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.

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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!

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What has being a Scout done for me? | scouting

It’s currently the summer holidays so I think it’s the perfect time to look into opportunities for September either for kids or for yourself, so I thought I’d talk a bit about my time in Scouts so far as both a youth member and an adult volunteer. Yes, I’m probably a little bit biased, but I can genuinely say that I don’t know where I’d be without it.

I joined the Cub Scouts when I was 10 and I was the only girl in my pack at the time (and was then the only girl Scout a year later) because some of my friends were in it and I fell in love with it. I was one of those kids who thrived on reward, so getting badges was my favourite thing, and I just enjoyed having friends somewhere that wasn’t school. To be honest, that’s a bit of a lie – I still thrive on reward and I still love getting badges, although as an adult you don’t get half as many!

Scouting has seen me at my worst and at my best, because it’s been one of the only constants in my life over the last 8 (nearly 9!) years. It saw me through when my best friend passed away; during all my symptoms of chronic and mental illness and this year they’ve celebrated how far I’ve come. My group have done everything they can to make as much as they can accessible, and I’ve had so many cool experiences.

The main campaign for Scouting at the moment is #skillsforlife and I’ve gained so many skills. People think of Scouting and just think of skills like map-reading, pioneering and things like that, which I have learnt (and still fail at), but it’s more than that – leadership and communication and trust. I’ve achieved my Silver Duke of Edinburgh award and I’m on my way to Gold and becoming a Queen’s Scout, which has been my goal since I was a much younger Scout.

The opportunities I’ve been offered have been incredible. I’ve been in Gang Show twice – a Scouting variety show happens all over the country – performing for a week each time in a proper theatre. Last year I went to Belgium and went to several of the war memorials for the anniversary (and a chocolate factory, so my ultimate goal now is to be a chocolatier), and next year if all goes to plan I’m going to Canada.

I actually still think about the waffles I ate in Belgium, so I just thought I’d make you hungry even though it’s not hugely relevant here.

But apart from these big experiences, there’s the weekly meetings which are just as important to me. I was a Young Leader for two and a half years, and in September I’ll have done a year of service as an adult. I’ve run several badges with the Cubs – Chef, Disability Awareness, Scientist – and I like to think I’ve made an impact on some of their lives, even if it’s just one thing they’ve picked up along the way.

Scouting is absolutely my second family, and I don’t know quite where I’d be without them. I’ve loved every camp, every experience and I honestly think that every child should have the opportunity to be part of an organisation like it – Scouting, Guiding, Cadets or anything else. It gives kids skills that they won’t learn in school, and experiences they probably won’t find anywhere else. It’s fun, it’s challenging and it’s a family. If you’re an adult, I’d 100% recommend getting involved as a leader – it’s so fulfilling and you’ll be changing the lives and mindsets of so many kids.

You can find a group in your local area if you click here. Pop your local group an email and I’m sure they’ll welcome you in with open arms! And if you’re not convinced by me alone, there’s plenty of testimonies available on the website too.

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.

Why I (sort of) miss my walking stick | disability

In May 2017, I started using a walking stick – on the day of my GCSE biology exam to be exact, and I was so nervous about what people would say. It’s not exactly seen as normal for a 16 year old to be using a cane, is it? But I had very little choice; I couldn’t hold myself up and the amount of pain I was in wasn’t worth it compared to the slight embarrassment I felt when I first started using it.

Using a walking stick as a teenager is really difficult, and I can’t sugarcoat that. Elderly people glare at you because they think you’re faking; people make comments as you walk past. A lad imitated my legs collapsing as he walked past me once, and I’ve never felt so self-conscious. My condition that was once invisible became public property to discuss and question and laugh at. A boy from a younger year once shouted after me asking if I’d just come back from a war, which was not only humiliating, but extremely offensive to veterans.

It got easier with time. I became more comfortable with going out; it took longer for me to feel okay when I was just with my friends instead of my mum, purely from a protection perspective (although my friends are amazing, and so supportive). I got to a point where I just rolled my eyes when someone made comments, and I empowered myself through having photos taken with it.

This was taken in Swansea by my best friend Caitlin because I walked past this wall every day walking to work experience and I happened to match it.

I stopped using it in January 2019, when I had my pain rehabilitation programme and strengthened my legs. And obviously, I was, and generally am, really happy about that – people don’t look at me, they don’t comment. But that causes other issues for me, and I sometimes miss it – not in that I want to use it, but the fact it has made my disability invisible again.

If people knock me, it hurts for at least four days, and this happens a lot because I can’t walk very fast. I don’t feel like I can ask for a seat on trains like I used to, so I’ve stood up most times than not since January on shorter journeys and the tube in London. It feels like I’m constantly dismissed and seen as able-bodied, but I’m still working on building up my strength so my legs still collapse under me and I can’t walk very far in one go.

This isn’t meant to be a sob story. This is more about the differences between being invisibly disabled and having a visible invisible disability (which is different to a visible disability, which is more about visible symptoms, I believe). I know I am privileged to be able to walk around without people making such comments, I’m more likely to be given a job, and I am less likely to find that places are inaccessible to me. There is definite privilege in the stage I am now at with my disability, and it’s quite undeniable.

But I can’t deny that I sometimes miss the ease that it could sometimes bring in people accepting that there is actually something wrong with me, even if that was often grudging. Now, I feel like I have to prove myself far more, and it’s difficult in a different way.

Whether your disabilities are visible or not, there will always be a fight. Disabled people still aren’t equal in so many areas, and often aren’t even included in lists of marginalised people. So it’s interesting for me to look at the different versions of the fight that I’ve experienced, and will continue to experience.