Wales school cash reserves drop ‘should ring alarm bells’

October 20, 2017 Posted by Josef Shomperlen

School pupils (generic)

Cash reserves held by schools in Wales have dropped by 28% since last year which “should ring alarm bells”, a teaching union has warned.

A new report showed schools have total reserves of £46m, equivalent to £102 per pupil – down from £64m in 2016.

The National Association of Head Teachers Cymru said schools are using reserves to “plug” funding shortfalls.

The Welsh Government said it has “challenged” councils to ensure schools are making good use of their funding.

Last year, Education Secretary Kirsty Williams said she was “shocked” by how high some schools’ financial reserves were.

She had told schools who might have been “hanging on to that money for a rainy day” that: “It’s raining”.

The latest report, published by the Welsh Government, showed reserves in primary schools accounted for £40m or 88% of the total.

Anglesey had the highest level of reserves per pupil at £223 while Denbighshire had the lowest with a deficit of £70 per pupil – and was the only area with a negative reserve.

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Welsh Government

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The report looks at cash reserves held by schools up until 31 March

The report does not specify what the money has been spent on but councils said cash reserves could be used, for example, to invest in additional resources, staff or capital projects.

A NAHT Cymru spokesman said schools sometimes build up reserves for “capital developments that simply cannot be supported by local authorities” due to cuts.

“The fact that overall surpluses have fallen by almost 30% in a single year should ring alarm bells,” the spokesman said.

“It suggests that schools are having to use reserves to plug a shortfall in basic school funding.

“This is an unsustainable situation and confirms that our call for sufficient, equitable and transparent school funding can no longer be ignored.”

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Getty Images

An Anglesey council spokesman said it was “prudent financial management” for schools to ensure they have “adequate” reserves.

“The authority is aware that Anglesey primary schools hold the highest level of reserves per pupil and have been working with schools and governing bodies to ensure that the best use is made of the reserves held,” he added.

“As the pressure on local government budgets increases, school budgets will invariably fall in real terms and we expect school reserves to reduce over the next two to three years.”

‘Protection for schools’

A Welsh Government spokesman said: “Whilst the overall level of reserves has decreased, and some schools are making better use of their reserves, there remains a varied picture with some schools still maintaining higher balances of more than 10% of their total delegated expenditure.

“We will be working with councils over the coming months to see what further can be done to ensure all schools are making best use of the resources available to them.

“The draft budget provides protection for schools. This includes prioritising £170m over two years to enable local government to maintain frontline schools delivery and £40m extra capital to accelerate investment in new schools and colleges.”

The Welsh Local Government Association and Denbighshire council have been asked to comment.

Article source:

10 fines at the dentist… that weren’t fine

October 20, 2017 Posted by Josef Shomperlen

dentalImage copyright

When dentists warned that tens of thousands of people were being unfairly fined £100 after a visit to the surgery – it prompted a big response from the audience.

They described their distress at getting mistakenly caught up in a system of penalties intended to catch fraudsters getting free treatment.

They talked of their confusion over forms and complained that fines had been applied without adequate checks.

The NHS Business Services Authority is looking for ways to improve information and simplify forms.

“I am most distraught because I received a penalty charge notice two days ago. I have worked most of my life and paid my NHS contributions. After suffering from breast cancer, the aftercare treatment had a horrendous effect on me, especially on my teeth. So I contacted the emergency dentist and on arrival I was asked for my NHS exempt card, which I provided.

“I received one filling – and weeks later the penalty charge notice came through the door. I am being fined £100.

“As I am on a low income and could not afford to pay the fine, I have been given the option to pay over a period of months. I am upset to the extreme to have received this fine.”

“The same thing happened to my son a couple of months ago. My son is a vulnerable adult with Asperger’s syndrome. He was sent a letter saying he had claimed exemption, but in fact we had paid for his dental care in full.

“I had to copy my receipts for the payment and go to the dentist’s surgery to get a confirmation receipt as well as writing a cover letter.

“What a waste of time and resources for all concerned. Fortunately the penalty was withdrawn, but there was no hint of an apology in the letter for the stress and worry their mistake had caused.”

“I no longer go to the dentist after receiving three penalty notices of £100 – the last two after already providing the evidence required. Normal citizens being treated as fraudsters has become normalised.”

“This happened to my sister. She has a learning disability and completed the same form she had always completed, saying that she received a disability benefit and was entitled to free treatment.

“She subsequently received the £100 fine and, not understanding why this had been received, she asked me to investigate.

“I wrote to the chief executive of the NHS agency expressing how immoral and badly managed the system was – running the risk that it would discourage people from looking after their health.

“I pointed out that it penalised the most vulnerable people in society and ultimately me – as I had to pay the fine and waste time working out what had gone on. I received a reply explaining that they were unable to correspond with me, even though they accepted my cheque.”

“My daughter is severely disabled and wheelchair bound. She has full time carers, but I handle all her paperwork. She is in receipt of the higher rate disability living allowance and enhanced employment support allowance (EESA).

“On her last trip to the dentist, they asked me again what was her entitlement to free treatment and I ticked the box for EESA. What I had failed to understand was that there are two types of EESA and only one type gives entitlement to free dentist care.

“Several weeks later, we received a penalty notice informing us of a fine of £100 plus the original dental costs of over £50.

“How could I have checked something that I didn’t know about? There is no way she could have paid the penalty out of her benefits, so I had to.”

“I am all for abusers being made to pay for NHS services when not eligible.

“But an honest mistake filling out a simple form at a dental surgery should have some flexibility or subsequent appeal or checks, so as not to penalise people in such a harsh manner.”

“My adult dependent son has just been fined £100 because nobody knew what box to tick at the dentist.

“The receptionist was extremely unhelpful, and I paid for the treatment (a check-up). I then rang the NHS refund helpline, and they told me I should have ticked a particular box, despite the receptionist arguing against it.

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Dentist Charlotte Waite says it is distressing when so many wrong fines are being issued

“After telling my dentist practice manager what the NHS helpline had said, I was refunded my money.

“My son then received a letter fining him £100, despite having no income and being aged 19 and still in full-time further education.

“How are patients supposed to navigate a system that is faulty? I have appealed and refused to pay the fine.”

“I feel disgusted and embarrassed. I have been assumed as a fraud by the dentist and the NHS – due to them not, maybe, checking their paperwork, not asking me. It doesn’t just affect vulnerable people.”

“My wife has a severe brain trauma injury, which impacts on her mental capacity to understand simple issues.

“She commenced dental treatment at our NHS dental surgery and afterwards received a bill for £ 244 together with a £100 fine. I immediately responded, in sheer panic. I refused to pay the fine as she had done nothing wrong.

“The question was asked by the dentist if she was receiving benefits. What about employment support allowance (ESA)? Yes, she is in receipt of ESA. In that case your dental treatment will be free. It transpires that there are two types of ESA, and my wife’s does not entitle her to free dental treatment.

“I received a call from a debt-recovery company, giving me an additional 30 days to provide medical evidence of my wife’s brain injury.

“Regardless, we will not be paying this fine and if necessary will defend this in court.

“My wife together with all her other issues is aware of an impending fine but doesn’t quite understand why. This in my opinion is sheer bullying tactics and these people must be challenged.

“It’s having a severe impact on my wife and I. This matter is really taking its toll.”

“I am now reluctant to arrange any more appointments having lost my job two months ago and not being in the position to risk getting fined again. The system is obviously flawed.”

The NHS Business Services Authority says: “We continually review our data-matching process and make improvements where possible.

“We’re also working with various partner organisations to educate patients and healthcare professionals on the rules around eligibility for free dental treatment, to reduce the number of incorrect claims caused by confusion or lack of awareness.”

Article source:

Oxbridge uncovered: More elitist than we thought

October 20, 2017 Posted by Josef Shomperlen

Cambridge punting

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Cambridge is ranked one of the top universities globally

The sheer dominance by the top two social classes of Oxford and Cambridge University admissions has been revealed in newly released data.

Four-fifths of students accepted at Oxbridge between 2010 and 2015 had parents with top professional and managerial jobs, and the numbers have been edging upwards.

The data, obtained by David Lammy MP, also shows a “shocking” regional bias, with more offers made to Home Counties pupils than the whole of northern England.

Mr Lammy said he was “appalled to discover” Oxbridge is actually moving backwards in terms of elitism.

Unveiling the data, covering offers to students in England and Wales in the years 2010 to 2015, he described the universities as the “last bastion of the old school tie” and highlighted stark regional divisions.

Nationally about 31% of people are in the top two social income groups. They are the doctors, the lawyers, the senior managers.

The data reveals these top two social classes cleaned up in terms of places, with their share of offers rising from 79% to 81% between 2010 and 2015.

This was despite both universities spending £5m each a year on efforts to cast the net wider for students, according to official figures.

The data on admissions by region provided by the universities themselves showed:

  • More than a quarter of Cambridge offers went to eight local authority areas
  • Just under a quarter of Oxford offers went to eight local authority areas
  • London and south-east England received 48% of offers from both Oxford and Cambridge
  • The Midlands received 11% of Oxford offers and 12% of Cambridge offers
  • The North West, the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber between them received 15% of Oxford offers and 17% of Cambridge offers.

The University of Cambridge made nearly 2,953 offers to four home counties, and 2,619 offers to the whole of the north of England.

Whereas Oxford made 2,812 offers to applicants in five home counties and 2,619 to students in the whole of northern England.

Applications were, however, significantly higher from both the counties surrounding London and around the universities themselves.

‘Serious inequalities’

A spokesman for Cambridge said its admissions were based on academic considerations alone, adding that the greatest barrier to disadvantaged students was poor results.

“We currently spend £5m a year on access measures leading to 190,000 interactions with pupils and teachers.”

An Oxford spokesman said: “We absolutely take on board Mr Lammy’s comments, and we realise there are big geographical disparities in the numbers and proportions of students coming to Oxford.

“On the whole, the areas sending few students to Oxford tend also to be the areas with high levels of disadvantage and low levels of attainment in schools.

“Rectifying this is going to be a long journey that requires huge, joined-up effort across society – including from leading universities like Oxford – to address serious inequalities.”

Mr Lammy said the scale of the regional divide went far beyond anything he could have imagined.

He accused Oxbridge of failing to live up to its responsibilities as national universities, saying: “Oxbridge take over £800m a year from the taxpayer – paid for by people in every city, town and village.

“Whole swathes of the country – especially our seaside towns and the ‘left behind’ former industrial heartlands across the North and the Midlands are basically invisible.

“If Oxbridge can’t improve, then there is no reason why the taxpayer should continue to give them so much money.”

Mr Lammy added: “Whilst some individual colleges and tutors are taking steps to improve access, in reality many Oxbridge colleges are still fiefdoms of entrenched privilege, the last bastions of the old school tie.”

He called for a centralised admissions system to be introduced at the universities and for Oxbridge to communicate more directly with talented students by writing to all straight A students to invite them to apply.

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By Branwen Jeffreys, BBC News education editor

We should all care who goes to our top universities because they end up running the country.

Less than 1% of the adult population graduated from Oxford or Cambridge, but the two universities have produced most of our prime ministers, the majority of our senior judges and civil servants, and many people in the media.

So surely it’s good news that more of their students are from state schools?

As this research shows, that’s only part of the story. The home counties of southern England are significantly wealthier than the north. You just have to look at how many children are from families earning so little their children qualify for free school meals.

In Buckinghamshire it’s just 5.5% of pupils, in Surrey 6.8%. Travel north to Middlesbrough and it reaches 27.9%, and Rochdale 20.5%

Get news from the BBC in your inbox, each weekday morning

Are you a student at Oxford or Cambridge from a poorer background or an under-represented region? Let us know about your experiences. Email

Please include a contact number if you are willing to speak to a BBC journalist. You can also contact us in the following ways:

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Article source:

Cambridge Uni students get Shakespeare trigger warnings

October 19, 2017 Posted by Josef Shomperlen

Trevor Peacock (l) as Titus and Hugh Quarshie as Aaron in a BBC production of Titus Andronicus

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Violence in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus might be “upsetting”, students have been warned

Shakespeare contains gore and violence that might “upset” you, Cambridge University students have been warned.

The “trigger warnings” – red triangles with an exclamation mark – appeared on their English lecture timetables.

Lectures including Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus contain “discussion of sexual violence, sexual assault”, the BBC’s Newsnight programme has learned.

The university said the warnings were “at the lecturer’s own discretion” and “not a faculty-wide policy”.

The lecture timetables were issued to this term’s students by the university’s faculty of English.

More news from Cambridgeshire

“Any session containing material that could be deemed upsetting (and it is not obvious from the title) is now marked with a symbol,” they say.

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Cambridge University

Among those considered “upsetting” is a lecture on “violence” – which includes a discussion of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Sarah Kane’s play Blasted.

Alongside the warning symbol, students are told to expect discussion of sexual violence and sexual assault.

Shakespeare’s play includes mutilation, murder and violent rape with similar topics, plus torture and genocide covered in Kane’s play.

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Cambridge University

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Parts of this term’s English lecture timetable for Cambridge students include “upsetting” themes

Also singled out for a warning is a lecture on “inhabiting the body” which includes a discussion on dismemberment.

Included in this is the Greek playwright Euripides’ The Bacchae, which features scenes of women tearing cattle and humans to pieces.

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Cambridge University said it was at the lecturer’s own discretion to flag up upsetting material

‘Sensitive material’

Asked about the warnings, one Cambridge academic who did not wish to be named, said their “duty as educators was to prepare students for the world not protect them for three years”.

Prof Dennis Hayes from Derby University’s education faculty said: “Once you get a few trigger warnings, lecturers will stop presenting anything that is controversial… gradually, there is no critical discussion”.

Cambridge University said the English faculty “does not have a policy on trigger warnings”, but added: “Some lecturers indicate that some sensitive material will be covered in a lecture… this is entirely at the lecturer’s own discretion and is in no way indicative of a faculty-wide policy.”

Article source:

Grammar school A-level row head suspended

October 19, 2017 Posted by Josef Shomperlen

Aydin OnacImage copyright
St Olave’s school

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Head teacher Aydin Onac has been suspended by the high-achieving grammar school

The grammar school head teacher at the centre of a row about pupils not being allowed to stay on to take A-levels has been suspended.

Aydin Onac, head of St Olave’s in Orpington, has been suspended by the school’s governors.

Parents had threatened legal action after some pupils were told to leave the school before the upper sixth year.

It raised questions about schools boosting their league table rankings by restricting who could take A-levels.

St Olave’s, in the London borough of Bromley, is one of England’s top-performing grammar schools.

But in August it was caught up in a high-profile dispute when some of its pupils were told they would not be re-admitted for their final year.

Legal challenge

Parents began legal proceedings that claimed that removing pupils between Year 12 and 13 – the lower and upper sixth – would have been a form of unlawful exclusion.

The parents challenged whether the school could stop pupils returning because of their expected A-level grades.

St Olave’s reversed its decision and allowed the pupils to return for upper sixth – and the planned court hearing did not take place.

But the school’s governors have now decided that the head teacher, Mr Onac, should be suspended.

The governors say that the local authority is carrying out its own investigation into the A-level controversy.

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St Olave’s was at the centre of a controversy over pupils being removed from the school before A-levels

The St Olave’s dispute began a wider debate about whether schools should be able to stop pupils progressing in this way – and whether filtering out academically-weaker pupils ahead of exams was being used to artificially boost results and league table rankings.

Other schools were forced to review their procedures on whether to allow pupils to continue into the final year of A-levels.

A statement from the chair of governors, Dr Paul Wright, said: “I have been informed that the London Borough of Bromley will be conducting an investigation of St Olave’s Grammar School in respect of concerns that have been raised over recent weeks.

“In light of this, and in order to protect the integrity of the investigation, Mr Onac has been suspended from all of his responsibilities as headmaster of the school.”

“Please remember that this suspension is without prejudice and does not presume any particular outcome. We are committed to full transparency and will be co-operating fully with the local authority in this matter.”

Bromley Council confirmed “that there will be an investigation into concerns raised”.

This year’s A-level results at St Olave’s saw 75% of all grades being awarded at A* or A and 96% were at A* to B grades, far above the national average.

Article source:

‘He hid in a cupboard

October 19, 2017 Posted by Josef Shomperlen

The pressures of school life can be tough for a lot of kids, but for a child who’s experienced abuse, neglect and years in care, the strain can be even greater.

When Evelyn and Tony adopted Ryan at the age of seven, his special educational needs were not immediately apparent.

Ryan is smart, bright and eager to please – every teacher’s dream. But the trauma of his early years meant the day-to-day expectations of mainstream school were too much for him.

Evelyn: Ryan came to us with a history of abuse and neglect – domestic violence, drugs and alcohol, not getting enough food, inadequate clothing, extremely poor hygiene – but nothing actually diagnosed as being any particular special need.

‘Quarter of adoptive families’ in crisis

  • ‘We’re scared of our adopted son’
  • That worked for a little bit, but eventually he just couldn’t cope. He couldn’t cope with the large classrooms, he couldn’t cope with certain teachers, any teacher that shouted, and eventually he just hid in a cupboard for a couple of days and wouldn’t come out. We just couldn’t get him to school.

    Evelyn: And when he wasn’t in school anymore, he became quite agoraphobic, he became very isolated and his mental health was even worse because he wasn’t in any form of education.

    Desperate for help, Evelyn and Tony turned to the adoption agency Family Futures and to a specialist children’s hospital. These organisations assessed Ryan and reported that he did have specific needs.

    Evelyn: The Family Futures report came out telling us that Ryan had developmental trauma, sensory modulation difficulty, generalised anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

    Tuition fee rise to £9,295 in Wales is scrapped

    October 18, 2017 Posted by Josef Shomperlen

    Media captionKirsty Williams pledged to avoid the “turmoil” over tuition fee changes in England

    Plans to raise the maximum level for tuition fees from £9,000 to £9,295 in Wales have been scrapped, Education Secretary Kirsty Williams has said.

    The income at which graduates will have to repay student loans will be raised from £21,000 to £25,000, she added.

    It comes after the UK government pledged to freeze the maximum fees in England at £9,250.

    Ms Williams told AMs the announcement had caused “turmoil” in England, but one Tory AM accused her of a U-turn.

    If the Welsh Government’s tuition fee rise had gone ahead, the maximum level would have been higher than the top rate in England, but a freeze in fees could leave universities with less money than they would have expected.

    The announcement also matches the prime minister’s pledge to raise the loan repayment threshold.

    • May: We ‘listened’ on student fees
    • Students’ debt for ‘luxury’ life
    • Loans ‘should replace’ tuition fee grant

    Ms Williams told the assembly’s education committee on Wednesday: “Many unscheduled changes recently announced in England are having an impact on their ability to follow a consistent approach to policy development and initiatives in higher education.

    “One only has to look at the front page of The Times today to see the turmoil there is across the border.

    “I will not allow such instability and incoherence to knock us off course here in Wales, from delivering on a stable and sustainable system.

    “We will bring forward regulations to increase the repayment threshold from £21,000 to £25,000, subject to concluding discussions with HMT [the Treasury].”

    Image caption

    It had been announced in July that the maximum tuition fee would be allowed to increase in line with inflation

    Scrapping the plan to allow tuition fees to rise in line with inflation, Ms Williams said: “We will maintain the maximum fee level at £9,000.

    “We will allocate an additional £6m to HEFCW [Higher Education Funding Council for Wales] in this financial year to deal with short-term implications affecting the sector, primarily demographic changes and threats from Brexit.”

    Another £10m would be provided to deal with “immediate issues arising out of the tuition fee changes”.

    Ms Williams said the longer-term Diamond reforms to student finance in Wales remained on track.

    These would replace tuition fee grants of £4,954 with support for living costs.

    Conservative AM Darren Millar said: “I’m very pleased to see this U-turn, which I urged you to do in the immediate aftermath of the UK government’s announcement.

    “I thought you should have done it earlier.”

    Plaid Cymru’s Llyr Gruffydd claimed the announcement was “a significant victory for Plaid Cymru and others who campaigned against the tuition fees hike”.

    Ellen Jones, president of the National Union of Students in Wales, welcomed the fee cap staying at £9,000 as “an incredibly positive development”, saying: “Students cannot be expected to shoulder the burden of austerity.”

    She added that raising the repayment threshold to £25,000 would also “go a significant way to lifting the barriers that students face in terms of loans”.

    Prof Julie Lydon, chair of Universities Wales, said they welcomed the extra £10m for 2017-18 to compensate for the cap on fees, and Ms Williams’s promise to work with them to find a longer-term solution to their funding needs.

    She said it would “enable our universities to continue to deliver a comparable student experience to that available in better funded institutions across the border”.

    Analysis from Bethan Lewis, BBC Wales education correspondent

    There is a lot of speculation about the future of tuition fees in England after Theresa May announced they would be frozen next year.

    Welsh ministers decide policy for universities here but Kirsty Williams has repeatedly said that the sector in Wales “does not operate in isolation”.

    The opposition parties say this is an U-turn – but she says she’s offering stability.

    And the political implications of this will have been an important factor – particularly for a Liberal Democrat minister whose party was damaged so badly by this issue in the past.

    It would have been difficult to defend a situation where fees in Wales were higher than in England next year, even if by only a few pounds.

    Article source:

    Children ‘embarrassed by tipsy parents’

    October 18, 2017 Posted by Josef Shomperlen

    Stock image of father and daughter at table with glass of wine next to manImage copyright
    Getty Images

    Moderate drinking by parents can have a negative impact on children, causing anxiety and disrupting bedtime routines, a study says.

    The Institute of Alcohol Studies said parents do not have to regularly drink large amounts around children for them to notice changes in adults’ behaviour.

    Three in 10 parents said they have been drunk in front of their children and five in 10 “tipsy”, its survey found.

    The institute said it was hoped the study will help inform parents.

    “All parents strive to do what’s best for their children, so it’s important to share this research about the effects drinking can have on parenting, and what steps parents can take to protect their children,” the institute’s chief executive Karen Brown said.

    The report, “Like sugar for adults”, uses a survey of almost 1,000 parents and their children, focus groups and experts.

    It found that:

    • 29% of parents reported having been drunk in front of their child
    • 51% of parents reported having been tipsy in front of their child
    • 29% of parents thought it was ok to get drunk in front their child as long as it did not happen regularly

    In the survey, as a result of their parents drinking, 18% of children said they had felt embarrassed, 11% had felt worried and 15% said their bedtime routine had been disrupted.

    Also, 7% said their parents had argued with them more than usual after drinking and 15% had asked their parents to drink less.

    The children surveyed who had seen their parent tipsy or drunk were also less likely to consider the way their parent drinks alcohol as providing a positive role model for them.

    The report was launched by MP Caroline Flint, who said: “We too quickly dismiss parental drinking as harmless fun and relaxation, but this report shows that parents do not need to be regularly drinking large amounts for their children to see a change in their behaviour and experience problems.

    “I’d like to see a more open conversation about this, among parents and professionals.”

    Viv Evans, of the Alcohol and Families Alliance, said: “We recognise that parenting is difficult and we live in a culture which is remarkably accepting of alcohol.

    “We hope that this study goes some way to supporting parents in a difficult job, and alerting us all to the importance of preventing problems with alcohol before they arise.”

    Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, called for “effective action to protect children and families from alcohol that is too cheap, readily available and constantly promoted.”

    Article source:

    From torture victim to human rights student

    October 18, 2017 Posted by Josef Shomperlen

    Noreen Ahmed-Ullah

    Image caption

    Noura Al Jizawi has come to study in Toronto after escaping Syria’s civil war

    Noura Al Jizawi has survived more than a decade of extreme risk. Now she’s going back to her interrupted life as a student.

    Growing up in Homs in Syria, the 29 year old has been a student activist, experienced imprisonment and exile and has been a leader in Syria’s opposition.

    Now eight months pregnant, she has gone back to her studies, beginning a master’s degree at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

    Noura’s first awareness of human rights – and of their absence – came early: “I remember when I was just a kid, I was angry because we couldn’t choose our notebooks.

    “We could have only one type of notebook – one with a photo of Assad’s father on it.”

    Missing persons

    She soon learned that other, much worse things were wrong with her country.

    Image copyright

    Image caption

    Homs this summer showing the damage of war

    “Many of the students, a couple of years older than me, were mentioning their missing fathers. I became aware we had missing persons in Syria.

    “While I was growing up, I remember hearing mothers supporting each other… they were the mothers of missing persons.

    “Those guys were the detainees arrested by Assad’s father in the 1980s. Some of them are still until this moment missing … there were no bodies, there was nothing, just silence.”

    Activism and arrests

    Noura came up against the regime as an undergraduate at the University of Homs – and reading books such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm chimed deeply with her own experience.

    More from Global education

    Ideas for the Global education series? Get in touch.

    Noura’s increasing activism, her work as a blogger, publishing imaginative allegorical fiction, and her readiness to speak out, led to two early arrests.

    Nevertheless she continued this dangerous work, accessing forbidden websites to distribute anti-regime articles, disseminating ideas of democracy and non-violent protest.

    “We never believed there would be a real revolution in our lifetimes,” she said.

    And then, in December 2010, the Arab Spring began in Tunisia, and spread rapidly, arriving in Syria with a demonstration in Damascus in March 2011.

    Image copyright

    Image caption

    A mother in Homs with a locket of her lost son

    “For me it was like a dream. We have a revolution.” Noura was still in Homs, but was in touch with activists around the country, and abroad.

    She became an organiser of demonstrations and an advocate for the rapidly rising numbers of detainees.

    Social media

    In the response that followed, many of her friends were killed, many others imprisoned and tortured.

    “To be honest we were not shocked, we knew too well that this regime would not allow people to demand their rights.”

    They were more shocked, she said, by the lack of any effective response from the international community.

    “We were saying, back in the 70s and 80s, when there were great massacres in Syria, there was no internet, there no media channels.

    “But we thought, now we have the social media channels, hopefully this would protect us. But it did not protect us.”

    Image copyright
    Getty Images

    Image caption

    Noura’s young life has been against a background of war: A fighter in Homs

    Noura moved from city to city, organising, motivating, dodging the authorities – until in May 2012, she was ordered off a bus in Damascus by armed men and bundled into a car.

    “It was not an arrest, it was abduction, a kidnapping,” she said.

    Tortured in prison

    Noura emerged seven months later. During that time she was detained in some of Syria’s most notorious prisons, and said she had been tortured with electric shocks and beatings.

    She plays this down, saying that so many have endured – and are still enduring – far worse.

    For her the hardest experience to bear was hearing the sounds of her fellow-prisoners being tortured. Her captors realised this psychological torture would be more effective in her case – but still she remained silent.

    Noura explained how she survived: “I was not afraid for myself, I didn’t care about myself… I cared only about the revolution… I cared about the people who were still continuing this revolution outside.”

    Image copyright

    Image caption

    Homs this summer showing the damage of war

    “We were still a non-violent movement on the ground… and I kept thinking about them… I wanted to make sure that in the questioning I would not speak about any one of those activists. I would pray to my body not to break down.”

    Noura was released late in 2012, and believes that an international campaign played a part in this: “For sure, all of those activities protected me. That is why we need this advocacy, all the time, for all detainees and for missing persons.”

    For Noura, the torment continued, as her younger sister, Alaa, had also been imprisoned and was suffering even worse: “They tortured her harder than me, many times, because of me.”

    Alaa was released in a terrible physical state; the family decided they had to leave Syria, and fled to Turkey to get urgent medical treatment.

    “She was my only reason to leave Syria,” said Noura. “Otherwise I would still be there.”

    Image caption

    Noura became a representative in peace talks in Geneva

    In four years of exile in Turkey, she joined the coalition of Syrian opposition forces, (SNC) and became its vice-president in 2014, as well as being elected to sit on its negotiation panel in Geneva.

    She joined because she realised this much-criticised group of mainly male, middle-aged “hotel revolutionaries” needed “the blood of youth” and also a strong female voice.

    Geneva was a real challenge for Noura: “I felt I had to be calm and clever, I had do everything I could do, to interact.”

    She worked hard to get an agreement to break the two-year siege of Homs. Many of its surviving citizens were dying of starvation.

    ‘Scholars at risk’

    Noura resigned from the coalition in 2016, but continued working for an NGO she had created, Start Point, which provides advocacy and psychological support to Syrian women who have suffered torture and sexual violence in detention.

    She had also met her husband in Turkey, another Syrian activist in exile, who was one of a network of cyber-security experts working for the Munk School’s Citizen Lab; hence the Toronto connection.

    Noura came to Canada as one of 24 international students with scholarships in the university’s “scholars at risk” programme.

    With her daughter due to be born next month, Noura is aware of how this might change her activism. But she’s determined not to give up the fight.

    She sees the master’s degree as another step to help her continue her work to bring democracy to Syria.

    “I feel also that being a mother makes me closer to the future… this baby is the future, and maybe will not have to live as our generation live.”

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    ‘I found a job I love through battling depression’

    October 18, 2017 Posted by Josef Shomperlen

    Image copyright
    Roger Bool –

    Image caption

    Catherine struggled with depression in the second year of her degree in drama and English literature

    At her lowest, Catherine wondered whether she would be able to finish her degree.

    “I lost all concept of the future. I felt I was losing control of my mind.

    ‘It was my second year at Manchester University, and early on I began feeling very tired.

    “Blood tests showed I was anaemic.

    “Towards Christmas, I began feeling very anxious and getting quite stressed over my academic work because I couldn’t concentrate in the way I was used to being able to.

    “I just thought I had low iron and was a bit stressed. I had never thought about mental illness before.

    “At home over Christmas, I had more blood tests, which showed I was physically healthy, but I just felt worse. It was more than just low iron.

    “I wasn’t just feeling tired. It was feelings of worthlessness. I felt there was no point in anything. I just didn’t have any hope at all.

    “There were points when I was crying or experiencing a numb feeling, just not feeling anything, which was quite scary because I am quite an emotional person.”

    By February 2016, she was ‘just about functioning’.

    “The thought of doing anything was overwhelming.

    “Even showering, brushing my teeth or cooking felt like a mammoth task.

    “Some days getting out of bed was really difficult. Some days I stayed in my room all day. I definitely missed some lectures.

    “My attendance dropped, but I didn’t completely disappear. I never got chucked off the course. I was still just about functioning.

    “But I was panicking and crying, everything was too much. I just didn’t know what to do.

    “I spoke to a friend about that feeling of hopelessness and just wanting to run away from it all.

    “I had never had that feeling before. It was quite scary.

    “She pushed me to get treatment.”

    She was prescribed antidepressants.

    “I started a journey that was quite difficult.

    “Drugs work differently on different people and the first drug made me worse, mainly mentally.

    “I felt I was going downhill.

    “It was around that point that I wasn’t sure if I could finish my degree.”

    “Mornings were particularly difficult. I felt I couldn’t move.

    “The drug was exacerbating what was already there.

    “My GP moved me to a different antidepressant, which slowly started to work.

    “I was also accessing the university counselling service, which was very helpful.

    “And once my academic tutor was aware I was ill, I could go and see her

    “I had more relaxed deadlines and access to a study coach, which got set up towards the end of my second year.

    “It was a process of getting things in place to make things more manageable.”

    She also started cognitive behavioural therapy.

    “There is a timeliness for different remedies.

    “It was the first therapeutic support that was really driving to get you to think about your thoughts and challenge your thoughts. Not all your thoughts are facts.”

    “If I think about my mind at the time when depression was invading, it was about feeling worthless, and you can challenge those beliefs.

    “I think that it’s difficult to pin down exactly why or how, but the medication settled and I began to get better.

    “I got through the year and gradually became more myself over the summer.

    “The third year was all about rebuilding myself.

    “When I wasn’t feeling good, the future was quite a difficult thing to visualise.

    “So the process of applying for a graduate programme was part of starting to believe in myself again and to feel more confident.”

    In July 2017, she graduated with a first-class degree – and started the training programme a few days later.

    “I knew mental health social work was challenging, stimulating and varied and I really wanted to do it.

    “I think that contributed to my motivation to work hard in my third year at finding what would help me stay well myself.

    “I just knew I needed to develop the resilience and coping strategies that would help me stay well and do the programme and become a mental-health social worker.

    “It’s been really good. It’s very intense, as I expected, and I am learning a lot very quickly. It’s a lot to take in.

    “There’s so much variety in what we are doing. I really enjoy it.

    “It’s really pushing me and challenging me, but there’s a lot of support which has really helped me make the most of it and cope with the challenge and pressure of it.

    “I always say that I can’t regret what happened.

    “It totally changed my plan, and I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now without that experience.

    “I knew I wanted to work with people and had thought about social work generally.

    “The experience I had gave me a tiny glimpse into what it means to be mentally distressed.

    “It unlocked a level of empathy that I didn’t have access to before.

    “For me, the thought that I could play a part in someone else’s journey is really important to me. It’s very rewarding.

    “It’s connecting and wanting to be part of enabling someone to help themselves and feel well again.

    “I am just starting to get my own caseload. Until now, it’s been a process of shadowing.

    “With close support, I am starting to do some real work. It’s exciting.”

    Catherine is on the Think Ahead fast-track training programme and will qualify as a mental-health social worker next year, with a master’s degree in social work after two years.

    Produced by Judith Burns, BBC family and education reporter.

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