Autism: Parents calls for more support in Northern Ireland schools

Paul McDonald

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Paul McDonald estimates his son has been suspended for 135 days of his first four years at school

Paul McDonald’s autistic son, Jim, has been suspended from his mainstream primary school for 30 days in the past three months.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Paul estimates that Jim, aged eight, has been suspended for 135 days of his first four years at school.

He is among a group of parents set to meet the Department of Education (DE) to highlight the similar problems their autistic children are facing.

The proportion of children with autism in Northern Irish schools has almost trebled in a decade, according to the Department of Health.

And some parents, like Paul, say that means they have to battle to get appropriate support in school for their children.

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The proportion of children with autism in Northern Ireland schools has almost trebled in a decade, according to the Department of Health

“Jim’s very curious about the world, he loves knowing how things work and likes to hear other people’s thoughts on things,” he said.

“His autism is autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) with pathological demand avoidance (PDA).”

“The majority of the problem that Jim would present with would be anxiety, so as soon as you give him a direct demand he would experience anxiety and as a result of the anxiety he would start refusing.”

Autism is a spectrum, which means people with autism can present with different conditions.

Some may need little or no support, but others may need sustained help.

According to documents seen by BBC News NI, Jim has been suspended for school for 30 days since 28 March, often for five days at a time.

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People with autism present with different conditions, some may need no support while others need sustained help

Paul admits Jim presents challenges and would sometimes lash out at his teachers, but said it was due to his rising anxiety.

“He would become quite distressed within the classroom environment and, as a result, he would throw something, say certain things and then it moved on to lashing out,” he said.

Jim has a statement which says that he needs a full-time classroom assistant and would learn best in a small group setting like a learning support unit.

However, he has also faced expulsion, but Paul said that if staff had the appropriate training about Jim’s condition then he could thrive in his current school.

“The strategies you would use for PDA are different than those you would need for a ‘normal’ ASD child,” Paul said.

“For instance, you avoid using the word ‘you’ towards Jim.”

“If Jim did something well you would turn round and say ‘I like what has been done there’, instead of ‘I like what you did there’.”

“We could very clearly see there were patterns to how the situation escalated resulting in Jim getting suspended.”

Paul is now one of a group of more than 100 parents who are in contact as their autistic children have had similar experiences in school.

Tanya George’s son 11-year-old son, Niall, has also missed substantial amounts of education in primary school.

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Tanya George’s son has missed substantial amounts of education in primary school

He finally received a diagnosis of ASD in July 2018, just as he finished Primary Six.

He was then able to go to his mainstream primary for three days a week, with the help of a classroom assistant.

But Tanya said she was aware that Niall needed support much earlier in his school career, and had often put himself in danger at school.

“In the past he’s got extremely overwhelmed and he’s got so stressed that he’s had to run out of the room, into fields and in front of cars,” she said.

“His flight response is really, really triggered at that point when his anxiety is so great.

“A child doesn’t present like that for no reason.”

“Any child that would have those issues you should be looking at helping and supporting and resolving the child to get through it.”

She also said that at times she felt pressured to withdraw Niall from school altogether.

Tanya said, though, that since receiving a dedicated classroom assistant following his diagnosis and completed statement Niall has progressed and is now looking forward to post-primary school.

The Education Authority now spends £270m a year on supporting children with special educational needs – including autism.

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Liam Mackle of the Children’s Law Centre says an increasing number of parents are challenging the level of support their children are receiving

That is around one-eighth of the entire yearly education budget.

DE’s permanent secretary Derek Baker has previously said that he is worried about the rising cost and the support offered to children with special educational needs.

And according to Liam Mackle from the Children’s Law Centre in Belfast an increasing number of parents are challenging the level of support their children are receiving.

“There are pockets where schools don’t yet understand the complexity of autism – each child with autism is completely different from the next child with autism,” he said.

“It’s about identifying what triggers are, speaking to the experts at the EA in terms of their autism intervention services and putting proper school-based strategies in place to avoid the need for things like suspensions and detentions which aren’t addressing the problem.”

“Special educational needs and provision for children particularly with autism has really in the last five years, in terms of our advice service, really exploded.

“Five years ago we were dealing with just under 400 cases in terms of special educational needs – including autism – and that’s now jumped to 1600.”

Mr Mackle’s experience is borne out by figures from the Department of Justice, which shows that the number of appeals to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDIST) has more than doubled in recent years.

In 2015/16 there were 145 appeals to the tribunal – which rules in cases where parents are unhappy with how the EA is dealing with their child’s special educational needs.

By 2018/19 that had risen to 378 appeals, and just over half of those cases to reach a hearing were won by the parents.

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Daniel Howell: ‘I’m providing LGBT education schools don’t’

Daniel Howell is a 28-year-old YouTuber with over 600 million views.

He recently opened up to his viewers as being gay.

Mr Howell believes that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender online influencers like him can provide the advice and support to LGBT young people that some schools do not.

Speaking to the BBC’s LGBT correspondent Ben Hunte, he described how people reacted to his video and the battles the LGBT community is facing.

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Twelve children’s homes closed down by Ofsted

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Twelve children’s homes in England were closed down by Ofsted last year due to concerns about the quality of care.

The children’s social care inspectorate said it was the highest number of enforced closures since 2007.

A further 25 homes de-registered, after receiving warning notices about breaches of regulations.

Ofsted also warned about the uneven spread of residential children’s homes around the country. Providers said a more strategic overview was needed.

The inspectorate would not give details of the homes which closed, but said most of these were part of two chains of providers, one with five homes and another with four.

An Ofsted spokesman said: “We can’t comment on the individual providers that had their registration cancelled.

“More broadly, we take this step when we are concerned that there are serious and/or widespread weaknesses in the quality of care being provided to children, and where we do not see practice improving.

“This could be due to an inability to meet the needs of children, poor leadership and/or children being left at risk of harm.”

Specialist support

Yvette Stanley, Ofsted’s National Director for Children’s Social Care, also highlighted a shortfall in specialist residential home places.

“There is simply not enough specialist support in the right places to meet demand.

“Vulnerable children should live closer to their family and friends, where it is safe for them to do so.

“Children need a sector that grows in response to their needs, and that includes where children’s homes are located.”

The statistics showed an uneven spread of children’s homes across the country.

Nearly a quarter of all such homes, and one in five available places, are in north-west England. Only one in 20 homes, and one in 18 places, is in London.

There have long been more children’s homes in some parts of England, particularly the north-west.

Analysis of the latest available placement data from the Department for Education shows children placed by local authorities in London are located furthest from their homes – on average 60 miles away.

‘Children at risk’

Jonathan Stanley, chief executive of the Independent Care Homes Association, said providers had been arguing for many years that local councils need to work closely with them towards a detailed commissioning process, to ensure children’s needs are met.

“We need to establish: What needs are there? How many homes do we need? Of what type? Where should they be located? How shall we finance them?”

Mr Stanley argued that the biggest focus needed to be on the psychological needs of the young person, not the geographical location of their placement.

Andrew Fellowes of the NSPCC said the long distances children are placed away from home, family and friends, could leave them vulnerable.

“The void left by their vital support network can all too easily be exploited, leaving children at risk of criminal or sexual exploitation,” he said.

“We also know that these children are more likely to go missing.

“There needs to be coordinated action from national and local governments to provide high quality accommodation options close to where children live.”

The statistics also show the number of available places increased by 3% between March 2015 and March 2019, at a time when record numbers of children were being taken into care.

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How much pocket money should we give our kids?

Girl saving her pocket money (posed by model)

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If parents can afford to give pocket money to their children, then much more often than not they will pay them in cash.

One survey suggests that 84% of British parents give notes and coins to their children, typically an allowance – including some discretionary spending – of £7 a week.

Yet, by 2028, banks predict that for every 10 occasions when adults buy something, they will only use notes and coins once. For the rest, we will mostly use cards or digital payments.

So what will that mean for the nation’s children? Will today’s youngsters be learning about money using currency that is close to obsolete? Will parents have to find a new way of paying pocket money, or decide not to bother paying at all?

Experts say that paying a small amount, however infrequently, can help youngsters learn about money and budgeting.

It seems that the children themselves agree, especially if pocket money depends on completing chores.

Nine-year-old Yusuf says: “It is making you feel like when you are older and get a job – when you do stuff and get paid for it.

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Yusuf says lessons about adulthood can be learned through pocket money

“But obviously you are going to get more when you are older, rather than just 50p a day.”

Pocket money surveys rarely agree on the going rate for children’s allowances. The Halifax, part of Lloyds Banking Group, has been running such a survey since 1987, which is one of the most well-established.

Its latest findings suggested a wide range of average amounts in different parts of Britain. Others suggest the Halifax estimate of the typical weekly payment is rather high, but there is general agreement that cash is currently the preferred choice.

Research has suggested that money habits are set by the age of seven. At a meeting of head teachers and authorities on Wednesday, some will call for better financial education in primary schools.

Whatever children are taught at school, a few pennies at home – starting in cash – can go a long way, according to Sarah Porretta, of the government-backed but independent Money and Pensions Service.

Her advice for parents includes:

  • Get children started with money as young as possible
  • Don’t worry how much to give in pocket money, or how often
  • Parents who have no money at the end of the week should still talk to their children about the financial choices they make

For those parents who no longer carry cash – just using payment cards and smartphones – the mother-of-two says: “The trick is to go and get some coins, just so your children have the opportunity to interact with them.

“Then talk about what you are doing with money. If you are paying with a card or with a phone talk to children about that and link it back to those coins they have handled.”

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Media captionFive tips to get kids to save

A growing band of pocket money smartphone apps suggest a different answer.

“The way we interact with money has changed. Pocket money is changing. We pay for things with the touch of a button,” says Will Carmichael, father-of-two and chief executive of one of those apps – RoosterMoney.

“Traditionally pocket money sits in a jar at home, you add your coins, you can see it build up, and then you take that down to the sweet shop. That is no longer the case. You may use it for Fortnite online. You might use it to pay for a pair of trainers from an online shop.

“We are bringing pocket money online and making it more tangible again.”

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The RoosterMoney app allows youngsters to set savings goals

The app starts for four year-olds with an online reward chart, it moves on to a pocket money tracker which allows youngsters to set savings goals. Top of that list, according to the company’s data, is Lego, followed by phones, and holiday money.

Eventually, it allows them to move on to spending with a pre-paid card. Data shows most pocket money is still spent on sweets, although books are second. The app also allows them to donate some of the money they have saved to charity.

However, the more advanced features cost a fee – an extra expense not suffered by parents who pay their children in cash.

Mr Carmichael argues that the charge costs parents far less than swimming or music lessons, but still teaches youngsters a practical life skill.

Bank basics

The next step for most youngsters is opening a bank account. Savings accounts can be opened from the age of seven, and current accounts from the age of 11.

“These are a great way of introducing your children to the world of banking, allowing them to use ‘grown up’ features like ATMs to get cash, or increasingly to make contactless payments, and even mobile payments if they have a smartphone,” says Brian Brown, head of insight at data analysts Defaqto. “They also make it easier for family members to gift them money.

“Some of the accounts also pay interest, although not at high rates, allowing young people to get into the savings habit from an early age.

“By setting up standing orders you can pay children their pocket money regularly, with no moaning over missed or late payments – or even worse, each parent giving them their pocket money and paying them twice.”

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LGBT schools row: Equality teaching to return to Parkfield School

Andrew Moffat

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Andrew Moffat said the No Outsiders project was about community cohesion

A suspended equality programme at the centre of a row about teaching LGBT rights will return at a school.

The No Outsiders programme at Parkfield Community School sparked protests, which spread to Anderton Park Primary School, with parents claiming the teachings were not “age appropriate”.

The Birmingham-based school said the new version of the programme had been designed to respect parental concerns.

But a parent group has said it feels it is still “biased” towards LGBT issues.

The amended scheme, called ‘No Outsiders for a Faith Community’, will be implemented at Parkfield Community School in Alum Rock in September.

The school said the re-launch followed five months of consultation with parents, community representatives and the Department for Education.

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Hundreds of parents and children gathered outside Parkfield Community School in protest at the teachings

It said that in the amended resource, lessons referenced race, religion, age, gender, gender reassignment, sexual orientation and disability.

A spokesperson for the school said: “As a result of the consultation ‘No Outsiders for a Faith Community’ has been especially designed for Parkfield Community School acknowledging and respecting the concerns and sensitivity expressed by some parents in the present school community.”

The resources and programme will also be structured for each year group.

“Our school ethos of equality and everyone being welcome remains a key aspect of our school,” the spokesperson added.

However, the Parkfield Parents Group said it had voted against the newly-developed programme.

“This is because it is well known that the original programme and now even the new programme is heavily biased towards LGBTQ, whereas an equality programme doesn’t need to be,” it said.

Fatima Shah, whose daughter is at Parkfield School, said: “We just haven’t been listened to.

“We have said we don’t want children in reception to be shown books with same sex relationships. Its confusing for them.

“But the school has said it will do exactly the same as it was doing before but with a slightly different name. How is that taking our views into account?”

The No Outsiders programme is being taught at more than a hundred schools across England.

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Parents said they had concerns the teachings were not “age appropriate”

It was designed by Andrew Moffat, the assistant head at Parkfield School, in 2014.

He said its aim was to introduce children to diversity in society and make them accept difference within the world today so that everybody is welcome.

Ofsted previously ruled the lessons at Parkfield were age-appropriate.

Birmingham’s Anderton Park School has also faced months of protests over its relationships education.

Protesters have been banned from its gates by a High Court injunction, with a trial to take place later this month to decide whether they can resume directly outside the school.

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School holidays: ‘You’re constantly thinking about money’

eating lunch

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Keeping the children well fed was a priority for the mothers

Money, food, childcare and activities are serious anxieties for low-income working families, MPs have been told.

Four mothers came to Westminster on Wednesday to tell a panel of MPs about their struggles to make ends meet over the long summer holidays.

They said holidays, even days out, were out of the question on a tight budget.

“Your mind is constantly thinking about money – money for the children, money for this, money for that,” one of the four, Karen, told the MPs.

“You have to manage your money.

“Some weeks are worse than others.

“You’ve got bills coming out and other things and you are literally looking to see if you’ve got to add more money to a food bill.

“So, it becomes quite stressful, very stressful.”

Dawn said: “In the holidays, you’re spending more because your child’s not in school and you’re entitled to the school meals, so you’re doing a bigger shop.

“And children need activities – you’re spending more that way.”

Filling up on cereal

Dawn, Anne, Karen and Nichola were giving evidence to a joint sitting of the education and work and pensions committees.

They were asked if they themselves had ever gone without food in the holidays.

“As a parent you do eat less because obviously the children are the priority,” Karen said.

“I know times when I’ve had less to eat because I want them to have what they should have during the day.”

Anne said: “You feed them first and then whatever’s left, you have.”

Asked whether there was always enough left for her, she replied: “There’s always cereal, isn’t there?”

Nichola said: “You don’t buy such good quality food – so cereal, cheese, eggs bread, you’re managing on the basics.”

Football camp

Karen told the MPs she felt very lucky to have a centre near her that “does activities for a very low cost”.

But she said the football camp her son would like to attend, at £40 or £50 pounds a week, was “just not possible”.

Dawn said extra money to help with the cost of childcare and activities would “really help”.

Anne said: “We’re not saying we want to take them to Alton Towers one day, somewhere else the next, but at least maybe once a week go somewhere nice.

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The mothers said uniform costs were another burden

“I often feel guilty that my little one will say to me, ‘Can we do that? Can we do that?’

“And I’ll say, ‘Not this week, babe, because we haven’t quite got the pennies yet but when we have, then we will.”

Karen said the worry of buying school uniform for the new academic year was another strain over the summer break.

“That’s another huge pressure of the six-weeks holidays – getting the uniforms, especially if they’re going from primary to senior school,” she said.

“You’re talking in the hundreds of pounds and you don’t get any help for it.”

‘Pick a number’

Switching to universal credit had been “awful”, the women said.

And they had felt more secure with the tax-credit system, because they had known what their payments would be each month “so you could plan, you could kind of budget”.

“It’s a gamble each month,” said Anne.

“I think they just pick a number,” said Karen.

Nichola said it would be much easier if she could get help with childcare costs upfront – rather than having to pay and then be reimbursed.

“That would change my situation entirely,” she said, “that would really resolve the situation I think for working families.”

Karen said: “We all want to work, but I don’t think we get the help and they don’t explain things to you.

“They just sort of say, ‘Right, look for work. There’s a job, bye.'”

As for going away on a family holiday over the summer break, the women said this was out of the question.

“We don’t go on holidays,” said Dawn.

“It’s too expensive in the six weeks even to think about planning something like that,” said Karen.

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Should same-sex education be compulsory?

Author and illustrator Olly Pike believes his childhood would have been much easier if he had had same-sex education in school.

However, Izzy Montague does not feel her child should have to learn about same-sex relationships.

As a Christian, Ms Montague felt her views were challenged when her son felt compelled to take part in a Gay Pride event at his south London school.

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King’s College London sorry over royal visit student bans

Queen Elizabeth II at Bush House, London

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The Queen met researchers and scientists when she formally opened Bush House – although some students were not welcome

King’s College London (KCL) has apologised and admitted it was wrong to ban a group of students from campus during a royal visit.

The Queen and the Duchess of Cambridge visited the university’s Strand Campus on 19 March to open Bush House.

One staff member and 13 students linked to campaigning groups were denied access to the campus, causing one student to fear he would miss an exam.

The acting principal said KCL’s actions that day “did not meet our values”.

Prof Evelyn Welch added that a report into the university’s actions was “uncomfortable to read” and that the leadership team “apologise wholeheartedly”.

The investigation found the university had breached its own policies regarding protection of personal information and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Following protests at university events on both 4 March and 18 March, police contacted the university’s head of security to express concerns of an “increased risk” during the royal visit.

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The Queen and the Duchess of Cambridge visited the campus the day after a protest at the university’s council meeting

The card access for a list of people linked to groups including the Intersectional Feminist Society and Action Palestine was then blocked, without those individuals being told.

One student reported he was worried he would miss an exam but “fortunately” security staff reinstated his card in time, the report said.

It added that another student was late for an assessed presentation and had to “beg to the point of tears to be let in”.

The day after the royal visit there were protests outside KCL’s Strand Campus.

The report concluded that the Estates and Facilities team had “overstepped the boundaries of their authority”.

Prof Welch said it was “clear how the decisions taken in the run-up to and on 19 March have hurt our community”.

She added: “The report shows that we need to take some actions to ensure that the values we uphold are applied consistently across our organisation.

“While individuals are identified, they should not be singled out as those who were solely responsible; as such we will be looking at the systemic underlying issues that we need to address at King’s going forward.”

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Knife crime strategy too focused on gangs, says ex-police chief

A man in a hoodie holding a knife (picture posed by a model)

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England’s knife crime strategy focuses too much on punishing the perpetrators and blaming gangs, a former top police officer has said.

Former Met Police superintendent Leroy Logan suggested the Home Office strategy was not fit for purpose.

It failed to take account of the fear and hopelessness some young people felt, with some not expecting to live past the age of 20, he said.

He told the Youth Select Committee only half of knife crime is linked to gangs.

The former superintendent of Hackney, east London, told the committee, made up of members of the Youth Parliament, he wanted to be “real” based on his 30 years of experience.

‘Not about gangs’

“There’s a correlation between violence and drug dealing, there always has been.

“But if you look at the data around knife crime you see that less than half of that crime is due to gangs or gang-related violence.

“So you have to say is the strategy being used by the Home Office and regional governments, like the Mayor of London’s Office, and even local governments, is it fit for purpose?

“My real issue, out of all this, is the narrative, the narrative that’s used on a regular basis, that there’s a war on knives and there is a war on drugs, which is true – there is, and we need to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime.

“But there’s an overemphasis on the punitive measures.

“I don’t think they recognise that… the young people actually say they are already scared in certain areas.

“There are those who don’t care if they live or die, or if anyone else lives or dies, because they don’t believe their shelf life goes beyond 20.

“If you’ve got that mindset you’ve got a real toxic mixture of urban deprivation and social exclusion. So you need to understand how that has moved on.”

He argued that young people needed to feel safe, and that any strategy to tackle this issue had to have young people at the heart of it, because they have the answers.

Mr Logan also blamed austerity, saying early interventions and preventions are no longer happening.

Young people are only receiving safeguarding interventions when they are quite high risk, he said.

Neighbourhood policing and school safety officers have been cut, he said, which reduced the perception of safety among young people.

John Poyton, of charity Redthread, which works with victims of knife crime, agreed knife crime was not all about drugs and gangs and said young people were feeding back this fear of not feeling safe on the streets.

He quoted young people saying “the knife gives you confidence” and “you’ve got to stick up for yourself, because they come more than one, they come in groups”.

“When we focus on gangs and knives and when we encourage the press to lead with stories about youth violence, and show big pictures of knives, there can be a really negative knock-on effect in communities …. and that creates fear.”

He added: “The perception of safety is often, I think, that more young people are picking up knives and carrying them because of this sense of fear. When they should be able to feel safe on their streets, they don’t.

“We have to therefore tackle the narrative to try to ensure our communities feel safer so that young people don’t feel they have to carry a knife.”

‘Patching up’

The youth committee is holding its first hearing of its new inquiry into the scourge of knife crime in the UK.

Its hearing comes after the Association of Directors of Children’s Services published a new discussion paper on serious youth violence and knife crime.

Its president Rachel Dickinson said: “It’s not enough to deal with the symptoms of this senseless violence by patching young people up and sending them home without dealing with the underlying, and often interrelated, causes that lead to it in the first place.

“Moreover, stricter laws, longer sentences and the expansion of police powers alone will do nothing to address the underlying social issues which lead to some children and communities being more vulnerable to risk or harm in the first place.”

A Home Office spokesperson said early intervention is a key part of its serious violence strategy.

“We are supporting the longer term preventative public health approach including investing more than £220m in projects to turn young people away from a life of crime and have allocated £35m to invest in Violence Reduction Units aimed at tackling the causes of violence.

“Our nationwide #knifefree campaign aims to target young people and uses real stories to provide advice, support and highlights activities to empower young people to change their behaviour.”

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Why this photo of a politician with Malala is being criticised

Quebec Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge with Malala Yousafzai

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Quebec Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge with Malala Yousafzai

A Quebec education minister is being criticised for posting a photo with education campaigner Malala Yousafzai.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner, who wears a headscarf, would not be able to teach in the Canadian province.

Quebec recently passed a controversial law barring some civil servants, including teachers, from wearing religious symbols at work.

Jean-François Roberge said he discussed access to education and international development with Ms Yousafzai.

She was shot in the head by Taliban militants in 2012 for daring to go to school and has since been recognised internationally for her work campaigning for girls’ education.

In June, Quebec passed secularism legislation that prevents civil servants in positions of “authority” from wearing symbols like such as the kippah, turban or hijab while at work.

The Coalition Avenir Quebec’s (CAQ) bill covers judges, police officers, teachers and some other public figures.

The secularism bill sparked protests and much debate in the province.

Supporters say the law is a reasonable step towards enshrining the separation of Church and state in Quebec.

While the legislation does not single out any specific religion, critics argue it is discriminatory and say it unfairly targets Muslim women in the province who wear hijabs or other head-coverings.

Some online commentators called the minister a hypocrite for posing with Ms Yousafzai.

Mr Roberge, who met Ms Yousafzai while he was in France, defended the law when asked on Twitter by journalist Salim Nadim Valji how he would respond if Ms Yousafzai wanted to teach in Quebec.

“I would certainly tell her that it would be an immense honour and that in Quebec, as is the case in France (where we are now) and in other open and tolerant countries, teachers cannot wear religious symbols in performing their duties,” he said.

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