Dear Universities | COVID-19 & education

I have sat in my desk chair for the past three days, for hours on end. I am sat in front of a journal article about the American promotion of democracy in the twentieth century, if you’re at all interested, though I’m sure you aren’t. In the space of around 10 hours, I have made my way through a page, one of 18 for this article alone. I’ve cried, I’ve snapped at my family, and primarily, been numb. I am angry at my inability to work. It is not without trying.

I am lucky to even have a desk to be sat at. Thousands of us have extenuating circumstances that are there without the presence of a worldwide crisis. We might have disabilities, mental illnesses, caring responsibilities, difficult family situations. We might have unstable wifi connections, or don’t have a laptop. We need extensions on coursework, counselling sessions, support with essays, accessible exam arrangements. Students have had their income taken away and it won’t be provided by the government due to 0 hour contracts. None of these situations have gone away with the arrival of COVID-19, and if anything they have just been elevated by us being thrust back into our family homes (or being alone in halls). We cannot be expected to work at our normal capacity during this time, and it is upsetting that we will be judged on work at this time.

Personally, I deal with autism and anxiety along with physical illnesses and dyspraxia. The lack of coordinated and efficient communication from my departments and the university as a whole has meant I have been left confused, uncertain and falling into a relapse; there has been no help for disabled and autistic students to support them in such an anxiety-provoking time. My routine, uni life and plan for the next 4 months has been swiped out from under me, and my anxiety is thriving. My fatigue has taken over, after hours of sitting up and attempting to force myself through work; my chronic pain has also gone nowhere.

I’ve also been chucked back into my family home, one that is full to the brim with 7 people including 3 younger siblings with their own combinations of conditions, and our nan, who is also extremely anxious given the situation and the fact she is only recently out of hospital herself. It’s loud, busy and messy; everyone is worried and stressed. Our wifi is struggling to cope with several of us working from home – I’ve been having to switch to 4G to use Zoom and Skype, and I only have a limited amount of that. Surely I, and thousands of other students, can’t be expected to work as normal in this capacity?

I have limited resources for my coursework – yes, there is a lot online, but history is much richer in print – and my group project is going absolutely nowhere. How are we meant to organise a group project when everyone is just attempting to survive and support themselves and their families, with their never-ending combinations of individual circumstances?

There is no comfortable format that exams can take. Take-home 24 hour exams may be significantly difficult to be taken in homes full of other people, an atmosphere full of anxiety and noise. I can’t access my exam arrangements at home; they are the only way I can properly, fairly and effectively take my exams. Adding more coursework isn’t fair to those who are better at exams, and coursework is hard enough as it is right now. This is a difficult and unprecedented situation, and I do not blame you for trying to work everything out – but I implore you to consider how difficult this is for us as students, and consult us. Please tell your students each step of the process, because it can make such a difference to those of us with autism and similar conditions.

I know you’re trying, and you might not be actively working against us. But I am tired, and I cannot carry on this way. My first year has been extremely difficult and I’ve dealt with a lot, and I have worked through it. But this is something unfathomable, something no-one can quite believe is happening. Our well-being as students needs to be taken more seriously; we cannot be expected to work as if everything is normal.

I feel lucky that I’m a first year, and I’m remembering to check the privileges I do have in this time. But it isn’t even really about the grades, for me – it is the pressure and stress about getting the work done at all, let alone getting the marks that I’ve been getting throughout the year. It is hurting me, exacerbating my symptoms and it’s beginning to affect my family.

Please consider whether uni work should be continuing at this time, and whether exams need to happen – and where they do, the form they will take and when they will take place. Consider the individual circumstances of your students and do not see us as one single body. I beg you to consult us and understand the difficulties that some of us are dealing with during this period, and that are present away from it too.

How things need to change in the next decade – #LetterTo2030 | social action | #iwill

No matter your political opinion, it has to be recognised that some things need to change within the next 10 years for young people in more ways than one. With the beginning of the decade, this month, the #iwill Campaign are asking us Ambassadors and Champions to share what is important to us. I want particular change within health, equality and education – but what needs to happen?

  • Proper mental health funding

Mental health has become a buzzword for the government, yet it still isn’t being properly funded. It’s months before you can be seen and once you are, the chances are you’ll only get a 6 week course of CBT. When I entered the mental health services in 2015, things were a lot better than they are now and it’s sad to have watched things deteriorate instead of get better at a time where there is far more awareness than there was then.

CAMHS needs funding far more, so that mental health is better in young people and teenagers, and to also support this, there should be a trained mental health nurse in schools. Adult services also need to be better, and it shouldn’t be so hard to get a referral. There also needs to be better communication between mental health services and A&E, and better support when you go to A&E with a mental health issue as currently they struggle to know what to do even though we are often told to go there if we have an issue out of hours.

There needs to be change within inpatient mental health units. They currently cause trauma to many patients within their services. They also need better funding, and deserve more support and better facilities. Many of us want to continue our education during our time in the units and the teachers are so passionate, but there’s only so much equipment and they can’t know everything about every subject that each individual studies.

  • Parity of all illnesses – chronic, acute, mental and physical

Everyone says “mental health should be seen as just as important as physical health” which is absolutely true, but chronic physical health issues are not treated equally to acute physical health issues (like a broken leg, which is often the example used) which is continually ignored when parity of esteem is discussed, and the term was used liberally by several political parties during December’s General Election.

It took me 7 years to be diagnosed with HSD after seeing more than 20 doctors and physios, and I had to travel to London for several of these appointments. This is because symptoms are overlooked or disbelieved. What I want to see is parity of acute and chronic illnesses both physical and mental – a broken leg wouldn’t be ignored and neither should depression… But similarly, neither should chronic pain. There also isn’t parity between more commonly discussed mental illnesses and more stigmatised ones such as BPD, which is also hugely important.

  • Accessibility for all (and even more awareness)

Accessibility is beginning to come a long way, but it’s far from the end of the road – there still needs to be more provision made for invisible disabilities, including chronic illnesses and autism. There needs to be better support in schools, including more funding for SEND support. There needs to be a better benefits system, that doesn’t say people are fit for work when they clearly aren’t. There needs to be less discrimination over who can access blue badges or bus passes (because even though the rules have changed on blue badges, people are still being refused them). Disabled people deserve better.

Ableism is still very active in society too, and it’s often looked over in discussions of discrimination. More awareness of different types of disability is needed, even though the message that not all disabilities are visible is spreading, and there needs to be more awareness that disabled young people exist! Using mobility aids, using disabled toilets and asking for help as a young person can be extremely intimidating.

  • The opportunity for everyone to get as much of an education as they want

There are so many reasons that young people don’t get an education to the extent they would like, and that could be just their basic secondary education or a university education. It might be because they live someone that education isn’t a given right and they can’t access it; because are a young carer; because they can’t afford it or have to get a job, or because an education isn’t accessible to their disabilities, and this shouldn’t be seen as acceptable regardless of a child’s circumstances. Education should be a universal, accessible right.

  • Climate change has to be stopped… or the rest becomes pointless.

It seems like the most obvious thing that needs to be changed in the next 10 years, but it has to be said – if the government don’t start taking climate change seriously, 2030 might be a dream in itself.

I’ve got big hopes for the next ten years, and I hope that these things aren’t just lofty dreams. Using the hashtag #LetterTo2030, tell me what you think needs to change in the next decade- because young people can help change the world, and we don’t have to wait until we’re old enough to be in power to do it.

How to survive your A Levels… with a long-term health condition | disability and education

This is a part two to my previous blog post of tips about how to survive your A Levels, more specifically about surviving them with a long-term illness. Disclaimer: this is all from my own personal experience and I can’t claim that any of these tips will definitely work for you. For context, my main issues/symptoms include chronic pain, chronic fatigue/”brain fog”, sensory issues, co-ordination issues, anxiety and concentration and memory issues. I’m also aware of things that I was privileged to have at my school because it was a good school, as well as being able to afford a laptop, though I’ve tried to recognise that throughout.

Tell your school!!

Some of you reading might think this is a given or you might have little choice in the matter, but for others, this isn’t something that comes naturally particularly if you have something that is invisible and/or misunderstood. I honestly think that this is so important – so your teachers know how to support you (and potentially cut you some slack every now and then!) and so your school don’t take issue (or less issue) with you for taking any time off you need, whether it be to rest at home or for appointments, as well as getting any separate exam arrangements (I had a separate room, used a laptop in extended writing subjects, had rest breaks and had my exams on yellow paper).

I’ve always been very vocal with my teachers, but I know others prefer to go through the disability or pastoral team, and that’s fine too! The problem comes when no-one knows. If your school have issues with what you’re telling them, take in as many letters as you have (if you’re currently undiagnosed and/or awaiting specialist appointments, I’d recommend getting your GP to write you something, which I used to have to do).

Get your textbooks in a format that suits you, and/or make them suit you

For me, this was two-fold. My chronic pain meant that I couldn’t really carry textbooks, so in Year 12 I had my philosophy textbook on my laptop but borrowed one if there was one available (as I do struggle to read off a computer for that amount of text), and in Year 13 always borrowed one as there were a few more in the room. I did carry my history textbooks as they were much less heavy, but in Year 13 when I had both topics on the same day, I got a second copy of one of them through my school’s bursary to keep in the room (if your sixth form doesn’t have a general bursary, ask the disability team – you should be given one). If you have one, getting the Kindle version on an iPad/tablet might be a good alternative, or even on your phone.

The second part was making sure the textbooks worked for me. This meant highlighting in my history ones a LOT and scribbling in them, and in all of them, putting in a lot of post-its indicating topics/chapters/different types of information, and using a yellow overlay.

If you have a hospital admission…

I had two hospital admissions during my A Levels, although they were both planned and not at the conventional type of hospital – I had two inpatient pain management programmes. The first was at the end of Year 12 so it didn’t matter as much, but the second was in January of Year 13 so, a pretty big time of year. I co-ordinated my schoolwork through the pastoral Sixth Form team – two absolute gems – who emailed my teachers and had them send me powerpoints, worksheets, exam questions and anything else I needed. It was decided there was no pressure for me to get through any of it, but I would have it if I could, and then it’d already be there for when I got back. I personally think this is a good way to do it – everything is in one place and all teachers are aware of the situation.

It does make life a bit difficult, and I do think it might have affected my grades a little bit, but it’s not something you can change nor is it your fault. If you have an admission, it’s easier said than done, but try not to think about it too much – worrying won’t do anything and will likely make your recovery more difficult. Do some school work where you can – I only managed to do a little bit of my EPQ and a couple of lesson powerpoints – but don’t let it harm your recovery.

Managing therapies/medication alongside your studies

I had a lot of physio to be doing when I came out of my pain programme in January, and I found it really hard to keep up with it when I felt like I should be studying all the time. The way I eventually managed it was by slotting it into a certain time – for a while this was straight after school, as I often didn’t work straight away anyway, and later I used it as a study break. Experiment in the first few weeks with this and find what makes you the least tired and works best. I also ended up dropping down to only every 3 or so days during exams. If you have talking therapy or physio appointments which are more regular than other hospital appointments, I would recommend you trying to get them at the start or end of the school day (I used to miss form and PSHE quite often as that gave enough time to not miss a lesson) or during a free so you’re less likely to miss something. It’s not always possible, but every little helps.

In terms of medication, I used to have a midday dose of one of my painkillers so it would be in the school day. I ended up finding a rhythm where I would have it at lunch which just meant I had to shift my evening dose slightly. Set reminders or even alarms on your phone to make sure you take it – if you’re going to take it at lunch you could even put a note in your lunchbox, whatever works.

Learn how you catch up and revise best (How do you learn?)

Everyone has heard of the “different learning styles” of visual, audio and kinaesthetic, and that’s a good place to start – can you catch up by reading the textbook, or watching a youtube video, or from the powerpoint your class did? Or do you need the teacher to teach it to you? This can also partly come down to the subject, your ability and the teacher – do they put everything on the powerpoint or do they talk in more depth? And do you feel confident in your ability or need to ask a lot of questions? For me, I would generally catch up with history or philosophy by myself with the materials, but I couldn’t cope on my own with chemistry both due to my ability, my need to understand everything in depth and my endless questions, so I would have after-school sessions.

In terms of revision, it’s probably going to be trial and error for at least your first term, if not all of year 12. Don’t be worried if you revise for a test and it all goes wrong – that’s partly what year 12 is for, and to be honest, that happens for nearly everyone, illness or not. But it might be that everyone uses mindmaps, and you prefer simple sets of notes, or recording yourself speaking them.

If you like flashcards, or want to give them a go, I highly recommend Anki – you type the flashcards however you want (so you could do question and answer, or subtitle on one side and the content on another) and then when you revise it, you rate how you found the card, and it will use it’s algorithm to decide when you should next review each one. It also has a text to speech function, so you can have it read back to you if you prefer. It’s free on PC, but it costs a bit for you to get it on your phone.

I also recommend websites like GetRevising and TES, which have thousands of resources ready to go. I wouldn’t recommend never making your own resources, but if you’re having a bad time of it with your illnesses it can be really helpful, or if you fancy giving another type of resource a go. TES and Prezi are highly likely to have powerpoints for most topics, if you want a bit of an alternative from your teacher’s or if you haven’t got one.


Every long-term illness/condition and every person’s symptoms with each of them is different, so it’s impossible to generalise, but I hope these tips are somewhat helpful, and I wish you all so much luck for your A Levels! You’ve got this.

How to survive your A Levels, by a disabled student | disability and education

As of a few weeks ago, I can officially say that I finished my A Levels but it was definitely not without struggle. Throughout my two years I’ve been dealing with my hypermobility spectrum disorder and chronic pain/fatigue, as well as several mental illness/learning difficulties, and with this came absences for countless medical appointments and I spent chunks of time away on 2 pain programmes. Nonetheless, I made it! So, here is my slightly cynical advice on how to survive your A Levels, whether you have a disability or not.

Take the right subjects for you

This one doesn’t help if you’re going into year 13, but for new year 12s, this step is the starting block that will honestly set up your two years – there’s a fine balance to strike at A Level between taking subjects you like and the ones you’ll do well in. If those go hand in hand, great! But if they don’t, you need to be very prepared to work extremely hard if you’re not as naturally inclined towards a subject. I took chemistry, which I love – even if I complained about it all the time and wouldn’t admit it to my teacher – but I had to accept early on that I wasn’t going to walk away with an A* and I probably worked twice as hard for it as my other two for a much lesser reward.

Get a good planner and always be prepared for setbacks

Regardless of if you’re a disabled student or not, A Levels will provide challenge after challenge. There’s coursework you think you’re done with that comes back, there’s random tests you get two days to revise for, essays due when you have mocks, I could go on. The best way I can tell you to manage it is to get a good planner – I recommend a Personal Planner (not spon, they’re just great as you personalise every element) but definitely get something with a good amount of space for each day. Plan what you’ll do in your frees, give yourself mini deadlines, plan your evenings, and plan when you will rest, which I will controversially say is possibly the most important.

If you then have to schedule in your medical appointments or a hospital stay, it becomes much easier to look at your week and work out when you will catch up. Personally I liked to schedule in after-school sessions with teachers because I prefer to have concepts explained to me when I first learn them, but you can also just work from your textbooks.

I honestly had 2 planners and 3 to-do lists going at any one time to manage things – you really don’t need to go that far but try and find what works for you early on!

Build rapport with your teachers

I definitely recommend that you get to know your teachers and let them know how they can help you. After the first lesson I had with every new teacher during my GCSEs and A Levels, I would stay behind and give them a quick run-down of my conditions and my needs even though they were emailed about me – it puts a face to a name . If you’re not a disabled student, still have a chat with them at some point and just show interest and let them get to know your learning style; it just doesn’t necessarily need to be so urgent.

My teachers have probably breathed sighs of relief now that I’ve finished because I spent a lot of time with most of them, after-school or by email or bothering them in their frees. I would not have wanted to be one of my teachers, put it that way, but I think they mostly got used to it after three years of me tipping up in their classrooms often in tears. I don’t think I would have gotten through my A Levels without a few of my teachers and the sixth form team, so I’d honestly recommend that even if you’re not fussed about knowing your teachers well, you still go to them if you find yourself needing some help, academically or otherwise.

Take as many opportunities as possible in Year 12

Most sixth forms (and I imagine colleges as well) offer a lot of opportunities to their students to help you with your upcoming UCAS/apprenticeship applications, and a lot of universities offer stuff too. I did 2 summer schools at Durham and Bath, as well as going to a seminar on Brexit, me and my best friend went to Manchester for another EU based event, our school took us to Bristol which included a taster lecture, I was a progress mentor and the leader of the mental health advocate team, I did a Cambridge essay competition, and there was plenty of stuff that I didn’t take part in too. Do as much as you can (without sacrificing your work or health) and I guarantee it will help you find your passion and confirm what you want to do at uni, as well as supporting your application in Year 13.

I also did an EPQ, though at my school we did it in Year 13 unlike most, which I would highly recommend if you have a topic you’d like to research more in depth that you won’t be able to in your subjects. It’s a lot of work but if you love your topic it’s so worth it. I really enjoyed researching it, writing it, being slightly (very) argumentative about my points with my supervisor and presenting it at the end. It’s funny how much confidence I gained from having to do a 10 minute presentation about the pill in front of a room 90% made up of men, but here we are.

Remember that you know yourself and your body best

This is slightly controversial, and I’m not sure schools will like this particular tip, but if you can sit there and say you know that a day off will benefit you, take one. I’m not saying take one every week because you feel like it, but if you’re at breaking point, just do it. For me, that was sometimes the difference between getting through to the end of term vs me suffering burn-out and being off for days on end later on. You might not need a day off, but maybe you might need a free period of just relaxing with your friends instead of working hard, and that’s okay too – as long as it’s rare, and because you actually need it.

Just stay out of drama

It isn’t worth it. I promise. Shove in some earphones if it’s around you, block them if it’s about you, get your work done and move on.

…But keep a social life!

I didn’t really have a social life in year 12 between my disabilities and my work, and although I couldn’t really have prevented that, I do wish it had been different. I adore my group of friends and I’ve been very lucky to have them, but I wish I’d spent more time with them. Let yourself have time off every now and then, I promise you won’t drop by 2 grades for every hour you’re out.

On a slightly different note, but it fits here – I’d really recommend picking up some volunteering. I’ve been a Cub Scout leader for 3 years now and not only have I gained skills and qualifications from it, but I’ve gained a family who I absolutely adore. I also did an hour a week in one of the GCSE Science classes through all of sixth form, which… well, it built my resilience, we’ll put it that way.

Don’t let anyone tell you how to note-take or revise

I typed all my history and philosophy notes in both years because of the pain in my hands, but to be honest I think I would have regardless because there’s so much information to get down! But in the bigger picture, I only ever took notes that I thought necessary and I put them informally if I needed to even if it caused confusion during folder checks. Whether you’re a disabled student or not, just get in the habit of working how you need to – you know yourself best. When we were really close to exams, one of my teachers kept telling me I needed to be exclusively doing essay plans, but I knew I needed to drill the content more – so that’s what I did, and it worked.

Don’t procrastinate on your coursework

NOTHING makes me wince more looking back at my A Levels more than my history coursework. I absolutely hated it, to the point that I think my chemistry teachers heard more about that than me moaning about their subject for a few months. But, I really wish I’d just got on with more of it over the year 12 summer and the first couple of months of the year. I came out with a high grade in it in the end, but it was such a slog and it took up time I needed for other things.

________

To be honest, I could probably continue for quite a while with this, but I think those are are the main things – and that’s probably enough sarcasm for one post. I hope that was vaguely useful (or entertaining), and I wish you so much luck for your A Levels!

Could I do more than my best? (post results ramblings) | education

I’ve already written this post once, the day after results day. It was raw and angry and harsh, and a lot of it wasn’t me talking, it was anxiety and annoyance at an education system that I fought against for two years for what felt like nothing. It’s a complex thing, but I feel more at home with myself again now I’ve had time to process it.

Two years ago, I opened an envelope that I genuinely believed was the end of the world. It wasn’t, but I was over the moon. This year, I knew it wasn’t the end of the world – I’ve worked hard to try and overcome the concept that a few letters on a page are all that I am – but I was gutted. And it’s sad, because I’m happy with three out of my four grades, but I automatically discarded those from my mind before I’d even processed them. A few days later I’m upset that I felt no need to celebrate on Thursday, because I know there is more to it than that piece of paper.

I have spent two years fighting an education system that isn’t for disabled and chronically ill youth like me. Although my school have been as supportive as possible, my body has not really been able to cope with 7-8 hour days, or my memory with the density of the subjects I chose – I honestly wish I had done my A Levels back when AS was 50%. It sounds dramatic, but I spent full days in such intense pain that I could barely see the board, and some days my fatigue was so bad I couldn’t read a sentence out of a textbook. I missed weeks off school to be in hospital, and the equivalent of several more in appointments.

I have to remember that these exams pitted me against hundreds of thousands of students, the majority of which will not have experienced these issues. The ones who did may have done better than me regardless, but this isn’t me making excuses – it’s me forgiving myself, letting myself realise that I did the most I could, and that’s okay. Being able to write for 2 hours upwards with chronic wrist, shoulder and back pain; keeping focused and not dizzy for that amount of time – I won just by getting through all my exams, and sixth form in general.

For me, I think part of the reason I felt so upset was because I knew that there would be people I’d either let down, as well as the people who would judge me. Since my GCSE results, I’d been almost put on a pedestal by some of my peers that I didn’t want to be on; shushing me if I expressed concern or anxiety about my grades. And I felt like I let down my teachers and the sixth form support team, but they (naturally) told me I was being silly. My chemistry teacher is a very matter-of-fact person, but with the most human of emotions, and that makes for someone who can talk sense into me. I couldn’t be more appreciative.

It’s cliche, but those grades truly don’t tell my whole story, just like everyone tells you before you get your grades, but you can’t see it at the time. I’ve done three hours of volunteering a week during both years, working with teenagers at school and the Cub Scouts. I did assemblies about mental health and a talk about my disabilities to the entire staff body. I never shut up about things I was passionate about, had debates in class, educated people on feminism and ableism and sexualities. I wrote essays on topics I was fascinated by.

I did three subjects I love, and I still love them, regardless of the grades. Maybe chemistry was a wildcard, and I knew it was risky – but I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. In general, I loved my sixth form experience, and the piece of paper I received on Thursday doesn’t tell you any of those other things.

Four letters at the age of 18 aren’t the end of the world. It’s time to start new adventures, and there’s already several opportunities coming my way. I did my best, and that will always be enough. And I know, that everything will be okay.