was formally established as an educational charity in 1991.

“This little group started off doing just the academics of the K-12, then adding in bits and pieces… we’re continually adding in more,” she says.

“Now we have our own space…we have a broader range of ages and we’re still constantly trying to get that blend in academic and appropriate support… adding in a lot of transitional life skills, because we’re not really set up to do vocational… we’re really doing ‘pre-vocational, and we’re looking at transitional I suppose, to independent life.”

“Johnny likes the visual aspect of the K-12 curriculum, the fact he can wear his headphones, he likes that sense of being able to be closely absorbed in what he is looking at on a screen.”

“The maths programme has been very good for him, the Marked Reading has been very good for him,” she says.

“Because of the flexibility of the K-12 programme I have been able to keep him going academically and keep him making progress in a way that people would have given up on at home.”

“Because of his age and because of the restrictions of the curriculum, whereas I can say , “we’ve had enough of American History, we want to move to World History, and we can skip what we feel doesn’t engage him.”

“This is what I would call genuine differentiation. We’re modifying the curriculum and we’re differentiating, we’re looking at what’s going to suit, what’s going to be of interest, and as long as I can make a justified educational reason to do so, people are going to listen and be flexible.”


“At 14 Johnny planned to rule the world,” says Jo, “of course we had to lower his expectations, it took a few years, but now he is more realistic.” Today, at 17, Johnny has plans to work in a coffee shop, and hopes to gain some horse training or riding experience in the future too.

For now though, he still has several more years left at iCademy, and Jo hopes he will continue to work on the academics and life skills, before any definite career decisions need to be made.


Leave A Reply
  1. Vijay says
    October 19, 2016, 8:51 am

    Which school in uae and which curriculum will be aptful for kids having sppech and attention disabilities (spl need children)

    • October 20, 2016, 9:05 am

      HI Vijay,

      Thanks for your message. This is a really tough question to answer as it is very dependent on the exact needs, age and current circumstances of the child.
      Many mainstream schools now have provision for children with mild to moderate learning difficulties and either offer or arrange for external specialists to offer speech and language support.
      However the level of provision does vary from Emirate to Emirate.
      There are also increasingly newer specialist centres opening who can offer support that are not part of the mainstream education system. I am afraid that without knowing more details, I can only provide you with this general information.


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