But Sir, it's our politics practical

28th January 2011 at 00:00
Teen apathy has been in scant supply as thousands of pupils have joined the protests against tuition fees and education cuts. But should teachers support their spirit of defiance or punish them for truancy?

At one side of the hall stands a noticeboard, not covered with the customary "no-smoking" warnings and notes about attendance, but plastered with colourful home-made anti-cuts posters. A couple of girls sit at a desk nearby, painting slogans on sheets of paper, while across the hall a small group of sixth-formers gather in a serious-looking huddle to discuss media strategy.

"ITV are waiting outside with a massive satellite dish and we had an MP who was supposed to come for a talk," says Linda*, looking worried. "The teachers don't seem awfully pleased. They've barricaded the door and aren't allowing the press in, which has kind of made it worse."

It is 1pm at Camden Sit-in HQ in north London and these sixth-form students are supposed to be holding a press conference. Camden School for Girls pupils (male and female in the sixth-form) invited TV stations as well as the national and local press to the school to spread the word about their 24-hour sit-in protest against the trebling of university tuition fees and the abolition of the education maintenance allowance (EMA). "It's part of a big drive to raise publicity," says Matt*. "To have it happen in a school will send such a strong message."

But in all the excitement, they didn't stop to think that their teachers might not appreciate a media circus descending onto the school grounds on this freezing Wednesday in December. "We didn't realise, but it's a Year 6 open day so they're not very impressed," admits Linda. "It's all a bit awkward."

After trying and failing to convince sixth-formers that they should go home to their parents, 12 teachers, including the head, are resigned to staying overnight to supervise the 70 students who are here for the long haul. As darkness descends on the north London school, well-wishers and university students stop by with steaming hot food and bundles of blankets. The sixth-formers curl up on the floor of their assembly hall in a heap of sleeping bags, but it looks like sleep is a long way off - the excited chatter is all about tomorrow's protest at the Commons; the students singing protest songs into the small hours.

The mood in central London the next day is very different. The December 9 march against education cuts becomes violent, with groups of students trying to push past police lines and officers changing into riot gear, using batons to keep students contained and, according to some of those present, charging at the crowd on horseback. After 3pm, protesters claim they are being "kettled" (contained) by police in different locations, with one group of an estimated 1,000 protesters only being allowed out onto Westminster Bridge after 11pm.

Allowing sixth-formers to stage a civilised sit-in is one thing, but younger pupils also want the opportunity to vent their feelings against the proposed changes to university education. Tommy Jackman, a 12-year-old pupil at the London Nautical School in Blackfriars, central London, was a regular at the pre-Christmas marches. Despite the outbreaks of violence and potential danger, he is adamant that he wants to be on the front line. "I'm not scared," he said in a newspaper interview. "We're told in school nothing is more important than education - we're not going to stop until we get what we need. We'll never give in."

Continuing in the spirit of opposition, another march against tuition fees will take place tomorrow. Many schoolchildren will join trade unionists and activists in Manchester and London to protest against cutbacks in the public sector.

Teachers face a dilemma. On the one hand, particularly in subjects such as citizenship, pupils are encouraged to develop strong opinions and campaign against unjust behaviour. But what if standing up for what they believe in ends up with someone getting hurt?

The protest on November 10, which involved 50,000 protesters taking to the streets, ended with the storming of Tory party headquarters, 50 arrests and a fire extinguisher being thrown off the roof. Sixth-former Edward Woollard was jailed for two years and eight months earlier this month, after admitting throwing the fire extinguisher. As a result of the December 9 march, which famously saw Charles and Camilla being caught up in the ruckus, 43 protesters and 12 police officers were injured, and a total of 34 arrests were made.

Since the protests began, teachers across the country have had to put up with pupil walk-outs during lessons as well as fielding calls from worried parents. At some of the protests, there were reports of children being injured or kettled by police in freezing temperatures. Teachers, along with parents, are left to pick up the pieces.

Even those who aren't caught up in the violence are affected one way or another. "I've had a dreadful week because one of my students who has Asperger's got really, really stressed about the rise in fees," writes Poemeelectronique, a secondary teacher on The TES online forum. "That's just one instance of the worry that some young people are going through."

Teachers, as legal guarantors for their pupils from when they arrive at the school gates to when they leave, are in a difficult position when marches take place during the school week. They cannot physically stop pupils from leaving, but are responsible for them nonetheless.

At Dunraven School in Streatham, south London, some female pupils found fame after the November 26 march when they were photographed holding hands in a circle around a police van to protect it from attack. "The girls who stood around the police van guarding it - they were sending a very positive message," David Boyle, the school's principal, told the BBC.

But it doesn't change the fact they were truanting and putting themselves in danger. "They said there was an older man doing the same thing beforehand and people just started throwing stuff at him," says Mr Boyle. "If something happened to a child it would be tracked back to the school and everyone would say, `Why didn't you stop them from leaving the school?' It looks strong until there's a really terrible incident and then all the official inquiries start."

No concessions should be made to pupils who go on protest marches, argues Hyder Dastagir, headteacher of the London Nautical School, where Tommy is a pupil. "I would not sanction any of my pupils going because they should be in school learning," he says. "It is not safe for a child of 12. If he (Tommy) was there, he must have been truanting."

Teachers need to find "a balance between the rights of pupils to express themselves and their own safety," explains Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT. Older pupils, especially sixth- formers, will demand, and are entitled to, more freedom, he adds, and depending on school policy, they may already be allowed to leave the school grounds during the day.

However, Mr Hobby advises schools to treat protesting as truancy. "I don't think there should necessarily be an extreme punishment, but as a matter of principle, students shouldn't be given authorised absence to go on a protest," he says.

This leaves schools in a safer legal position if anything should happen. "If a school has a strong reason to believe that a pupil is at risk - if they are associated with dangerous groups, for example - they can contact the authorities or parents," says Mr Hobby. "It is then not the school that can be held accountable any more, as it has fulfilled its responsibilities."

But aside from the legal obligations teachers have to parents and pupils, what about their own ideological views? The abolition of EMAs will directly affect sixth-form teachers as their pupil numbers may fall and their subjects may be cut, while the trebling of tuition fees will have a huge impact on their pupils' future education and aspirations.

Kirstie Paton, teacher of A-level philosophy and politics at the John Roan School in Greenwich, south-east London, fully supports her pupils' involvement in the protests. "We understood that this was part of them taking their studies seriously - there was quite a lot of sympathy among sixth-form teachers," she says. "It would be hypocritical for us to talk about Martin Luther King and Emily Pankhurst and then not recognise that our students are doing a similar thing in a different way."

There is a strong citizenship department at the school that may have been an influence on pupils' actions, she adds, although the lessons do not actively encourage pupils to protest. "We don't say `walk out of school', but we do encourage them to express themselves - writing leaflets, making banners, organising collective protests," says Ms Paton. "In that sense, it would be bizarre for teachers not to encourage pupils. I think it's an interesting debate - to what extent do teachers encourage participation?"

Teachers should not only be supportive of pupils' actions, but teaching unions should be marching alongside school pupils and students, says Ms Paton. She joined her students on one of the marches in November after the school day. "If the NUT combined with the NUS, we'd be in a very powerful position," she says. "We should be looking at ourselves in shame, asking why are we not up supporting the students? Teachers should be protesting - if sixth-form numbers fall, they'll be out of a job."

But Ms Paton's views are not shared by everyone. A TES Magazine poll of teachers on The TES online forum found that 78 per cent of teachers would discourage their pupils from taking part, with many saying they should remain apolitical. "I am sick of hearing our lefty-leaning staff indoctrinate the kids into their way of thinking, especially when they then go on to whine about their massive sense of entitlement," writes Lilyofthefield.

She is also skeptical about pupils' motivations for protesting: "Thirty seconds' questioning establishes that most of ours would protest firstly because it's a cool thing to do," she writes. "Secondly, because asking them to pay more for something that once cost less, regardless of the reasons for it, is an affront to their human rights, although they couldn't actually say why."

Even at Ms Paton's school, the senior management team has not tolerated younger pupils leaving school to protest. When a large group of under-16s left the school grounds, teachers went after them in their cars and brought them back.

Regardless of whether teachers support the protests or not, many will applaud the awakening of young people's political awareness. The Dunraven pupils who left school to march were put in detention, but instead of writing lines they were told to write letters to their MPs about the issues they were protesting about.

During their sit-ins, universities hosted "teach-ins" during which lecturers gave talks explaining the current economic and political situation, while some schools attempted to do the same thing.

The John Roan School has taken the opportunity to channel pupils' passion and determination into activism that is less dangerous and that can be carried out during school hours. The school has forged a relationship with nearby Goldsmiths, University of London, and an "anti-cuts club" has been started up by pupils who want to be active in the Anti-Cuts Alliance.

Being actively involved in protests is arguably education in action, and a demonstration of practical education with a purpose. The Camden School for Girls pupils managed to issue a professional-looking press release to all major news outlets.

One of the sixth-formers, Sophie Burge, appeared articulate and composed on Channel 4 News opposite Lib Dem MP Norman Lamb in a debate about education cuts. They also set up a blog and a Twitter account for hour-by- hour updates and various students appeared in reports broadcast by several TV news bulletins.

"Students have been writing articles for newspapers in an hour when they wouldn't hand in an essay for two weeks," says Ms Paton. "They've suddenly found their voice and are talking with eloquence and passion."

Despite the fact that if pupils are consistently truanting and pose a health and safety risk, teachers will be forced to penalise them, there is still an opportunity for schools to try to tap into their student body's enthusiasm for politics and passion for the future of society.

"We've got a duty to create a balanced debate," says Mr Hobby. "I'm sure many teachers and heads do agree with their protesting. And not authorising their absence doesn't mean we want to prevent them from expressing themselves, but we could make them aware of the risks."

Despite their teachers' strong stance against sit-ins and walk-outs, pupils at Camden School for Girls are surprisingly sympathetic to their teachers' position. "The only reason they don't support us is because of health and safety - it's understandable really," says Matt. "You can tell that some of them are supportive, but they wouldn't say publicly. They're in a very difficult situation."

As these regular protests continue over the next couple of months, teachers will have to tread a fine line between being held accountable for pupils and maintaining order in the schools and allowing pupils their right to legitimate protest

*Students asked that their names be changed


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The first day of nationwide protests against education cuts, organised by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU).

Wednesday, November 24, 2010 Protest day 1

The National Campaign against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) organises a mass walk- out and protest outside Whitehall.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010 Protest day 2

Further protests take place, centring on Trafalgar Square in central London.

Thursday, December 9, 2010 Protest day 3

Two separate protests are organised in London, led by the NUS and the NCAFC and the University of London Union.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011 Protest day 4

A protest and walk-out are organised by the Education Activist Network (EAN) to defend the education maintenance allowance (EMA).

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Demonstrations will be held in London and Manchester, organised by the EAN, NCAFC, NUS, UCU and Trades Union Congress (TUC).

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The NUS will join the TUC protest against spending cuts in Hyde Park, central London.


How the protest at Camden School for Girls unfolded on its live @Camdensitin Twitter feed.

December 8

We just want to reiterate that this is NOT an attack against the school; IT IS AN ATTACK AGAINST THE COALITION GOVERNMENT

Representative from the occupation will be live on @channel4news at 7. #solidarity #demo2010

Having a group meeting with teachers - again to reiterate not an attack on the school but on the condem government

Just heard that both Stoke Newington School and Acland Burghley School are both in occupation #demo2010 #solidarity

All camdeners are still here going strong!

Camden parents have now arrived to offer us support #solidarity

We have been granted NUJ support #solidarity

Apparently we are getting quite a lot of press coverage; sadly we do not have a tv #solidarity

December 9

373 followers in under 24 hours - that's #solidarity

Camden occupier Sophie Burge clashes with Norman Lamb MP on Channel 4 News http:wp.mep1ev0Q-m #solidarity

Everyone's waking up here - less than 24 hours left of our sit-in! Thank you so much everyone for the support #solidarity

Michael Gove: `Anyone put off . uni by fear of . debt doesn't deserve to be at uni in the first place' repugnant man

Less than 2 hours left of our teach-in. Then off to the march! #solidarity

Our last general meeting! #solidarity

Half an hour left until 24 hour - we are all very proud and delighted with the support we have received thank you. #solidarity

Great coverage of our sit-in @newjournal today! Very heartening!


SIT IN COMPLETED! #demo2010 #solidarity off to march!

We have been kettled!

Help us!! Camden has parents evening at 5! #solidarity #demo2010

No nick I am NOT living in a dream world, you sir are the one in a dream world if you think you'll ever be elected again @nick_clegg

This the only the beginning #demo2010 #solidarity

Think I'm going to have to delete this account the school are still extremely unhappy about it; and not one teacher has congratulated sophie

Ok I'm not going to delete; but I'm not sure how much we'll be able to post STAY UPDATED FOLLOW @beebeeburge AND @conradlandin

December 10

Again to thank everyone for all their support! And to those who have writtenemailed the school let's hope it makes a difference! #solidarity.

Pictures by Alys Tomlinson

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