The protesters

11th January 2008 at 00:00

Campaign politics, demonstrations, the odd sit-in or even a blockade. Stephen Manning finds teachers with strong beliefs are prepared to make a stand outside the classroom.

Jane Samuels has had her fair share of people in the street shouting "get a job". When she tells them that she's a teacher, they are usually either surprised or simply don't believe it. What would a teacher be doing on an animal rights demonstration?

But Jane (pictured, left) is not alone. She is one of a number of teachers who are part of the Manchester-based Coalition to Abolish the Fur Trade (CAFT). Much of her spare time is devoted to campaigning for animal rights - sit-ins, demonstrations and quite a lot of public speaking.

Last year she was involved in a sit-in at an Oxford laboratory. In December she was part of an anti-fur protest that picketed Harrods, the London department store. The capital is the one place where the fur industry still thrives, she says.

"The issue of animal rights does have a bit of an image problem," the primary teacher admits. "Some people think of it as not white-collar. The image is someone on the dole, someone not intelligent. But I campaign alongside three or four other teachers, plus solicitors and care workers - not the sort of professions that many people would associate with animal rights activists."

Teaching is a profession that attracts the passionate and the idealistic, so it's not surprising that many teachers will have issues they care about enough to devote their spare time to campaigning. Jane is now doing supply work a couple of days a week in primary schools around Manchester while she studies for her MA.

The 28-year-old takes part in demonstrations most weekends and is often spotted by her pupils. "They will come up to me and say, `Miss, what are you doing?' Normally, the parents find it quite funny. I've never had any serious resistance."

In the classroom too, there is curiosity, especially when they find out that she has been a vegan since she was about their age. Jane grew up in the countryside, becoming a vegetarian at eight and a vegan soon after. At nine she had her first taste of her life to come, getting involved with hunt saboteurs. She doesn't talk about this with her pupils but her vegan diet is a source of fascination for them. "There's lots of inquisitiveness, they want to know what it means, why I do it. I'm honest without being too emotive. It's not my primary function in the classroom."

It must be a relief to be around people who have not yet developed the kind of hostility to the issues that she's accustomed to.

Jane once taught in prisons, but stopped partly because she didn't want inmates knowing too much about her outside activities. "I know a few people who are in prison and I decided I didn't want to teach people who knew me on the outside, partly as a safety issue," she says. She has never been arrested, though her partner has, and it seems to be an occupational hazard for protesters. "People are arrested for carrying banners," she says. "It's really to get you out of the way. Being charged is far less likely."

Demonstrating at weekends requires a certain commitment. Tom Woodcock felt the need to go further though - into the realm of organised politics. He had not long left Parkside Community College in Cambridge when, in March 2003, pupils at the school joined others around the country and staged a protest over the imminent invasion of Iraq. Some 300 children, and a number of teachers, walked out of the school gates.

For them, as for so many people all over the country, it was perhaps the most emotive issue in a generation. It was a particularly eye-opening moment for Tom. He is passionate about politics and strongly opposed the Government's decision to go to war, but had not been actively involved in any protest as he had been too busy teaching. But talking to former colleagues, he could see how torn they were over such a difficult, divisive issue, and this led him to think again.

Just over two years later, in the 2005 General Election, Tom stood in Cambridge for Respect, the anti-war party founded by George Galloway. He was one of 28 Respect candidates fielded nationally, though only their combative leader made it to Parliament.

It was a change of priorities for someone for whom 80-hour weeks were the norm during his PGCE year.

"I was following the news, but like a lot of people, my workload initially prevented me from getting more involved," he says.

"To get into politics requires a time commitment that people in a lot of professions, especially teachers, don't always have."

Tom now teaches A-level film and media studies at a sixth form college in Cambridge, where he is also a governor. He first came into contact with the nascent Respect party at the National Union of Teachers' annual conference in 2003. Now the 31-year-old's free time is given over to local campaigning (his latest target is Tesco, the supermarket giant), which he considers to be the mainstay of his activity, above electoral ambition. He has stood in local council elections and is likely to do so again this coming May.

In the run-up to the general election, Tom campaigned in the evenings, taking not more than a couple of afternoons off work. He was knocking on doors and debating at hustings, often accompanied by his mother, also a teacher and politically active.

"People like me who feel strongly enough about the issues to get involved must make a decision between doing it properly - abandoning your career for politics - or doing the best you can and balancing your political activity with your teaching," he says. "That is how I have decided to do it - I'm fairly good at managing my time."

In the end, Tom polled 477 votes, just over 1 per cent of the total, although he did have the satisfaction of seeing Anne Campbell, the sitting Labour MP, ousted by the Lib Dem challenger.

Wanting to make a positive difference is something that teachers and politicians - at least those at the altruistic end of the spectrum - do share.

"Many people go into teaching because they hold convictions - I certainly did," says Tom. "I didn't like school very much myself, so I could see ways in which I might challenge things I disagreed with or change things for the better. I also remember teachers I did like whose example I would want to follow."

Educator and activist

Education is never neutral, it either liberates or domesticates. This was the maxim of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian education theorist. So how far should the politically-committed teacher deal with these subjects in class?

Gawain Little, a 27-year-old primary teacher in Oxford and activist for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, believes it's a careful and important balance. "Our role as teachers is facilitating children to find out their own views. As a teacher, I'm careful not to allow politics to affect how I present a lesson. But if you show different sides of an issue, pupils of a certain age are capable of getting to its roots. The Government is, after all, keen on citizenship lessons as a way of developing responsible citizens."

Gawain, who teaches at St Ebbe's Church of England Primary, is on CND's national council and is co-ordinator of the Oxfordshire Peace Campaign. He has participated in "non-violent direct action", such as recent blockades at Faslane Naval Base in Clyde, home of the UK's nuclear submarines, where he and others chained themselves to the gates. He's been arrested twice and has two convictions for breach of the peace.

Nuclear transport is a big local issue - convoys that leave the atomic weapons establishment at Aldermaston go through Oxford. "I went into teaching because I feel passionate about the future," he says. "It seems to me that with nuclear weapons, we have no future."

Teachers who campaign on issues seem to be more careful about the distinction between educator and activist, lest they be accused of abusing their authority in the classroom. Gawain does not discuss his extra- curricular activity with his pupils at all, partly because of the risk that it might seem quite glamorous. He has made occasional appearances on radio and TV, but says that parents who are aware of this are generally supportive, or at least not hostile.

He does, however, bring something of the campaigning spirit to persuasive writing lessons, encouraging Year 5s to construct arguments for or against on emotive subjects such as animal testing. "If issues like these were addressed in an overly political way, parents would be right to complain," he says. "But it's important to get kids to explore all kinds of issues, especially as they will watch the news or at least be aware of it."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today