Reflecting on my experience as a Grassroots Project Volunteer

By Ila Tyagi

In this blog post Ila Tyagi, an LLM student at UCL, reflects on her experience volunteering for the Grassroots Human Rights Project and how the education system in the UK compares to the education system in her home country, India.

When I first entered the state school in Eastlea, I couldn’t believe the kind of amenities and infrastructure a publicly funded school in UK could afford. Such facilities are not available even in some of the wealthier schools in India. We were required to pose for a photo-id for record keeping purposes. But much before that was a thoroughly conducted Disclosure Barring Services Check to ensure that the volunteers did not have a criminal record or a history of violence towards children. To conduct such procedural formalities for ensuring the safety of children was very impressive to me.

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Volunteering for the Grassroots Human Rights Project

By Clement Cheung
A first year Law student undertaking the UCL Dual Degree Programme with Hong Kong University. The mandatory Access to Justice placement, organised and overseen by the CAJ, forms an important part of the first year of the programme. Perhaps this blog post can begin with how disappointed I was initially, when assigned to the Grassroots Human Rights project. I considered approaching one of the CAJ members to request a switch, but recalling from a seminar that ‘the more I put in to my experience, the more I can get out of it’, I did my best to approach the experience with a positive attitude. Now that I have experienced the full spectrum of tasks involved in the project, I have gained insight into many issues of society and learnt valuable skills. I cannot imagine not having completed this project, and I am grateful that this experience was more meaningful than simply doing research and teaching children, as I first thought it would be.

My journey began with a research task for a new seminar, the ‘Right to be Free from Discrimination’, and I was responsible for the ‘Quotas Debate’ – whether universities should impose quotas to increase the number of state school students admitted. This involved researching laws on positive discrimination/action, the legal status of quotas, and gathering background information about the debate. Having only been in London for a few months, this was a challenging task, as I was unfamiliar with the types of schools in the UK and past news, such as the admissions controversy of the University of Bristol in 2003. Thanks to the internet and Rose’s guidance, I compiled some useful information which was suitable for the lesson plan.

The most meaningful moment of this research task was when Rose prompted me to think about the almost paradoxical wider picture. Financially well off families who can afford to send their children to fee paying schools can receive a higher quality education, and enter prestigious universities. Such qualifications allow for a relatively high income job, and thus can have their children attend fee paying schools too. This cycle repeats itself – those from a disadvantaged background who attend state schools and cannot compete against excellent A-level grades of their fee-paying school counterparts, may be denied a university place and remain relatively disadvantaged. Seeing my research in this light motivated me to plan the lesson well. Bringing up the idea of university and getting young people to think about it is one of the objectives of Grassroots, and is a starting point for improving societies. At this point, I also realised similar education and wealth gap problems are present too in Hong Kong and other Southeast Asian countries, potentially to an even greater extent. While the state and fee paying school distinctions are present too, this is complicated by the wide presence of tuition centres or ‘cram schools’. These are additional classes outside of normal school which teach exam techniques and help students ‘cram’ knowledge. Since many students enrol, those who cannot afford to attend or cannot afford the best tuition centres are at least somewhat disadvantaged from their wealthier peers. These thoughts of tackling the wealth gap encouraged me to deliver this lesson well, and think about what further contributions I can make in the field of education, even after leaving London.

After planning the lesson and attending training sessions, my teammates and I taught the first two seminars to a class of Year 9 students. I felt comfortable with the human rights material I was to present, but I was shocked to find the class uninterested and unresponsive. I adapted quickly by breaking the class into smaller groups and joining each group to discuss broader questions (instead of giving a lecture on human rights history). After the lesson, I felt I failed to bring the slightest positive change to their lives, and even felt somewhat remorseful for not capturing their interest. Despite this moment of disappointment, I learnt important lessons, which prompted me to make changes for the next session. Most importantly, I learnt that how much I know becomes irrelevant if I cannot communicate it to my audience. Part of this requires simplifying technical points and avoiding jargon; the other element involves maintaining their interest.

During the team meeting in preparation for the next teaching session, we made changes to the ‘Right to Life’ and ‘Right to Freedom from Discrimination’ seminar plans to suit our class better. Since they were quiet in whole class discussions but more active in small groups, we planned to spend more time with a volunteer leading discussions in each group. The students also seemed tired and uninterested in the first session, so we selected short videos as introductions to each discussion topic, such as extracts from Terry Pratchett’s documentary on euthanasia. A day before the seminar, Donald Trump made his so called ‘Muslim ban’ executive order, and we decided to discuss this as an introduction to the ‘Right to Freedom from Discrimination’ seminar.

Although the lesson was imperfect again, our changes improved the experience for everyone. The group discussions seemed effective, especially since the topics this session may have been more interesting (death penalty). The students were more active and some discussions became quite passionate and heated! I particularly enjoyed challenging the views of students who seemed certain of their stance, as some had ‘eureka moments’ which gave them more ideas, or left them considering arguments from both sides. After ending each discussion, the students appeared less sure of their response. This made me feel more successful, as I believe my task was to expose them to differing views and teach them to evaluate before coming to their own view – a valuable skill regardless of what they grow up to do.

The video also proved to be excellent introductions to each topic. After discussions of the death penalty, the video was a good transition tool which recaptured their attention while giving time to rest. In the next seminar, articles on Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ made students surprisingly excited for the ‘Right to be Free from Discrimination’! Leading this seminar, I capitalized on their interest by encouraging the students to apply the content, such as the distinction between direct and indirect discrimination, to the executive order. This worked well and I believe the students genuinely enjoyed this part of the lesson and gained something from it.

Unexpectedly, the university ‘quotas debate’ was difficult to execute. I was shocked that the Year 9 students did not know the distinction between state and fee paying schools. They were also unaware of the existence of top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, and after talking to the students, most have not considered attending university. After the lesson, the teacher explained that around 80% of the students were entitled to free school meals, and many may be the first generation of their family to even graduate from high school. This was the moment which affected me the most – I felt helpless. Education is immensely powerful, and if these young people cannot even afford to think about university, how can they bring changes to their families and communities? On one hand, I could have shared more about my university life and stories to inspire them, but on the other, I think the ‘quotas debate’ was a good starting point for them to think about university, being in Y9 and thinking about GCSEs. I feel we planted the seed which will hopefully grow in the future, but it is a process that unfortunately none of us can accelerate.

If I were to repeat the placement, I would be more of a friend than a teacher. The students have many teachers, but may have lacked a role model they could be inspired by. Regrettably, I focussed too much on delivering content and teaching them, and missed chances to connect with them on a personal and emotional level. The teacher noted it often takes time for students to trust a ‘guest teacher’, but I could have tried to learn names and make sessions more informal. I also followed seminar plans too rigidly, and should have used them as guidelines instead. To improve experiences for everyone, I wrote some brief notes and comments to the next volunteer group which should help them with their planning – I feel continuity by communicating like this will help in the future.

These lessons I learnt will be useful for my future and are transferrable skills. As mentioned, I have learnt to communicate effectively, and there is no better audience for practicing this than a class of impatient young people going through puberty! Even outside the classroom, I can use analogies, anecdotes, and current affairs to communicate a message effectively. This is likely to be helpful when working as a lawyer for example, as I might need to explain complex law in a way ordinary people would understand.

The Grassroots Human Rights project was a truly valuable experience, and I now see far more meaning in it than simply teaching children. I plan to participate in this again next year to improve the experiences of students, and to learn more life lessons in the classroom.

The Impact of Brexit on Human Rights in the UK

By Ila Tyagi 

In her second blog post Ila Tyagi, an LLM student in International Commercial Law at UCL, writes about the human rights implications of Brexit.

A hard Brexit would have a significant impact on the human rights framework in the UK. This is because UK derives a large portion of its human rights from EU law. Post-Brexit, the UK would not be required to comply with the various EU laws concerning human rights [1].

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Volunteering with the City of London Criminal Appeals Clinic

By Nora Wannagat 

Nora Wannagat is a UCL LLM student that previously completed a BA in Jurisprudence with Law Studies in Europe at the University of Oxford. In this post, she summarises her experience volunteering for a new project at UCL CAJ this year.  

The City of London Criminal Appeals Clinic is a new pro bono project set up to help those convicted of criminal offences bring their cases to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) and, eventually, to the Court of Appeal. Several London universities are involved. At UCL, two teams of students each started working on one case in October, under the supervision of a criminal solicitor. Both of these cases have long and complicated histories (being over ten years old), and naturally a lot of material has been accumulated. Essentially, we have been trying to bring this material into a useful form for submission to the CCRC.

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Working with MIFUMI to abolish the bride price in Uganda

By Sarah Waliwo Kagale Kulubya 

A first year LLB student at UCL, writes about her experience volunteering with MIFUMI – a women-led organisation based in Uganda that seeks to end domestic violence.

Indigenous customary law defines some social and domestic arrangements, namely marriage, in certain Ugandan tribes.[1] However, the rules of customary law perpetuate inequality in relationships between men and women. Women are severely dependent on their husbands; as a result, domestic violence and fear undermine the security and love that most young women seek in a marriage. In 2007, the MIFUMI organisation, an NGO that works to end domestic violence in Uganda, filed a petition in the Ugandan Constitutional Court to abolish the bride price, the price paid, in cattle, goats or money, by the groom to the bride’s parents in return for her hand in marriage.

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What impact is capitalism having on Democracy: from an Emile Durkheim functionalist perspective

By Emmanuel Bazimya 

Emmanuel Bazimya, an LLM student in International Banking and Finance Law at UCL, considers the impact of capitalism on democracy in light of the recent presidential election in the United States.

It is a well-established right that individuals in a democracy have the right to information that allows them to make informed decisions with regards to their governance. Following the recent presidential election in the United States, the question this post is trying to ask is if this basic right under a democracy is being threatened due to the growing influence of capitalism on key social institutions. To examine this notion, I rely on Emile Durkheim’s functionalism theory with the use of the media as a structural institution with a manifest intention of informing the electorate so that they may make an informed decision when they cast their ballot in a general election.

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The Impact of LASPO

By Ila Tyagi 

An LLM student in International Commercial Law at UCL, writes about the impact of LASPO and summarises the findings of a recent Amnesty International report addressing this issue.

The Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) was enacted with the objectives of reducing the government’s expenditure on legal spending during time of large fiscal deficits, providing legal aid to the people who need it most, reducing the cost of the legal aid scheme and providing the tax payer with better value for their money. However, it seems that the government did not fully consider the adverse impact of such drastic measures on vulnerable sections of the society. A recent report by Amnesty International[1] reveals that LASPO negatively impacts poor and other vulnerable people.

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