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So who's the petty dictator now?

I DISAGREE with headteachers who are taking a severe line with senior pupils missing school to demonstrate against the war with Iraq.

Sure, I condemn unreservedly anyone who persuades young kids to up desks to wave placards, thinking no more deeply than that this is much more exciting than double maths. Yes, there is a safety issue and schools should be reminded of what is meant by in loco parentis. When parents genuinely believe that their nearest and dearest are tucked up in school, it is the school's responsibility to discourage bunking off whatever the reason.

My concerns relate to the 16-plus school population who are, of course, adults. Consider the background. The assault on Iraq is a war many British people do not want. This country has never before gone to war with only a minority of the population in support and consequently we have seen the biggest ever displays of co-ordinated anti-war protests in our streets.

Senior school pupils are, understandably, exercised by the Government's duplicity in this matter. For this war - as indeed for previous wars in Afghanistan and Kosovo - an infinite pit of money has been found but the Government apparently can't afford to fully fund higher education.

Also, serious anti-war protesters understand the issue. Young people grasp only too well how the United States and the UK backed Saddam Hussein's tyrannical regime until he invaded Kuwait. They appreciate that when and if Saddam goes he will take down with him the dream of the United Nations as the international saviour of peace.

OK, that's the background. Why then treat absence at an anti-war demonstration differently from run of the mill truancy? Hypocrisy again.

How many school pupils can you name who have been threatened with suspension because of the occasional day's truancy? Not one. Shrug the point off if you like, relegate the thought to the back of your mind but threatening senior pupils with suspension (an indelible blot on their school record) if they go on an anti-war protest during school time is hitting the bullying tactics jackpot.

That's not how to deal with senior pupils if you want them to become mature and thinking citizens. Participation in peaceful protest is an undeniable human right and blocking that expression by blackmailing kids with the threat of suspension is a very disturbing course of action indeed.

Ponder the irony of it. On the one hand, we have the inclusion policy shoved in our faces with all its absurdities. Kids with multiple behaviour problems must be kept in school at all costs. Telling a teacher where to stick his or her effing whatever will elicit an understanding pat on the back and maybe an exhortation to write a letter of apology. But ask if you can attend an anti-war demonstration and you're threatened with suspension.

Sorry. That stinks.

What about the parents who attempt to legitimise truancy, the kids who are taken out of school during term time for two weeks in Florida? Should they not be threatened with suspension? If not, why not?

If you are a parent of a teenager you will know how vehemently young people oppose injustice of any kind. Teachers who can't recognise the difference between a genuine expression of protest and gratuitous insolence are a disappointment to the profession. If you don't know who the cuckoos in your nest are, you are letting your pupils down.

So what would I do if I were a headteacher in this situation? I would exercise leniency. I would recognise that there is more to education than having your nose stapled to a desk. I'd negotiate with my senior pupils.

Threatening them wouldn't be part of my communication repertoire. That would smack of dictatorship.

Paradoxical really, when you consider all the factors in this equation.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, psychology and philosophy at Forres Academy.

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