Inside Exams

Podcast series two now available

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Teacher Craig Barton is back with series two of Inside Exams, the podcast that gives you an access all areas pass to snoop around behind the scenes at AQA.

He’ll be meeting the people who write and mark your students’ exams, as well as pioneering teachers, to get answers to all the questions you ponder throughout the school day.

© AQA 2019

AQA Unlocking Potential: barriers to barrister

Series one
Bonus: Episode two | 7 May 2019

No two students are the same. So, when it comes to special requirements, taking the time out to really listen and understand an individual student’s needs can make all the difference.

In this bonus episode, Haleemah Farooq talks about her experiences of living with a visual impairment and explains how the AQA Unlocking Potential programme has helped set her on an exciting career path.

Featured in this podcast

Haleemah Farooq – Criminal Law Student at Brunel University


My name is Haleemah Farooq. I am 22 years old and I am a Law student studying Law with Criminal Justice at Brunel University London. I was born with a visual impairment. What that means is I kind of come under everything to do with having a sight condition. I’m visually impaired, partially sighted and I’m legally registered blind. Basically I’ve got scarring on my retina near my optic nerve which stops the messages obviously going through to the brain and stuff.

So, I don’t have much sight in my right eye at all and my left eye is my stronger eye but even that isn’t amazing, but then again I’ve had the same sight since I was born so I don’t know any better.

What this means for me is growing up I just learned to work differently. When I was in primary school I didn’t really know much about my sight condition. I just knew that I couldn’t see as well as anyone else because obviously when people will point at posters or something like that I just wouldn’t be able to see what they are pointing at.

But then obviously what that meant was I just developed different ways of learning which at the time didn’t mean anything to me, I just thought that’s the way I work, that’s the way I do things, but I was just adapting as a child.

Come secondary school I actually received a lot of help. From Year 7 to Year 13 I received assistance from this one teacher called Vanessa Crouch. We learnt Braille together. We learnt how to use my cane. We did mobility training together and she was basically the teacher at school who was fighting my corner making sure that everything was how it should be.

She would be sent documents in advance and she would then make sure that the font is the font that I need, so I need, I say 36, I would prefer a larger font but obviously if I go for a larger font then that means there is a lot of paper. So, if it’s printed I like 36 font but then I also prefer anything being sent to me electronically and that’s what Vanessa would do. She would get rid of any contrasting backgrounds. If there’s like an image that wasn’t clear enough she would Google another image and put it there.

Vanessa was my teaching assistant in more or less every class and I also had private studies with her. So, we grew a very strong relationship and she understood the adjustments that I needed to be done in order for me to see a document. I don’t know much about other eye conditions because they’re all different. Anyone that has got a visual impairment is not the same and anyone that has some sort of chronic body condition is not the same.

Even though they might have the same eye condition it affects them differently so I think teachers and staff, and parents, should really talk to the person, they know the best about their condition themselves. I’ve had situations where people think they’re doing good for me because they’re like “oh yeah, I had another student who had a sight loss and this is what I did for her so that’s what I’ll do for you”.

And it’s like “no, because her eye condition was different and mine’s different”. I’ve had some people who don’t even ask me, they just think “oh, she’s visually impaired, okay, I’ll just enlarge this A4 sheet into an A3 sheet and I’ll give it to her” thinking that that makes it all different and it doesn’t. All that just does is increase the paper to an A3 paper and probably just increases the font from font 11 to font 12 and I’m literally just holding it next to my face.

I think people should be very aware of who they are helping and what that person’s conditions are, and what their needs are. They should really just listen.

Vanessa became like my second mum at school which was really good because I was the victim of bullying at school because I didn’t used to use my cane in school for several reasons. I wasn’t comfortable letting people know that I had a sight condition straight away. When you’re that age you don’t want a reason for anyone to pick on you.

Sadly even though I didn’t use my cane I was still… I became a reason. I used to receive assistance. I had a teaching assistant in every class and other students thought that the reason I was performing very well was because the teaching assistants were giving me the answers. Obviously that’s not true. But at the time it was so sad because you do everything you can to try and fit in. You do everything you can to get the best marks despite the fact that your eyes are killing you. So, it was really disheartening.

So, that was basically in Year 8, and Year 8 wasn’t a good year for me. Come Year 9 I basically got involved in, like, everything I wanted to do. I kind of just started developing a thick skin because I was like ‘listen, I am the way I am. I don’t know why I’ve got a sight condition’ but I think that’s the age where I started just not giving a damn anymore so that’s when I started getting involved in lots of extra-curricular activities and I think that’s just what really built my courage up.

Obviously that determination carried on until Year 10 and 11, and Year 11 is where I got involved with the Unlocking Potential programme with AQA and the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust. When I did it basically 20, I think 20, students got selected to take part in a programme where the programme’s aims were to inspire and motivate the individual who may be from a disadvantaged background in whatever way and they were mentored by elite athletes.

So, I had Claire Bennett who is a former GB Fencer. She basically mentored me through my GCSEs and anything I had concerns with. She was just there as like a friend and then she helped me execute my Social Action Project which was my charity fashion show. It was really good having her help because I guess she was like the first adult friend if that makes sense because obviously I was in school so all my friends were students my own age.

So, she was like, apart from Miss Crouch, the second person who was a little bit older than me and I could like speak to her on a less formal level. So, I think that was really, really good. The good thing about the programme was Claire even told me her story, what her journey was, her training ethic, everything that she did to get to where she is, it was really inspiring because at the time I don’t think I knew I wanted to go to uni or even that I would be studying Law to become a barrister, but I think the programme was just a really good way to put me in line to where I should be aiming.

This programme has taught me that there are loads of other people out there who have got different things going on in their life and they’re breaking barriers. People are going to talk anyway so why let that get to you? As part of the programme, what I did was I did a charity fashion show and I got students from school and friends and family to donate clothing because I wanted to be a fashion designer at the time so I was like “right, this is my chance. I’m going to use this fashion show as a platform to see if this is the course that I want to do”.

At that time I had loads of teachers saying “Haleemah, I’m not quite sure fashion might be the place for you because it’s hard for people that have got full sight to sew and obviously you’re partially sighted so it’s going to be really hard for you” and I was like, “no, I can do it”. So, I made my dad drive all the way to Huddersfield to an open day at the University of Huddersfield who did a Design and Costume Design course. The course convenor at that university, she said the same thing.

She goes “we can’t make so many adjustments to the course that it basically creates a new course, especially the fact that the university will be giving you the degree and we can’t give you a degree for something that you haven’t done” so I was really upset. But then I came back, carried on getting involved with all the things I like doing and one of the things I liked doing was hosting school shows and helping people in assemblies, and part of that I did a ‘Bar Mock Trial’ competition.

So, that’s basically a national competition where every school gets a fictional case. You have defence barristers and prosecution barristers and then you’ve got like jury members and witnesses and you act out the entire case. When I started doing that I was like “this is really good, I really enjoy this”.

I think before Unlocking Potential I don’t really see many people with a visual impairment that were from black minority ethnic backgrounds achieving bigger things. Obviously at that time you are 15/16 so the only role models you have are on TV. I don’t really think there were many things that I wanted to aspire to. I’m not quite sure where my motivation came from I just knew that I couldn’t feel sorry about having a visual impairment.

And even when I started my degree there wasn’t much representation at uni. So, I think the urge to maybe do Law and make a difference came from the fact that I couldn’t really see there was much representation and even the career I want to take now, I want to become a barrister, and there’s not much diversity in the Criminal Bar or the Bar in general.

I just want to let people know that there are people like myself and obviously for the future generation there might be girls who might have a sight loss who are itching to do something so I just want to let them know that they can, and especially from the background that I’m from. I am Pakistani and Pakistani is in itself Asians and Arabs. They don’t really speak much about disability and I really want to challenge that stereotype.

I don’t want people to feel pity that they might have a disability or their child might have a disability and that’s why I’m so fortunate that my own family have supported me. Looking back I think the whole ‘I want to be a fashion designer’ was like a phase. It was like a thorn in the track that I had to get rid of.

I’m studying Law with Criminal Justice at university and I’m doing a four-year course and last year I went off and I did a placement in Parliament. I worked for the Right Honourable David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, and I worked for him as his caseworker for the entire year. And what that meant was I was writing representations as David to the likes of the Home Office or Haringey Council or the Border Force Agency and I was basically writing for his constituents for whatever reason that they have.

And this gave me a lot of experience into the kind of work I will be doing in the future because as a barrister or a solicitor you are basically representing your client and you are trying to find the reasons why they should, if it’s an immigration case, why they shouldn’t be deported because they’ve got a dependent in the UK.

I guess the highlight, I joined this group called ParliAble who basically advocate for people with disabilities in Parliament so whether those are MPs or MP staff or staff of the estate. That was really good because I gave a talk and I spoke about my visual impairment and there was like loads of people there taking notes. I also met Lord Blunkett and I met the Shadow Minister for Disability who also has a visual impairment.

So, I guess meeting all these people just put into context, they were like “honestly, just go for it. You’re no different to anyone else no matter what eye condition you have or whatever disability you have”. I’ve also shadowed a judge, his name John Lafferty, I think he might be one of the only judges who sits at Snaresbrook Crown Court and he’s blind. So, he invited me back to his office and I spoke with him and addressed all my concerns.

I was like “how would someone with a visual impairment succeed at the Bar?” He gave me really, really good advice which I still remember to this day. He said that “everyone has challenges but finding a solution for that challenge you’re halfway there to actually overcoming that challenge”.

The advice that I would give to teachers would be not to hesitate by putting a student forward because it’s only going to make them better. I remember when I was on the programme I saw obviously my other peers that were on the programme with me, I saw them grow from like start to finish and I guess in some context people saw me grow as well. So, it’s only going to make the student better.

The skills that we achieved were people skills so it was much easier to speak to people after we’d done the programme because it gave us experience. When we were in the programme we were talking to everyone just like us, so after the programme it was easier to just talk to others and also it gave us something to talk about.

It’s going to make the student just grow in more ways than one. Obviously it’s hard for me to remember because I did it five years ago but look at me now. I’ve these good things and only good things will come from the programme so I think teachers should most definitely nominate their students and see where that takes them.