Passion of playground politics

28th March 2003 at 00:00
Adi Bloom reports on the anti-war protests that stopped lessons as pupils took part in local demonstrations

Olivia Lavalette is a veteran of political protest, despite being just nine years old.

Organising an anti-war demonstration at her Lancashire primary this month, was just another step in her campaign to make her voice heard.

"Saddam Hussein is a bad man. But I don't think it's right for George Bush and Tony Blair to kill thousands of innocent people for just one man," she said. "Lots of people have been doing protests. If everyone does something, it helps."

Without informing teachers at Queen's Drive primary, in Preston, Olivia massed her friends at lunchtime, and convinced them not to return to lessons. About 30 children remained in the playground, marching and singing. But, she said, there are limits to the anti-authoritarian fervour of primary pupils.

"When the teacher came out, everyone ran back in. They said they needed the toilet, and made up silly excuses like that. Everyone is against the war.

They just don't want to get into trouble."

Olivia resolutely remained outside with three close friends, before being summoned to Jane Mason, her headteacher, to discuss the issue.

Miss Mason was wary about encouraging action during the school day. She said: "I appreciate the sentiments of the protest. It is admirable in many ways. But I don't think a primary school is an appropriate venue. Some children are quite worried about the war and might not want to talk about it. Olivia has some understanding. But I don't think her perception is quite as an adult would see it."

Olivia has discussed politics with adults almost all her life. She attended her first march at the age of three, protesting against racism in nearby Oldham while sitting on her father's shoulders.

"We live in a house where we discuss things," said Michael Lavalette, Olivia's father. "We don't impose politics on our children. But if a question is asked, we try to answer it as directly as possible."

To date, Olivia has accompanied her parents on at least seven marches. And she is reading Animal Farm, George Orwell's political satire, plucked from her father's shelves.

She has also recently accompanied her parents on anti-war marches in London and Manchester. So it seemed a logical progression to arrange a demonstration at school.

Mr Lavalette said: "Olivia asked me, on what I thought was an abstract level, if she could go on a strike. I talked about the importance of proper organisation. The next day I got a phone call from the school. I was gobsmacked, but very proud. She's willing to put her ideas on the line."

But he said Olivia is in many ways a typical nine-year-old, with all the political immaturity that involves. When standing for the school council she was irritated, rather than pleased, when other candidates adopted her anti-racism stance: it was, she said, her idea first.

"Sometimes I play with my friends, sometimes I play with my sister, and sometimes I talk about politics.

"But we need to let Tony Blair know that a wide range of old and young people don't support him. We have to let people know what they can do if they are against the war."

Opinion, 25

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