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From stereotypes to stimming: workshop helps boys understand and accept neurodiversity

Two academics who discovered they were autistic as adults explained how they and other neurodivergent* people experience the world in a special workshop at the School.

Dr Chloe Farahar and Dr Annette Foster from the University of Kent delivered the workshop to a select group of pupil leaders. The event was arranged in line with the objective set out in Building on Distinction, the 2021-2025 School Plan, of helping Elizabethans “change things for the better, both in [their] own community and in society at large”.

The pupil representatives will now prepare an assembly for the whole of Year 8 to share what they have learned.

Assistant Head (Pupil Progress) Sarah Westcott said: “This workshop was an important insight for our students into the lived experience of two members of the neurodiverse community.

“Dr Farahar  and Dr Foster candidly spoke about their experiences as autistic people, and during their engaging workshop prompted the boys to confront the many common stereotypes and myths which exist around those who are neurodivergent.

“This workshop is part of the wider work we are doing to encourage pupils to think about the diverse communities we all live in and the part they have to play in making society open and inclusive to all,” Dr Westcott added.

Those invited to the workshop were: form captains and deputies from Years 7 and 8; School Vice-Captains and Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Ambassadors Heemy Kalam and Victor Angelov, of Year 12, and Kevin Gunawardena, also of Year 12, who is writing a dissertation for his Extended Project Qualification on How can neurodiverse lives become more integrated within society?

Dr Foster and Dr Farahar run Aucademy, a platform for delivering training.

Dr Foster, who is autistic, dyslexic, dyspraxic and with attention differences, was diagnosed at the age of 39, while Dr Farahar was diagnosed at the age of 32, after, as she says, “a lifetime of being told I am ‘weird’, ‘odd’, ‘stand-offish’ and ‘unapproachable’”.

In their richly illustrated presentation, they helped pupils understand what neurodiversity means.

Through hands-on activities, the boys were taught about the ways in which people with autism, dyslexia and attention differences experience the world.

They learned, for example, about:

  • ‘Stimming’ – self-stimulatory behaviour involving repeated actions or activities that either excite or calm the sensory nervous system,
  • The role of understanding and kindness. (The presentation finished with a quotation from the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it is those little bits of good put all together that overwhelm the world.”)
  • Stereotypes – exploring the differences between how autism is often portrayed in the media and the reality. The presentation pointed out, for example, that contrary to stereotypes, autistic people are rarely mathematics savants.

Following the workshop, Dr Farahar wrote to Dr Westcott: “Annette and I were so impressed with the QE pupils – we were really buoyed by their kindness and consideration of difference.”

*  The term ‘neurodiversity’, which was coined in 1998 by sociologist Judy Singer, defines brain differences in areas such as sociability, learning, attention and mood as normal, rather than deficits or disorders.

Dig deeper, look closer, think bigger: Black History Month at QE

Queen Elizabeth’s School marked Black History Month with a diverse range of special activities both inside and outside of the classroom that drew lessons from the past, while also saluting those building a path today towards a better future.

One undoubted highlight was the online assembly given to the Sixth Form by Roni Savage ­(pictured above) – engineering geologist, founder of a multi-million pound construction industry consultancy, multiple award-winner…and a QE mum.

Headmaster Neil Enright said: “We sought to provide lots of different opportunities during Black History Month to ensure that our boys could, in the words of a BHM slogan, ‘dig deeper, look closer, think bigger’, coming up with an array of innovative ideas. These ranged from our Lower School History Raiders group researching ancient Black kingdoms and civilisations, to Year 7 PE lessons promoting sports in which athletes have either faced racism or have changed the world due to their participation, such as basketball, boxercise and indoor athletics.

“I am especially grateful to Mrs Savage, who, as a Black woman working at a high level as an entrepreneur in construction, is a true pioneer in her industry, with an impressive list of achievements and accolades to her name. She has certainly proved people wrong who doubted her because of her race, gender and age.

“And she inspired our sixth-formers with her injunction to ‘stand up, stand out, stand tall’ and her insistence that ‘there are no limits to what you can achieve’ with hard work and talent.”

Mrs Savage, whose son, Jayden, is in Year 13, is the founder of Jomas Associates, a large engineering and environmental consultancy, and Policy Chair for Construction within the Federation of Small Businesses. She is a Fellow of both the Royal British Institute of Architects and the Institute of Civil Engineering, and is on the current UK Powerlist of Britain’s most influential people of African/Caribbean heritage.

Her message was that diversity is vital to the capacity, capability and sustainability of all sectors, but that to achieve it, the status quo, with its harmful stereotypes, must be challenged.

Here is a selection of the many activities and initiatives that took place at the School as part of this year’s Black History Month:

  • A discussion in MedSoc (Medical Society) of the work of Malone Mukwende, who as a second-year medical student at St George’s, University of London, developed a book to help doctors diagnose skin rashes and diseases on black and brown skin, addressing decades of racial bias in medical education;
  • The Year 9 Shakespeare Film Club watching Othello and discussing the racial issues in the play, as raised in a British Library article;
  • Publication of a special Black History Month (and COP26) issue of the Economics department’s magazine, Econobethan;
  • Cancellation of all Music rehearsals one lunchtime, with the pupil team from the Music Enrichment Society instead giving a presentation about Black musicians. Pictured, above, are boys giving a special performance ahead of the talk;
  • Year 9 had a special Depicting Jesus Philosophy, Religion & Society (PRS) lesson, which focused on different representations of Jesus, including those from the Ethiopian Church and Rastafari traditions, and on the use of images of white Jesus for imperialist ends;
  • Year 8 geographers started a new, permanent unit on Migration towards the end of October, with a first homework task linked to Black History Month.
Spearheading change in society: PinkNews boss speaks to QE boys

Benjamin Cohen, founder and CEO of PinkNews, dotcom success story and broadcaster, spoke to current pupils as part of LGBT+ History Month.

Benjamin, who was at QE from 1993–1998, took part in a video conversation with the School’s Student Leadership Team and Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Ambassadors.

The session was recorded so that it can be used by form tutors to stimulate discussion among all year groups as an eQE online resource within QE’s personal development and wellbeing programme.

Headmaster Neil Enright said: “Our students will take courage and inspiration from all Ben had to say when reflecting on his career, the success of PinkNews, equal marriage, Section 28, religion and much more besides.”

Benjamin launched PinkNews, a UK-based online newspaper, in 2005. PinkNews describes itself on its website as “the brand for the global LGBT+ community and the next generation”.

But before that, Benjamin had already made his mark as a serial entrepreneur in the boom around the start of the new millennium.

After leaving QE, he created JewishNet, which he describes as “Britain’s first social network before the term was invented”. It grew rapidly, making him worth £5m at one point.

Soon after, he established CyberBritain – “a darling for a couple of years” – which, among other things, launched a UK-specific search engine powered by its own technology and attempted to launch a service similar to Spotify.

For much of his time with CyberBritain, Benjamin was also an undergraduate at King’s College London.

He went on to be a columnist for The Times, corporate advisor for ITN, business & technology correspondent for Channel 4, a PR director, and, from 2010 until 2017, was a presenter for the BBC, where his work included writing and presenting a critically acclaimed documentary, I was a teenage millionaire. He is also a longstanding UK trustee and non-executive director of Humanity & Inclusion, a global disability development charity.

He explained the importance to PinkNews’ success of its leading role in the campaigns to legalise same-sex marriage: “Since then, we have just grown and grown and grown.” Having expanded further during lockdown, PinkNews now has more than 40 people working for it and 50m consuming its content monthly, he said.

During his talk, there was plenty of time for questions from the boys, which Benjamin was happy to answer.

Asked about whether religion comes into conflict with LGBT rights, Benjamin, who comes from a Jewish background, said it was partly to explore such questions that he had chosen his degree subject – Religion, Philosophy and Ethics – at Kings. “Some faiths have moved on quite a way, but others still have a long way to go,” he said, reflecting that families often found their own ways to adapt, including that of his (non-Jewish) husband.

Questioned on barriers still facing LGBT people, including school pupils, Benjamin spoke of how much things had changed in schools from when he was a pupil. At that time, the ‘Section 28’ law that made the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ illegal in state schools was still in force. “This would have been literally against the law,” he said, referring to the discussion.

Today, the situation was very different, he said. “With me as a gay man, I can pretty much do everything I want within the UK…but trans people do face some challenges.

“It generally takes an example – so, if a student was to come out as trans or something, that would create the atmosphere to enable pupils [and] the school to move on.”

He reflected that there was a growing acceptance in society that families can differ from traditional patterns.

Benjamin, who applauded QE’s policies in areas of sexuality and relationships, said that the national introduction of ‘compulsory Sex and Religious Education’ over the last year had been a significant step: “We are in a pretty good place.”


QE’s Faith Ambassadors and the ‘importance of being religiously literate in our ever-changing world’

QE pupils drew praise from faith experts and educationalists alike when they spoke at the launch of Barnet’s new Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education and in presentations to local primary schools.

Sena Lai-Fujiwara and Vignesh Rajiv, of Year 9, and Saifullah Shah, of Year 13, who are all members of the long-running Faith Ambassadors project at QE, gave presentations on their faiths at the meeting of Barnet SACRE (Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education) at Hendon Town Hall.

QE boys also spoke to primary school pupils as part of the project, which has now been running at the School for some years. It involves pupils of different faiths working together to produce a short presentation on some aspect of their faith, which they then deliver in primary schools as part of QE’s community outreach work.

After the presentations at the SACRE meeting, the Mayor of Barnet, Councillor Caroline Stock, was keen to discuss the project with the trio and to congratulate them on their work, while a letter sent subsequently to Headmaster Neil Enright brought fresh messages of congratulation.

The joint letter from Dr Anna Sallnow, a Religious Education consultant representing the local authority, and Kevin McSharry, Chair of Barnet SACRE, said: “It was quite a daunting task to speak in front of such a distinguished audience. However, your students rose to the challenge magnificently. They spoke with clarity, enthusiasm and understanding… [and] listened respectfully while other participants spoke. They all showed how much they enjoy their RE lessons and the importance of being religiously literate in our ever-changing world.”

QE’s Head of Philosophy, Religion and Society, Jack Robertson, said: “The Faith Ambassadors project gives our boys an opportunity to share with others details of their faith which they are passionate about, while at the same time working on their presentation skills. Primary pupils then get to hear about a particular religion from a QE student’s personal perspective, which can greatly enrich their understanding of a religion.

“Barnet is one of the most religiously diverse boroughs in England, and the make-up of QE’s Faith Ambassadors reflects this diversity: this year, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh pupils all participated in the project, visiting schools in Barnet and Finchley.

Faith Ambassadors Saifullah Shah and Ben Domb (Year 13) spoke afterwards about their experiences, with Saifullah stating that it had been “a golden opportunity that enabled us to inspire others” and Ben saying it had been “a rewarding process [that] allowed me to explore my religion in a way that I hadn’t thought about before”.

Rising legal stars soar in competition’s national final

QE pupils stormed through the early stages of the Bar Mock Trial National Final and drew praise from real-life judges and barristers for their performances.

The team reached the competition’s national final after winning their regional round. The event was held this year in the Court of Session – Scotland’s supreme civil court – in Edinburgh’s historic Old Town.

Jack Robertson, QE’s Head of Philosophy, Religion and Society, said: “The students were outstanding on the day and can be very proud of their efforts across the year. A number of judges and observing legal professionals commented on how the group’s conduct was exemplary, and that our barristers’ advocacy skills were on a par with qualified members of the bar.” Mr Robertson accompanied the team, together with Chemistry teacher Charani Dharmawardhane.

The competition, which is for 15-18 year-olds, involves competitors taking on a number of roles to simulate a real court case, including not only those of barristers, but also of witnesses, clerks, ushers and jury members. Twenty-four schools from across the UK took part in the national final.

In the first of their three rounds, the QE defence team delivered an “outstanding performance”, Mr Robertson said, winning the heat by several points. Year 12 pupil Oscar Smith’s highly rated closing speech gave him the top score of any participant in that particular trial.

QE also won their second heat, with Rivu Chowdhury, of Year 12, conducting an “incisive cross examination” of the prosecution witnesses.

In their third round, QE lost by a single point. Nevertheless, one observing legal expert applauded the skill which QE barristers Hector Cooper (Year 12) and Yuvan Vasanthakumaran (Year 11) demonstrated in their advocacy.

The QE witnesses on the day were:

  • Dharrshan Viramuthu (Year 11), who gave a “very convincing performance as a computer hacker”, Mr Robertson said
  • Leo Kucera (Year 12) as an acid attack victim with severe burning to his left arm
  • Tobi Durojaiye (Year 12), who “locked horns with the eventual winner of the Best Barrister prize in a very engaging and heated back-and-forth” according to Mr Robertson. Tobi said afterwards that the day was “a great experience and opportunity for those interested in becoming a barrister or eventually a judge”
  • Jonathan Perry (Year 12), who played a timid student accused of carrying out the acid attack.

“There were also highly professional performances from Rukshaan Selvendira, of Year 11, as the macer [an official who keeps order in a Scottish court] and Karan Patel as court clerk. Jurors Denis O’Sullivan (Year 12), Euijin Lee (Year 11), Amaan Khan (Year 11), Saifullah Shah (Year 12) and Shakshum Bhagat (Year 12) performed their duties well and were a credit to the team,” Mr Robertson added.

The trials were judged by well-known real-life judges, including Lord Leveson, currently the President of the Queen’s Bench Division and Head of Criminal Justice, who is best known for chairing a public inquiry into the culture and practices of the British press.

“Many of the barristers and judges present mentioned to Miss Dharmawardhane and me that they fully expect to see some of the boys being called to the bar one day in the future,” Mr Robertson said.

The boys took advantage of an opportunity to visit Edinburgh Castle and to walk along the Royal Mile to see statues of the philosopher David Hume and political economist Adam Smith, and buildings such as St Giles’ Cathedral, where they are pictured above.

Juror Saifullah said: “Edinburgh was a lovely city, the courthouse a stunning example of architecture, and the chance to interact and converse with students from as far afield as Glasgow and Belfast was a genuine pleasure. A remarkable experience overall.”

Animal-testing: pupil’s approach to ethical questions impresses magazine publisher

A Year 11 pupil is now a published author after an article he penned through the School to gain a national qualification appeared in a specialist magazine.

Aaryan Sheth wrote a 2,000-word essay for his HPQ (Higher Project Qualification) which was so highly rated by Animal Spirit magazine that it has now appeared in the periodical’s autumn edition, in which most of the other articles are written by academics, theologians or leaders of animal welfare and conservation groups.

Aaryan’s article explored whether it is acceptable “to sacrifice animals to save humans” in the pursuit of medical science. He decided to research this topic on his HPQ course last year because, he said, coming from a household following Jainism, he is a vegetarian who values the lives of animals as highly as his own.

“In my opinion, dietary choices and matters of life and death are very different things, so I wanted to use this essay to explore the relations between the different ways humans use animals, and whether some are more relevant than others, focusing on the topic of animal testing.”

After discussing the pros and cons of animal-testing and looking, in particular, at animal suffering and unnecessary cruelty, he concluded that some animal-testing is still necessary for medical advances. However, he argued that there should be stronger guidelines and legislation to enforce the removal of needless suffering to laboratory animals and also greater investment in research techniques that do not involve animal-testing.

“I really enjoyed doing the research for the HPQ; being able to pick my own topic was exciting, and it was enjoyable to focus on something I’m really interested in. It was nice to get recognition from a magazine too. Plus, I’ve also learnt lots of important techniques to help with research in the future,” said Aaryan.

The HPQ is a standalone qualification that can be taken by students as an addition to their GCSE qualifications. At QE, it is taken by all Year 10 pupils.

Headmaster Neil Enright said: “I congratulate Aaryan for all the hard work he put into his HPQ project and for having his writing recognised in this way. The HPQ provides the boys with great experience in considering complex ethical topics in depth and I am pleased that Aaryan fully immersed himself in exploring this important issue. This experience will stand him in good stead for the rest of his time at QE and at university beyond.”

Jack Robertson, Head of Philosophy, Religion & Society, said: “There is no exam at the end of the HPQ, but it does count towards UCAS points and is considered a valuable qualification by top universities.

“The boys develop a key set of skills through the course. It is similar to a dissertation; pupils identify a topic of personal and academic interest, independently devise a question, then work over several months to research, plan and write up the final essay. They then finally present their findings and engage in self-reflection to evaluate the entire process.

“The quality of work produced by QE boys has been of a very high standard. Some carried out primary research which involved them interviewing university professors and specialists in fields ranging from philosophy, science and economics to religion,” added Mr Robertson.

Animal Spirit magazine is produced by the Animal Interfaith Alliance, a registered not-for-profit company. Its mission statement is: “To create a united voice for animals from all of the world’s faiths and spiritual beliefs, based on their founders’ teachings, to bring about the humane treatment of animals.” Aaryan’s article appears on page 40 of the magazine.

Looking deep in the soil and soul of African culture

Traditional African methods of story-telling and linguistic style were to the fore in this year’s visit to Year 7 pupils by the Iroko Theatre Company, while for the boys themselves the highlights included the chance to try out massed drumming.

The company uses music, dance and oral traditions to educate people about African culture. The visit to QE supported the boys’ Expressions of Spirituality module – part of the Year 7 Philosophy, Religion & Society (PRS) course of study. The interactive sessions included discussion of how music and stories can be mediums through which spirituality can find expression.

Head of PRS, Jack Robertson, said: “The boys had a thoroughly enjoyable and significant time. They particularly enjoyed the djembes and other African drums; they were surprised at the extent to which they could harmonise when 40 of them were drumming at the same time.”

The name of the company itself comes from a tree. Founder Alex Oma-Pius says: “The roots of the Iroko tree go deep into the soil of Africa. The tree stands tall and strong against the African sky. Our sculpture, our architecture, our masks and our drums come from this tree and are permeated by its spirit. Through the Iroko tree, our culture is rooted in the soil of our land and from these roots it derives its strength. IROKO Theatre Company was formed primarily to nurture and uphold this culture.”

The company presents traditional African myths and legends, exploring the exploits of various characters including Ananse, the spider, and Ijapa, the hare. Through this, boys acquired an understanding of the style of African narrative and story-telling, such as call-backs, as well as non-verbal communication techniques used in African theatre.