Think min.wage is bad- try working for £1.58 an hour…

…no I’m not talking about sweat shops. I’m talking about being a carer in Britain today. We criticize developing countries or big multi-national companies for failing to pay wages which cover the basics- while I’m completely behind that- did you know that all over this country the state knowingly abuses carers? Knowing that carers won’t fail to help their dependents but the state uses them as free or cheap labour. Refusing to pay them an amount that will come close to covering the basics, if it pays them at all, means that quality of life for carers is usually very low. There are so many criteria through which many people working more hours than a full-time job fall through and are not paid at all. My carer, Paul Wilkinson writes about his experience as a carer and a student.

The 2001 census revealed that 1.9 million people provide over 20 hours of unpaid care a week with 1.25 million providing over 50. The 6 million who are paid using the carer’s allowance benefit receive £55.55 a week for providing over 35 hours of care, which works out to disgustingly low amount of £1.58 an hour!

These grim statistics are accompanied by the disturbing revelation that carers themselves are twice as likely to become long term sick or disabled as the average person.

I’m one of the 1.25 million who provide over 50 hours of unpaid care to a loved one. I want to look at the problems faced by carers and the help, or rather of the lack of help, available to them. While I could write endless pages about the plights of the disabled, and rightly so, in this case I want to stick with what I know firsthand. The problems faced by the disabled and carers are, however, interwoven so from reading this I hope you will gain an insight of both sides of the coin.


First things first, it’s important to note that not all disabled people will have carers. Some manage perfectly well without the need of care, or at least get by with relatively little care. Others don’t get the support even if they desperately need it.

A carer has a lot of pressure on them. They are ultimately responsible the well being of their dependent. They are required be on hand literally twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Some have to be ready to wake up at any point in the night and then to be completely alert throughout the day because one mistake could set the dependent back months. That’s one of the worst things about disability. It can take someone months, even years, to reach a certain level of health, however only a small mistake to send someone back to the beginning. Due to the lack of provision to support carers, you are essentially never allowed a day off, and definitely not a sick day. I manage to get away for a couple of hours a week but that’s simply not possible for a lot of carers. Insufficient support for the disabled puts a huge burden on carers, and I’m sure a lot of disabled people would agree that sometimes their carers bare the brunt of consequences when systems or other people fail to play the role in help they promised or when the state fails to provide the right care.  This is increasingly becoming a problem for a lot of people because of government cuts. Anyone who works with disabled people knows that often benefits and additional support is cut when clearly that person is in dire need of the support they were getting.

A good example of this is where DLA is cut for people with immobility issues, part of the support they get is specially adapted cars. When the benefit is cut, they lose the car and therefore their independence, meaning that a carer (if there is one) needs to do all of the things the disabled person used to manage to do for themselves. It’s a frustrating cycle.

Many struggle to be able to leave their dependent to go to lectures, so to work, is out of the question. Inevitably, the financial pressure on them can be overwhelming.

If you are a full time student and a carer, whether it is for a parent, sibling, partner or child, the cold reality is that there is no financial help for you. Absolutely nothing. Often when I have made this claim people refuse to believe it. Even professionals (doctors and Support Centre Staff) tell me that it can’t be true. I often get told, for example, that I could just apply for Carers Allowance. It turns out, that in all their wisdom, those running the country decided that you are not entitled to carers allowance whilst in full time education.

This technicality has had massive effects on young people’s lives. For example, imagine an eighteen year old caring for a disabled parent. This 18 year olds household is financially reliant on the Carer’s Allowance, because it is increasingly difficult to live off the government’s support. Despite the popular impression of the ‘comfortable’ life that people have on state benefits, those who are reliant on Disabled Living Allowance, Carer’s Allowance or Incapacity benefit seriously struggle to stay out of poverty. This is something which is getting worse with the disabled being targeted disproportionately in the government’s austerity measures.

Now he or she has ambitions to study at university, however, how can they do so if it will mean losing their allowance and their family falling into poverty? In an impossible situation where the carer is ultimately restricted in a personal and professional capacity. The same restrictions apply to all carers who are trying to find an occupation that could fit with their care responsibilities.

This not only effects the carer, but puts the dependent under a lot of pressure forcing upon them an unnecessarily burden of guilt. Which in turn usually leads a worsening of their symptoms, meaning the carer has to do more, and so the awful cycle goes.

14year old young carer helping her mom

14 year old carer helps her mum Image via Wikipedia

For student carers there is also very little educational support available. When a carer is up all night with a dependent, has to take them to medical appointments, or is unable to leave them alone due to ill health; there is no access to, for example, note takers, lecture recordings or similar resources that are made available for people with medical conditions. Ultimately this means the carer’s work suffers significantly without any recognition from authorities that they have any kind of disadvantage.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. In my experience, University staff have been incredibly helpful and supportive. I’ve been given extra support from lecturers, personal tutors and my head of year and have been offered extension on essays and an exam schedule split over the normal exam period and the re-sit period. I cannot speak highly enough of the individual members of staff who have gone out of their way to help. The problem is, is that this is support has been down to the individual’s discretion. With disabled students, law states that universities do all they can to make sure that they are not disadvantaged. Also, for disabled there is Disabled Student’s Allowance which is used to fund support workers that go to lectures on their behalf.  No such thing exists for carers. Ultimately, a carer’s life can focus around the life of the person receiving the care, if that person suffers an unpredictable illness, such as fibromyalgia, then the carer’s life too is unpredictable. Attempting to fit in full-time care around a full-time university course means being incredibly efficient and organized- that’s something I’ve had to learn. When the system or the routine fails because of a ‘bad’ day then things can easily go into disarray, in many cases, carers either fail or prepare properly or even fail to attend assessments. Until there is official recognition for carers, they are always going to be in a precarious position.

I must stress that I do not intend to give an impression of carer’s being more hard done by than disabled students. Disabled students face a massive uphill struggle in university. My comparison is merely to reflect what could be done to help carers level out the disadvantages they face. Also I don’t mean to paint a picture of a carer’s life being miserable. It suits my purposes, however, to focus more on the disadvantages one might face than the aspects which are rewarding.

There is a massive lack of awareness of both the disabled and carers in university and in the wider world.  Something which I hope will be addressed soon in order to give some of the most vulnerable and most gifted persons an equal opportunity to excel in life.

One of things I have seen frustrates Paul the most is that not only is there not a forum to voice your frustrations and affect change, but very few people care. He said to me this morning that he could tweet all day about carer’s allowance and no one would reply or re-tweet but if he wrote about Justin Bieber he’d get tons. Thanks for reading this post- will you help to raise awareness?

Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as as outraged those who are – Benjamin Franklin

What ‘The History Boys’ teaches us about education

Yesterday afternoon I went to see a wonderful performance of Alan’s Bennett’s The History Boys (now been made into a film). The play, while very comical, also asks some probing questions of the British education system. These same questions and issues are just as prevalent in every school up and down the country today, as they were in ‘80s Sheffield, where the play is set. Most of my friends have a gripe or two about their school, their teachers, etc, etc. We all have someone to blame for not getting an ‘A’ in an exam or piece of coursework. Is the current approach of focusing on exams really the best way to teach and grade our society? I’d like to explore some of the ideas Bennett presents his audience through the teachers, without giving away too much of the plot.

The play is centres around a group of schools boys, who have achieved grades good enough for them to apply to Oxbridge to study history. The headmaster, eager for his school to climb up the league tables, seizes the intelligence of these boys and enrols them in classes to prepare them to apply to Oxbridge. Other than the headmaster, the play has three teachers, each representing a different approach to teaching and education.

Firstly, Mrs Lintott, who taught the boys ‘A’level history. She represents the teaching style which has dominated schools since the introduction of national curriculum. The boys acquired the knowledge of history needed to achieve an ‘A’ grade in their examinations but did not actually engage with the material. This approach doesn’t encourage pupils to think outside of the box. They simply memorize and regurgitate the correct information. I have to admit, I remember little of what I was taught in school, even from my ‘A’ level classes, although I achieved high grades and only left school two years ago. That may have more to do with my bad memory though, the students on University Challenge seem to soak up every little bit of information around them.

Does this process of memorizing and then repeating the material actually improve intelligence? The structure of the examinations means that students can remember the material for a short time, but as soon as they leave the exam room, the knowledge just disappears- we learn just for exams and do not obtain long-term knowledge. This disadvantages pupils who find learning and working in this way difficult, because their minds do not work this way, but it does not mean they have lower intelligence. A prime example are dyslexic students, who are actually usually highly intelligent but find it difficult to express themselves in the way exams demand, and therefore achieve lower grades. Great people such as Van Gogh and Mozart would have been branded as having learning difficulties if they went through schooling today. This begs the question, does the schooling system get the best of pupils? Are intelligent pupils slipping through the cracks because they don’t fit the system, and, therefore, are branded as low-achieving pupils, leaving school with low self-esteem?

Hector very much recognises these flaws in education. He teaches the boys general knowledge, and is infuriated by the boys consistently asking, “will that be on the exam?” For him, knowledge is not repeating facts, events, etc, but “all knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use” (Housman). He teaches the boys French, poetry and hymns among others, but all of this seems pointless when you consider whether this knowledge will ever be of any use. The headmaster scheduled these lessons so that the boys will appear as cultured candidates.

Do you agree with Hector?

Irwin, however, wants the boys to harness this knowledge to present a new view of history. Irwin is hired as a temp to ensure that the boys’interviews and exams will be good enough. Unlike Irwin, none of the teachers went to Oxbridge so they don’t know how they can help the boys get in. Irwin pushes the boys to think outside of the box, and steer them away from the status quo answer. This is very much the approach to education in university. Read, read, and read some more so that you can give an informed and strong argument. The boys strive to reach Irwin’s high standards, but are frustrated when they realize they have to argue for arguing sake, and not because they agree or believe what they are saying. Irwin’s response to this is to tell the boys that they must detach themselves from history. Should students and lecturers be passionate about their subject, or does this emotion only cloud judgement and prevent proper study and argument?

Ultimately, the best system should involve all three- in Europe pupils obtain a baccalaureate, instead of ‘A’levels. Life and key skills are assessed alongside academic subjects. In 2003 the Welsh Assembly introduced a Welsh Bacc. It is not yet compulsory but my school was one of the first to trial it, and, while my former class mates would hate me for saying this, I do think it did help me develop skills, and definitely made me more aware of my strengths and weaknesses. I love learning, and so academia and exams will always have a place for me, least not because it is essential for development, but in economically developed countries, like the UK, where old industry and manufacturing are almost non-existent, the education system must teach skills which are needed in the workforce and assess intelligence in more varied forms than written examinations, rather than waste talent because those pupils don’t fit the mould.

What do you think? Do you prefer one of the teacher’s approach over another, or disagree with all of them? What was your experience of education? And, if you’re one of my international readers, bow does the British education system compare to that of your country?