Recent protests against tuition fee increases and education cuts have given schools a number of headaches: the hassle of disruption, fears about student safety, and the prospect of an unwelcome dent in attendance records. But perhaps the biggest worry for schools has been the risk of bad publicity - with the media keen to find tales of teens causing trouble.
"It's been a nightmare," says the head of sixth form at a school in north- east England, where more than 30 students walked out to join the protests. "None of our pupils were involved in anything untoward, but it is always a worry because things can get out of hand very easily. And the school has had several mentions in the local press, which isn't necessarily helpful."
Some schools feel that the only way to prevent incidents is to ban pupils from attending any demonstrations. This is absolutely the right stance, according to Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT. "There are obvious risks in young people attending these events. Heads should make it clear that if pupils miss school to protest, it will be marked as an unauthorised absence and treated seriously."
One drawback to this approach is that there is little schools can actually do to prevent pupils walking out. So heads who lay down the law run the risk of being defied. What is more, making a protest seem like an act of rebellion increases the likelihood of students approaching it in the wrong spirit, and causing trouble.
"Far better to educate pupils how to demonstrate in the right way, peacefully and legally," says Charlotte Carson, head of citizenship at Deptford Green School in Lewisham, south London. "Citizenship isn't something that just happens in the classroom. It is about young people becoming agents for change and peaceful protest is an important part of that. If pupils feel it right to demonstrate, they should certainly be free to do so."
So how can schools grant pupils their rights, head off bad publicity, and at the same time cover their backs against possible accusations of negligence?
"The only thing to do is to fudge it," says the north-east head of sixth form. "We made it clear to students that their absence from school would be unauthorised but that we had no wish to stop them protesting. A nod and a wink."
In any case, schools would be well advised to write to parents setting out their stance and to make it clear that they are not responsible for students' actions during a protest. And if the worst-case scenario happens and students do get caught up in civil disobedience, the advice of Mr Hobby is to maintain this detachment. "It's better to let the police handle it. The school should deal with the unauthorised absence, and leave everything else to the authorities."
The other option is for schools to organise their own demonstration - giving students a chance to take to the streets without attending a public protest.
WHAT TO DO
- Talk to pupils about the risks of attending a protest and how they can stay out of trouble.
- Ask them not to give their names, or the name of their school, to any reporters.
- Ask pupils who are attending a protest not to come into school that day, rather than to come to school and then leave.
- Mark absences as unauthorised.
- Write to parents making clear the school's position.