Category Archives : News


How to Use the Law for Social Change

jfk-cropped-tigere-coverBringing about social change is hard work and there are always many barriers, but there are also many methods to bringing about change. The law, in its many guises, is a tool for social change that is not always used by civil society organisations.

The ‘law’ can mean many things; from drafting legislation, proper implementation of existing legislation to litigating in courts. Some organisations may be wary of going to court, but when used carefully litigation can play a key role in helping achieve their aims.

To get more NGOs in this country to consider litigation as a tool for change, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and Paul Hamlyn Foundation commissioned separate reports evaluating two instances where litigation was used successfully by NGOs which brought about significant change.

The first report prepared by IVAR focuses on strategic litigation by Detention Action, a small, non-legal NGO. Detention Action took legal action over the Detained Fast Track (DFT), a process where asylum seekers were routinely detained in high security centres while waiting for their claims to be decided. Detention Action and its legal team brought a series of challenges that took several years, culminating in the Supreme Court upholding a Court of Appeal decision that the DFT was ‘systematically unfair’.

The report finds that strategic litigation can be a highly effective campaign tool although it is a huge undertaking for a small organisation. The report examines the process surrounding the litigation, the factors that led to the litigation being successful, as well as the risks and challenges that Detention Action faced. The report finds that

– Detention Action’s ethos of building relationships with their legal team, the wider sector, and the government was an important factor in the litigation’s success.

– The litigation was a vital tool in a broader advocacy strategy. While Detention Action chose not to seek media coverage given the highly politicised nature of the issue, lobbying and policy work alongside the litigation [helped to ensure / enabled Detention Action to work towards] change in the longer term.

– Detention Action’s experience of working directly with people in immigration detention gave the organisation substantial credibility.

– The litigation would not have been possible without a supportive management committee and a protective costs order.
The second report prepared by Dr Vanhala of UCL looked at Just for Kids Law’s intervention in R v Tigere in the Supreme Court. The case was about the denial of student loans to lawfully resident young people who were not British citizens. The findings were similar to the IVAR report, concluding that:

  1. Being involved in a strategic litigation requires leadership on the part of senior management and trustees, on both the legal and communications side over the course of the campaign
  2. Proximity to those with lived experience of the issues is important;
  3. Getting lawyers with different expertise if the issue spans two areas of law;
  4. Awareness of the potential costs involved and risk assessment of the implication of those costs;
  5. Recognition that a communications strategy requires investment at a senior level and can take up significant time and resources to be able to shape the media narrative in a constructive way. The value of training key spokespeople cannot be underestimated.
  6. The importance of what the report describes as ‘legacy activities’, to ensure that whatever the outcome of litigation, work continues to be done to ‘achieve an effective remedy’.

Dr Vanhala had previously been commissioned by the Baring Foundation to write a report on Successful use of Strategic Litigation by the Voluntary Sector on Issues Related to Discrimination and Disadvantage. There have also been reports commissioned reviewing strategic litigation in other jurisdictions. In 2013, Atlantic Philanthropy analysed what successful public interest litigation might look like, building on lessons it had learned with 20 years experience in South Africa. Atlantic concluded that while litigation is a useful tool in bringing about social change, it is most effective when used in conjunction with other social change tools rather than in isolation; including the support of key communities, public education, media coverage, political lobbying and policy reform.

We hope that these reports are a useful starting point for NGOs and lawyers in the UK who are considering becoming involved in using the law to bring about social change.

 


Press coverage regarding the #SenseAboutSexting campaign

Mum wins legal review over police keeping son’s naked photo details – from BBC news 10 November 2017

Schoolboy who sent naked selfie to girl to challenge police record in High Court – from the Telegraph 10 November 2017

Mother wins judicial review of police over teen sexting – from The Week 10 November 2017

Mum taking police to court to force them to delete son’s naked selfie sext message – from the Mirror 11 November 2017

BBC Radio 4 Today programme 10 November (approx 1 hr 49 minutes in)

BBC Radio 4 Today programme 11 November, with Shauneen Lambe (approx 1 hr 50 minutes in)

Any Questions from 11 November 2017 (approx 35 minutes in)


Just for Kids Law to recruit second trainee solicitor, thanks to funding from The Legal Education Foundation

The award-winning children’s rights charity, Just for Kids Law, is recruiting a would-be solicitor to join its highly-regarded legal team.

The organisation is one of 15 across the country which will each host a trainee solicitor as part of The Legal Education Foundation’s (TLEF) Justice First Fellowship scheme.

Launched in 2014, the fellowship scheme aims to recruit candidates with a strong commitment to social justice to become future leaders of the social welfare law profession. Applicants must have passed the Legal Practice Course. And in addition to their solicitor qualification, fellows also receive training in key skills, such as fundraising, business planning and communications.

This is the second year running that Just for Kids Law, which provides advocacy, support and assistance to children and young people, has been selected to be involved in the fellowship scheme.

Just for Kids Law’s successful applicant will work with its various legal teams, namely in education and community care, which works with children and young people facing difficulties with their education, with social services, or the risk of homelessness; youth justice, which represents young people in the criminal justice system; and strategic litigation, which takes on cases that have a far-reaching impact.

“The trainee solicitor will work in conjunction with our legal teams on direct representation on behalf of children and young people to ensure they receive the support they are entitled to, and on ground-breaking strategic legal challenges and campaigns. We are excited to offer this wide-reaching legal training opportunity to a committed social justice trainee,” said Shauneen Lambe, Joint CEO Just for Kids Law.

The successful applicant at Just for Kids Law can expect to assist solicitors with case preparation, including legal research and issuing proceedings in court; drafting case papers, including representation and witness statements; providing an advice and casework service to clients; and undertaking all training necessary to qualify as a solicitor within two years.

The post at Just for Kids Law is co-funded by BBC Children in Need as part of a cluster of fellowships aimed at protecting children’s rights. Coram Children’s Legal Centre and the Migrant and Refugee Children’s Legal Unit will also be hosting a Justice First Fellow each.

Applications for all 15 posts opened on Monday, 14 August. The deadline is 18 September.

 

For more information about the vacancy or to apply for the role, click here.


‘There’s not much I can do, but sit at home’

When 20 -year-old Michael made his Home Office application last July, he assumed his problems were over. A year later, he is still waiting to hear back.

michael2‘Having to turn down the football scholarship was a big problem’

 

When I sent off my application to the Home Office in July 2016, I thought things were finally getting sorted with my life.

A year later, I am still sitting here. Still not allowed to work or study. Still waiting to hear if the Home Office has granted me ‘leave to remain’ in the only country I’ve known since I arrived when I was three years old.

The Home Office delay is hard for me, because it took so much to make the application in the first place.

It costs over £1,300 to apply, and I only managed to raise the money thanks to a crowdfunding campaign. (My mum is a single parent, with three children to support.) I was amazed how many people who didn’t even know me wanted to donate. That was really unexpected. Thanks to Just for Kids Law, I found a solicitor at a charity, who said she would do my application for free, because my case was so strong.

When we reached the crowdfunding target, and she sent off the application, I felt really grateful – and relieved. I thought I’d be able to get on and get a job. I also wanted to learn to drive. That would be a really big thing. Most of my friends can drive.

I can’t understand why it’s taking so long.

My solicitor and my then MP, Eric Pickles, tried chasing the Home Office, but it hasn’t made any difference.  When my lawyer called them, she was told: ‘It’s just one of those things.’ Eric Pickles knew about my situation and wrote them a letter, but they wrote back to say: ‘We haven’t made a decision.’ My lawyer said she’s seen so many Home Office letters like that one, and they usually mean they haven’t even looked at the application yet.

My situation feels a bit weird. I left school two years ago, and haven’t really done anything with my life since. I had to send away to the Home Office all my stuff which proves who I am or what I’ve done. All my certificates. Everything that I’ve had my whole life, I don’t have it now. So, there’s not much I can do, other than sit at home.

Most days, I get up. Go to the gym. Come home. Help my mum, or look after my little sister. I’ve got no income. My mum used to give me money, but it feels wrong at 20 to be taking money off my mum. Anyway, there’s nothing that I’m really spending.

Most of my friends work now. I’ve told some of them about my situation. Eventually, they had to know. They know, but they don’t really understand. I haven’t had a proper conversation with them about it. The year we turned 18, all my friends went on holiday to Spain, but I couldn’t go. That was when I first found out about the problems with my immigration status.

I stayed on at sixth form to study business and English language. I was offered a football scholarship in America, and that was the path I wanted to go down, for something work-related. Then I found I couldn’t go. Now I am sitting around doing nothing, it makes my time at school feel wasted.

Turning down the football scholarship was a big problem. Not many people get opportunities like that. I loved playing football, so I really wanted to do it. After I found out more about my situation, I had to let it go. I had to just say, I can’t do it.

Getting my status sorted will make a big difference. I’ll be able to go and get a proper job. I’ve always wanted to get into barristers clerking. I’ve had opportunities of getting into that, but couldn’t take them up. Two summers ago, I was doing football coaching. I was helping this guy’s son, and he wanted to know if this was my full-time job. He asked if I was interested in clerking. He recruits people to chambers. He said he knew chambers looking for juniors, starting at £18,000 a year. He kept emailing me about different opportunities. I couldn’t tell him why I couldn’t do it. I’m still really interested, though. I didn’t want to go to university. I researched how you can get into the law industry without going to uni, and with clerking, you can do in-house exams, which I wouldn’t mind.

I’ve still got his email.

For now, though, there’s nothing I can do.

Michael is a pseudonym


‘Samuel’s mum was cheering when we got the news’

Too many children are excluded from school without a proper hearing. As Frankie Shama’s Advocacy Year comes to an end, he recalls how having an advocate made all the difference to one 12-year-old

Frankie Shama

 

One thing I have learned during my year as a Just for Kids Law trainee advocate is that overturning a pupil’s exclusion from school is not easy. Head teachers are given a wide margin of discretion in making decisions, and parents rarely have the knowledge to use Department of Education guidelines and the law to challenge decisions.

Under the guidelines, children should only be excluded if they have breached, or persistently breached, the school’s behaviour policy, and exclusion should be used as a last resort. I’ve seen these guidelines ignored many times, even when governing bodies have been reminded of their legal responsibilities.

I’ve also seen how exclusions are not just a result of difficulties experienced by a child, but a precursor to further difficulties. These range from an increased likelihood of being involved with the criminal justice system, to unemployment later in life, due to a lack of support in obtaining suitable grades at school.

This is where Just for Kids Law comes in – or tries to.

Samuel is a considerate and lively 12-year old. He rarely stops talking, always wants to tell you what he has been up to, and is a complete joy to work with. He was diagnosed with ADHD in March this year, and has a variety of behavior characteristics which make it difficult for him to stay focused during lessons. He was moved to a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) for a period of three-weeks, and when his behavior didn’t improve, was permanently excluded from his original school. He was also accused of attacking another pupil outside the PRU.

Samuel, supported by his mum, wanted to challenge his exclusion. They didn’t think the school had given him enough support to meet his complex needs. Also, far from being the attacker, Samuel had been the victim of a violent physical and verbal assault, which ended with him being pinned against a wall, and punched multiple times in the face and stomach.

Members of the public and police officers had intervened during the attack, and the police took Samuel home to his mum. Despite his injuries, he didn’t want to press charges against the other boy. The next morning, his mum phoned the school to explain why her son wouldn’t be in.

A few hours later, the school called back to say Samuel had been excluded for fighting and because of his persistent disruptive behavior. A letter confirming the exclusion followed. The school had made its decision without taking a statement from Samuel, or investigating the incident.

With Just for Kids Law’s help, Samuel’s mum asked for a hearing with the school governing body, where he would have the chance to put his side of events. In the meantime, we secured evidence to challenge the school’s version of events: a police incident number, a medical report, and a statement from Samuel, about what had happened.

As youth advocates, we are able to prepare written and oral submissions, and use the law in a way parents find difficult when advocating on behalf of their own child. In Samuel’s case, a large part of my support was to help him advocate for himself. Often, I will also speak on behalf of a young person at a governors’ hearing, but – with careful encouragement beforehand and with his mum and me by his side – Samuel was able to speak for himself. He really rose to the occasion, explaining to a room full of skeptical adults what had happened, and why he thought the exclusion was so unjust. My legal submissions are one thing, but it was incredibly powerful for the governors to hear directly from Samuel himself.

The government says exclusions should be a last resort. Despite this – and despite knowing he was being assessed for ADHD – Samuel’s school had excluded him without having organised a multi-agency assessment for an Education, Health Care Plan (ECHP), which would have considered his needs and put together a package for meeting them. At the governors’ hearing, the school listed a variety of strategies it claimed had been put in place – about a third of which Samuel said had actually been implemented.

Despite knowing we had a strong case legally, I was not optimistic that Samuel would be reinstated. I’ve seen too many cases where governing bodies have refused to budge, despite all the evidence – meaning the case has had to go to the next stage, an Independent Review Panel (IRP).

However, this time was different. The submissions we had presented and Samuel’s heartfelt words must have struck home, as the governors overturned the head’s decision and reinstated him.

His mum was overjoyed, literally cheering when we got the news. She knows, however, that this is just the beginning and there may still be battles ahead to ensure that Samuel gets the support he needs from the school that his ADHD requires.

I’ve seen enough in my year as an advocate to know that it is still rare for a school to have the courage to overturn a bad decision. Unless there is a systemic shift, many excluded young people will continue to be failed by the very education system that is supposed to be protecting and nurturing them.

Even so, as I reach the end of my time as part of Advocacy Year, Samuel’s success feels like a small but significant victory – and confirmation of the difference having an advocate can make to a young person’s future.

Frankie Shama is a Just for Kids Law trainee youth advocate and part of its Advocacy Year scheme.


‘There is always a point in the movie when someone believes in the underdog and gives them that chance’ – #stillhiddenfigures

A Let Us Learn campaigner on why she’s still hoping for a happy ending, despite being blocked from taking up a place at medical school. 

 

I came to London from Nigeria when I was 5 with my mum, brother and sister.

During my school years I knew my mum was trying to sort out our immigration status. I didn’t really know what that meant but I knew it was something very important to us.

It took a long time to sort out and it was a lot for my mum to do on her own. There were so many delays. The Home Office lost our papers and we had some very bad lawyers acting for us. It dragged for years. From talking to other Let Us Learners, I know that what happened to us happens to a lot of people.

Without any legal status we had to rely on help from friends, the church or my school. My mum wasn’t allowed to work. It meant relying on food banks and coming home to a cold dark house because there wasn’t enough money left to top up the meter. It meant sometimes eating nothing but plain rice for a month and moving around a lot because the rent became too expensive. My way to cope with all of this uncertainty was to bury my head in a science book or read a fantasy novel where I could be someone else, somewhere else.

I remember in year 9 when help was dwindling, The Hunger Games series was the new thing. I took the book out from the library to read but I couldn’t continue after the first few chapters because, like the main character in the book, I felt like I was stuck in a hopeless situation where I had no control over what was going on in my life. The book was really descriptive about how bleak the character’s situation was, and to the 14-year-old me this was all hitting too close to home.  I was reading this book under layers of blankets because the electricity was out and there was no heating.

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Escaping to the facts of a textbook has always been my escape mechanism and this was why I was good at school and enjoyed every moment of secondary school. I was determined to take back control of my own life and that meant beating my situation. I did brilliantly in my GCSEs and got 5 A* and 4 As.

When we were finally granted what’s called Limited Leave to Remain at the start of year 12 in 2014, I thought that I was on a roll. I had it all planned and worked really hard to gain my place at medical school and was looking forward to five years of studying.

That was when I found out that even though I now had status, I needed to have had it for three years before I could qualify for a student loan. It was really hard to hear this and it felt like my world was crumbling around me. It felt like the control I fought so hard to gain was slipping through my fingers and I couldn’t imagine a life outside the plans I so carefully made.

I’m still not at university, but I haven’t given up. I found out about the Let Us Learn campaign and how a growing number of universities are helping people like me and setting up scholarship schemes so we can have the chance to go to university like everyone else. I wanted to get involved because it was important to me that others have the opportunity to go to university and carry on chasing their dreams.

People like to watch films where the underdog overcomes all to win at the end of the day. However, they are always given some sort of chance, an opportunity to showcase their talent. There is always a point in the movie when someone believes in the underdog and gives them that chance. That’s what we want universities to do. The people I’ve met as part of the Let Us Learn campaign are bright, confident and determined not to just sit around and wait for change to happen, but to go out and make it happen. They would be an asset to any university.

 


‘I wasn’t sure if grinning like a Cheshire Cat would attract or deter potential donors’

We are a team of 10 volunteers from the Civil Service Fast Stream who are raising money for Just for Kids Law during February and March. A member of the group is friends with someone who works at the charity, and when we heard about the work that Just for Kids Law does with young people across London we felt this was a cause we could really get behind. And because of the relatively small size of the organisation, we knew the money we raised could have a big impact for those it supports.

We are raising money in a number of ways, including shaking a bucket in various London Underground stations. This was just the first of three fundraising days. We will be shaking our buckets again at Tottenham Court Road station on 20 March and South Kensington on 21 March.

Here’s what one of our volunteers, Toni Warr, thought about her experience fundraising at Victoria Tube station last week.

 

‘180 minutes and the 5 stages of bucket shaking’


Stage 1. Painful awkwardness (0-15 minutes)

I arrived in the station for about 10am, not really sure of where I was going or what I was doing. I eventually found someone who could help me and I signed in, put my Just for Kids Law t-shirt on, and just like that I was ready to bucket shake. I spent the first 7 minutes weighing up the pros and cons of certain spots: where could people see me, where would I not be in the way. Then I stood with my bucket in hand, unsure of what I was hoping for in that moment. While some people stared if I met their gaze, others avoided me like the plague. I thought: I’d better smile, you know, look approachable. But I wasn’t sure if the sight of me grinning like the Cheshire Cat might be off-putting to potential donors, so I switched between grinning and trying to look like a normal person. A few people dropped some money in my bucket on the way past with looks of sympathy, one lady saying “I know how awful it is to stand there”. But I wasn’t sure if pity was what I was hoping for.

 

Stage 2. London is a horrible place (15-30 minutes)

After about 15 minutes of devastating self-consciousness I turned my gaze to the people around me. I was clearly standing in the middle of the ticket hall with my bright t-shirt and forced grin, but I was being totally ignored. I was bumped into, had my foot run over by countless wheelie cases and was generally dismissed by the thousands of people walking past. I realised I did not have to feel that painful awkwardness because no one was paying attention to anything but getting their Oyster cards out of their pockets. I started to wonder why I was living in London. I contemplated that I had behaved exactly the same way as everyone else when I was commuting this morning. Eventually a few people smiled and put some money in my bucket as rush hour subsided. Maybe London wasn’t so bad.

 

Stage 3. Finding your true calling (30-60 minutes)

My bucket shaking partner, Daisy, had arrived. Now there were two of us so we were harder to trample on and ignore. But the main thing the two of us attracted were people seeking directions. One lady even asked Daisy to carry her gigantic suitcase up the stairs (I can only assume that everyone thought we worked for Transport for London, despite the Just for Kids Law t-shirts and buckets). One lady came over and offered me tips on how to look happy while shaking my bucket. I felt much better now there were two of us (safety in numbers).

 

Stage 4. Self-imposed humiliation (60-120 minutes)

After what seemed like a long morning, our buckets were starting to fill up. High on the 2p coins weighing down our buckets, and safe in the knowledge that no one was paying any attention anyway, Daisy and I started to get a bit more confident. Daisy was braver than I, and started calling some fun catch phrases. We agonised over the best way to use the word “change” for double meaning. It was like performing a classic dance like nobody’s watching, and where your audience is a ticket hall full of angry people – but it worked. The more fun we had, the heavier our buckets became.

 

Stage 5. Acceptance (120-180 minutes)

The final 60-minute stretch passed at lightning speed compared to the first hour. We were well versed on how many stops there were to Oxford Street, we had all the catchphrases down, and people who were traveling during lunch were decidedly friendlier than those traveling during rush hour. Most of those who gave us money didn’t seem to have time to stop and chat, but one or two did take an interest. Everyone we managed to speak to about the work Just for Kids Law does to support young people in London gave us money (including one who gave us a bit of an interrogation!), so hopefully that’s a good sign.

We came a long way, from not knowing what to say to having fun. Fingers crossed we raised a tonne!

— Toni Warr

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You can help our volunteers raise money for Just for Kids Law by donating here: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/LegallyFund (all money donated goes directly to Just for Kids Law).


The power of having a goal – #stillhiddenfigures

One of the best things about the future is how unpredictable it is. Then again, that’s also one of the worst things about it. It all just depends on your perspective, says one of our Let us Learn campaigners.

The above sentiment reflects my life for the past nine years. In my previous blog, I mentioned that one of the main things that kept me motivated was the thought of going to university. It still is – although I have no way of getting there, because I don’t qualify for a student loan.

All through secondary school and college, the goal of university helped to keep me focused, even though there was violence at home and we moved around a lot while we tried to sort out our immigration status. This goal helped me wipe my face and smile after 20 minutes of crying every morning in the toilets. This goal made me think I can make something of myself and repay all the amazing people who were kind to me, even they didn’t have to be. For me, education was a way that I could finally have an equal footing to succeed like other people. It would give me the same opportunities as others my age to work for my own future. It is what helped me achieve seven AS levels and five A grades at A-level, plus an A* in my extended project qualification.

It was this goal that led me to secure an interview at Cambridge University to study medicine. When this happened, I felt: wow! I really could achieve anything. I didn’t receive an offer from Cambridge, which would be disappointing for anyone but, after my reflection period, I still felt driven by the goal I had set myself.

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It’s ironic that it’s my immigration status that has motivated me to work hard and achieve, as it’s also what has knocked me back again and again, barring me from receiving the higher education that I want so much.

My message to others in this situation is about the power of a goal. It could be anything really, as long it keeps you driven, focused and determined. Just don’t let it go. I won’t lie, sometimes I genuinely have almost given up, but I just look at how far I’ve come. Another thing about having a goal is that it somehow brings the right people around you. When my goal has not been enough, the journey towards that goal has surrounded me with strangers who have become family, who pick me up when I stumble. These people know my goal and have listened to me rant, rage and cry, and then help me up and dust myself down and keep moving towards my goal. To graduate from university will not be my goal forever, of course, but for now it is definitely enough to direct me and help me block out the more heartbreaking sides of not having immigration status in the UK.


Lift off for Let Us Learn campaign – #stillhiddenfigures

Let Us Learn’s #younggiftedandblocked campaigners are taking inspiration from the Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures, which tells the story of the forgotten African-American mathematicians and scientists who played a pivotal role in the US Apollo space programme.

The three women featured in the film faced significant barriers to being able to achieve their ambitions, despite their great determination, hard work and talent.

A group of Let Us Learn campaigners who are facing barriers of their own were lucky enough to attend a preview of the film, where they met leading women scientists including space scientist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, EDF Energy’s Dr Christine Waata, and the UK Space Agency’s Kathie Bowden.

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After seeing the film, Let Us Learner Agnes Harding said: “I cried. I laughed and I gasped. Not only did I get to watch this epic tale of three of the most inspiring women in science, I got to meet a few, too. These women have shown us that being a black woman in the white man’s world that is STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] isn’t impossible. A challenge maybe, but a challenge we can overcome. I cannot express how truly inspired I am at this moment. So I say, let’s do this!”

Agnes is one of hundreds of young people involved in Let Us Learn who have been unable to take up university places because they are not recognised as home students, despite living in the UK most of their lives. As a result, they are ineligible for student loans and can be charged international fees by universities, which can be up to three times higher than the £9,000 a year paid by home students.

Agnes achieved three grade As in her A-levels in maths, chemistry and physics. It is her ambition to be a scientific researcher and go into space, but she has been unable to take up her place to study physics at Manchester University. (Read Agnes’ story here.)

Her school friend, Sabrina, also has a strong interest in science. She wants to be a forensic scientist but has been unable to take up her place to study chemistry at Queen Mary for lack of funding.

Last year, Let Us Learn launched its Young, Gifted and Blocked campaign, calling on universities to create scholarships to allow students in this situation to continue their studies.

Mistura is one Let Us Learner who has already benefited from this kind of dedicated funding. Despite being rejected for a student loan, Mistura is now in her second year at Manchester University studying chemical engineering, thanks to a bursary from the Tiko Foundation. She is looking forward to an internship working in the oil industry.

Following the campaign, a growing number of universities are now offering scholarships. These include Kings College London, SOAS, UCL and Sussex University. But Let Us Learn is urging others to follow suit.


Let Us Learn campaigner and wannabe astronaut, Agnes Harding, was left fired up after seeing Hidden Figures

Last Thursday Let Us Learn was fortunate enough to be given tickets to attend a private screening of Hidden Figures. Hearing of this opportunity the night before, I practically leaped out of my seat with glee. I’d been waiting to see this film since September when I first came across it on Space.com. I could hardly sleep that night out of sheer excitement and anticipation. It was finally happening.

My excitement was for one reason. I want to be an astronaut. Only recently have I been able to admit to people that this is what I want to do in the future. It’s not actually as crazy as it sounds (something I’ve had to tell myself time and time again), as I’ve always been good at science and am quite the daredevil. I’ve always worked hard at school, because education is one thing I could always control and found refuge in, which meant that I finished my A-levels last summer with straight As in chemistry, physics and maths. I was even offered a place at Manchester University to study physics – a leading institution in the subject with such history in the field of science, which is the reason I fell in love with it in the first place. Learning last year that I couldn’t take up my place that September, devastated me. Although I’ve lived in this country since I was 4 years old, I’m ineligible for a student loan, which means that my dream of going to university with my friends and studying the subject I so love, has been put out of my reach for now.

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Despite this setback, my passion for all things space has not been dulled, so I was very, VERY excited to see this long-awaited film.

The journey into central London that morning from my home in zone 5, for the screening, seemed to last for hours. As I walked in to the cinema, NASA top on and popcorn in hand, I could see the movie posters and cutouts in the distance. One of the other Let Us Learn campaigners, Lizzie, had to calm me down before I got too excited. When we walked in, the first thing I saw was the astronaut suit on the chair. A real-life astronaut suit! Right there in front of me. The day was already much better than I was expecting.

We finally got into the movie theatre and for the next two hours I was absolutely captivated. I cried, I laughed and I gasped. Seeing the lengths Mary Jackson went to be able to attend college to become an engineer really resonated with me. Because, just as she was not scared to fight the power and make a change, I have joined the fight with Let Us Learn to do the same and make a way for anyone who wants to attend university and reach their potential to have the opportunity to do so.

Not only did I get to watch this epic tale of three of the most inspiring women in science, I also got to meet a few in person, too. After the film, there was a Q&A with a panel of female scientists who are leaders in their fields, including Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Dr Christine Waata. Hearing them speak, I was hanging on their every word. They were where I saw myself in the future: successful, strong and making a difference. As an aspiring astronaut, listening to them taught me that my dream could one day become a reality.

I was heartbroken when I wasn’t able to go tostudy at Manchester last September, and currently have no concrete solution in sight. However, I have not given up hope. One reason is because of all of the amazing people I have met through the Let Us Learn campaign, who are in similar situations to me. We keep each other going despite the challenges and uncertainty we may face. Since joining the campaign last year, I have been part of the team going into schools and colleges, spreading awareness of this issue. I have also been involved in the universities campaign, which is helping set up scholarships at various universities; and much, much more that I’m proud to have helped achieve. We are already making a difference, with a number of universities recognising our situation and taking steps to introduce special funding schemes. Manchester, unfortunately, not being one of them as of yet.

The women whose stories feature in Hidden Figures,  have shown us that being a black woman in the white man’s world that is STEM, isn’t impossible. A challenge, maybe, but a challenge we CAN overcome. I cannot express how truly inspired I am at this moment. So I say, let’s do this! #StillHiddenFigures

 


I, Daniel Blake may be fiction, but it was all too familiar to me, says Just for Kids Law youth advocate Rosie Eatwell-White

“Grim,” my sister had warned me. “Grim, grim, grim.” “It’s so sad,” a friend reported. “Take hankies.” I finally plucked up the courage to see the new Ken Loach film, I, Daniel Blake. Yes, the film is grim and intensely sad, as well as touching and humorous, but it all felt so depressingly familiar that it somehow lacked the shock factor that others have felt. The stories it told reflected the experiences of so many of the young people I work with at Just for Kids Law, whose youth and inexperience, if anything, makes them even more vulnerable than the characters in the film.

So I was surprised to read after seeing it that some commentators have criticised it for being unrealistic and have claimed that “several aspects… don’t ring true”. I felt that the film was very realistic and, at each stage, I can think of examples of young clients we have supported who have faced the same or similar difficulties as those in the film.

Take the main character’s application for Employment and Support Allowance, for example, and his interaction with the Department for Work and Pensions. The film shows Daniel Blake attempting to steer through a Kafkaesque system of phone calls, forms and appointments, perfectly capturing the frustration our clients feel when they try to apply for benefits. For example, I regularly make calls to the DWP with Thomas, 20, who suffers from anxiety and depression and who receives ESA. Thomas needs my support to communicate his views and feelings, as he can get very agitated on the phone as a result of his anxiety. Every time we call the helpline, we wait for at least half an hour before someone answers, raising Thomas’s anxiety levels considerably. When we do speak to someone, Thomas has more than once been given conflicting information, leaving him confused and upset.  Once, two weeks passed with Thomas not receiving any money at all because he was told he had to wait for a call, only for us to eventually ring back to be told that this information was incorrect and he had to do something different. This is Thomas’s main interaction with the state and it leaves him feeling angry, mistrusting and neglected.

Commentators have claimed that the film is over-the-top in some of the severe levels of misery it portrays. But again, at Just for Kids we have numerous examples of the extreme difficulties clients face as a result of failings in the benefits system, such as Maxine. When Maxine was a child she was physically and emotionally abused by her mother. She is now 21 and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of years of abuse. Her PTSD manifests itself in severe anxiety and depression, and regular panic attacks, fainting and incontinence. Maxine is socially isolated and during her depressive phases she is unable to leave her room for several weeks at a time. She receives ESA and Personal Independence Payment (PIP). When I started working with Maxine, her ESA had suddenly been stopped without warning. When I called the DWP on her behalf to ask what had happened, I was told that her account had been closed and she needed to make a fresh application. When I asked why, I was told I’d get a call back from the benefits centre who could explain – I never did.

Maxine duly put in a fresh claim, which took weeks to be processed. During that time, Maxine slowly ran out of money. Her condition means that she needs to buy incontinence pads (not available on the NHS) and take minicabs to her mental health appointments, as she finds public transport so overwhelming. She also goes through depressive phases where she binge eats to try and deaden some of the intense emotional pain she is feeling. These effects of her condition come with a financial cost. Without her ESA payment coming in, her money ran out and her anxiety rose. She told me she felt panicked and frightened. She had no money for food and her incontinence pads were running out. I made several calls to the DWP on her behalf to try and hurry the process, but to no avail. In the end, Just for Kids Law had to provide foodbank vouchers and I applied for an emergency crisis loan from the local borough, who thankfully provided a one-off payment. A week later, Maxine’s ESA came through. It took several more phone calls to get an answer on why her claim had been stopped: a form hadn’t been returned to the DWP – as it turned out, it had been sent to the wrong address.

There are numerous other examples from Ken Loach’s film which ring true for anyone working in this field, from the insecure minimum wage work young people have to resort to, to the long months some homeless clients spend in cramped B&B accommodation.

The clients I have described are young and they are vulnerable. Many have little or no family support and a background of disadvantage, often compounded by mental health difficulties. They are then expected to navigate a system which leaves even experienced, educated professionals like me and my colleagues confused and exasperated. At the same time, they are treated by that system as tiresome and undeserving. At Just for Kids Law we try to give them back that voice. We support young people as they pick their way through obstacles to access what is ultimately their entitlement as citizens. But our work is limited and for everyone we help – with phone calls, letters, support at tribunals, and signposting to expert advice and representation – there are many more young people having to struggle alone.

Rosie Eatwell-White is a youth advocate at Just for Kids Law