Tuesday, 5 July 2005

The Lord Taketh Away - Part 2

By now you should know my views on benefits. I do not depend on hand-outs from the State. Education bursaries, however, are a different matter.

A great injustice is about to take place and I have no means but these to vent our anger and frustration.

Having given six years of her life to bringing up our children, Lara has, at the wonderful age of 32 (33 tomorrow!) had the determination and motivation to return to University and study to become a valued public servant - a midwife. She wishes to spend the whole of her working life helping mothers and babies through those first anxious and frightening moments of delivery and birth. There are few more wonderful things that one woman can do for another.

Her course is full time and an ever changing balance of classroom coursework and hospital based practical work. Quite rightly, the course is as arduous as the job will be. The hours are long, the pressure immense and the required knowledge levels are huge. Midwives now must combine the traditional values of empathy, care and strength with a considerable intelligence. And, as has become obvious from a recent experience, she must run the gauntlet of the blame and liability culture in the event that mistakes are made (as if the death or incapacity of a mother or baby are not sufficient crosses to bear).

When she is on the ward, she is to all intense and purpose an active member of that shift. She works as hard and long as everyone else and is as much involved in all the goings on as anyone. Her commitment is indisputable. They calculated that they probably do about 1500 hours a year, and essentially this is free labour since the students do not get paid. I am in greater admiration of my wife than I can say.

So here is that injustice.

Her course is a 3 year Midwifery degree. It is a direct entry course (i.e. one does not require to have been a nurse previously) and it is the first such course to be run by Homerton College, Cambridge. The first two years come with an automatic bursary of £500 per month. Yes, that's right, just £500. It covers such things as the childcare that a mature student with children, such as Lara, might need to cover her while she is doing the hours of a traditional 'early' or 'late' or 'night' shift. It isn't much but it helps bear the additional costs of adjusting to a new life. In our case it helps to pay for Anita.

So would you believe it if I told you that we discovered at the start of the second year that the meagre bursary funding is to be stopped in the final year of the degree course.

You have it right. Despite the fact that Lara works for free in hospital in the capacity of a proper midwife, and despite the fact that her chosen career is that of public servant, and despite the fact that she works utterly anti-social hours and despite the fact that Mr Tony Blair intends for 50% of young people to get degrees, Lara must forgo what little support is available and endure additional hardship in order to complete her degree. What is even more ridiculous is that this rule only applies to a handful of students. Most of them are nurses converting to midwives and as such are being paid for by the Trust for whom they previously worked. So the funding shortfall is both comparatively small and relatively insignificant.

We have tried every which way. We have written to the local NHS Trust asking them to help with funding in return for a set period of service on qualification. We have asked the College to find some way. All to no avail. They remain set in their appallingly organised course. We are both furious and upset because £6000 for the final year is nothing for a Trust to ensure the services of a midwife during a national shortage. To us, however, £6000 is a big part of our budget, especially when you don't even have Sky TV to give up to afford it.

When I was training as a soldier and subsequently at Sandhurst to be an Officer, we were signed up and paid properly. Sure it was not the full amount, but it was more than enough to make us think twice before throwing in the towel. Most public servant student training is funded to ensure that the individuals are encouraged to stay. The forces, the police, the fire service. Can you imagine the stupidity of creating one that actually places obstacles in the way and discourages completion?

If she chooses, Lara can switch to the Diploma and retain the money, but I can't tell you how sad that would make her. She wants a degree. Not just because she is intelligent and deserving of one but because that is today's education baseline and what is expected in hospitals today. Lara will be sad, but I will be angry. Angry at the complete lack of thought that has gone into the organisation of this course, angry at the dishonesty of the advice originally given, and angry at my inability to pay for my wife to attain her selfless and deeply caring ambition to be a midwife.



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