Something to Shout about

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Governments say they want the next generation to engage in politics. In France, it has worked - at the administration's expense. In Scotland, there is still a long way to go, writes Su Clark

Three years ago, when the anti-Hussein rhetoric was at its height and Britain was lurching toward war with Iraq, millions of adults and children took to the streets in Britain to protest. They marched with angry placards, shouting furiously, a people united in opposition. Then they went home and were ignored by the Government.

At the time the London march was described as one of the largest demonstrations ever witnessed across the nation. Organisers claimed two million, the police conceded at least a million. But it did not stop the invasion of Iraq.

Contrast this with recent events in France. Attempts to introduce a new easy-hire, easy-fire law (CPE) that enabled employers to sack anyone under the age of 26 resulted in rioting, sit-ins and blockades by students, young people and some children barely old enough to be in senior school. Day after day the protests raged and the schools remained empty. No one was ignored.

"When the government appears to be wrong, the people (especially those concerned) fight against that," says Christine Pichard, an English teacher in Chinon, in the Loire Valley. "We think this is democracy. Generally movements occur in the big cities, but even Chinon was in a frantic state.

The movement was widespread over the whole country. Pupils have learned a lot about rights and voting, etc."

But then, people sigh, that's so French. British youth would never act that way. They couldn't be bothered.

"I refuse to believe it," insists Mhairi Britton, 15, joint convener of a nascent protest movement, School Students Against the War, Scotland (SSAW).

"You have to have faith you can change things; the alternative is so awful.

Look at France. They won their battle because they were determined."

Her friend and joint convener, Patrick Orr, is equally impassioned. "You had young people who months before had been rioting in the suburbs joining privileged white students to stop these unfair laws," he adds. "Taking action does work."

Research by Henry Maitles, head of curricular studies at Strathclyde University's education faculty, suggests that young people are galvanised by single issues such as Fair Trade or environmental concerns rather than party politics.

Mme Pichard believes this is not so dissimilar to France.

"School children are not so politicised these days except when they are concerned, which was the case with the CPE," she says.

The war would appear to be a focal point for some young people in the UK, as the attempted relaxation of employment protection has been in France.

SSAW boasts more than 6,000 contacts nationally with groups in London, Cardiff, Somerset, and, since December last year, Scotland. The numbers in Edinburgh currently stand at 50, with new members joining each month through word of mouth. Organisers hope other groups in St Andrews and Glasgow will soon appear.

But the war is also introducing students to other issues that they may feel equally strong about.

If there is heightened awareness among this group, then perhaps the introduction of citizenship within the curriculum could be fuelling that awareness, especially with support and resources provided by organisations such as the Trades Union Congress and the Make Poverty History umbrella group, and the Electoral Commission itself. Lesson plans on free trade, globalisation and the environment are informing and engaging young people.

But does it go far enough? Some teachers believe that using citizenship to deliver political literacy is inadequate and that it should be taught through modern studies.

In France there is a long tradition of citizen education, which dates back to shortly after the revolution of 1789. According to Mme Pichard, pupils and teachers talk freely about politics, and once a week each class has an hour to speak freely with their "main" teacher. Also, she says, families talk about politics freely.

The members of SSAW shake their heads at the suggestion their education could have contributed to their politics.

"My school doesn't encourage any sort of serious debate," says Emily Still, 14, who attends Boroughmuir High, which does have full modern studies provision from S1 to Advanced Higher and a debating club. "I was brought up in a pretty political atmosphere. My mum used to take me on demonstrations along Princes Street when I was little, and get me to shout 'Tony Blair is insane'."

Sitting next to her is Robin Head Fourman, 13, in S2 at Boroughmuir High.

He also believes his parents, one of whom is a professor at Edinburgh University, are responsible for his interests.

Patrick Orr concurs: "Debate is stifled. The teachers talk to you in the same tone all the time so when something interesting is being said, no one is listening. And the school isn't ready to listen to us. We have a student council but there was no election, only candidates put forward by the teachers. When I kicked up a fuss about that, I was suddenly found a seat.

But the council doesn't discuss important issues."

The attitude of senior teachers across Scotland during recent protests, when students were threatened with sanctions if they left school to campaign against war or to support the end of poverty or protest against globalisation, merely convinces students further that schools oppose political awakening among pupils.

In France it is different; teachers went on strike to support students and trade unions.

"French educators are a lot less coy than their Scottish counterparts about encouraging young people to protest," says Mhairi's father, Alan Britton, deputy director of the global citizenship unit for Glasgow university's education faculty. "For while the Scottish pupils' anti-Iraq war walkouts in 2003 appear to have been spontaneous (with a little help from the Scottish Socialist Party), I've met teachers from France who encouraged pupils to walk out."

The SSAW members gathered to discuss their movement have apocryphal tales to tell of doors being locked at certain schools, even though the older ones were still in P7 when the major anti-war march took place.

"Schools don't like it if we are overtly political," says Emily. "We have a dress code at our school and it was used as an excuse to try to make me take off my bright pink anti-war button."

Part of the problem could be teachers' fear of appearing too political or of being accused of indoctrinating pupils, but Mr Maitles rejects this.

"I don't think school teachers are concerned or scared of being seen as radical by parents."

But teachers face a dilemma. They are responsible for ensuring the education and safety of children, and encouraging them to demonstrate in the streets does not fit with that remit. While they may be reluctant to let go of control in the classroom, they are more reluctant to permit any lack of control on the streets. And with party politics turning so many people off voting, direct action seems more common in Britain.

Teachers and parents are aware of the angry mobs at the G8 summit in Edinburgh and Gleneagles last July or the covert activities and body-snatching of animal rights groups.

"My parents don't like the idea of me being out on the streets but they know I am sensible," adds Robin.

The creation of SSAW gives vent to the frustrations of its members, and provides them with an opportunity for debate. It is also leading them into other campaigns. Patrick, joint convener of SSAW Scotland, is involved in the nascent Edinburgh School Students Union, which plans to hold its first congress this June, and recently, he joined Emily and Robin in a campaign within their school, Boroughmuir High in Edinburgh, over its cold weather policy. Rather than accept exile to the playground in all weathers, the three were involved with a whole school sit-in that forced the senior management to rethink. Pupils were delighted their actions led to a positive result.

"Sir Bernard Crick, Westminster adviser on citizenship, said that if we want to make citizens of our young people, we have to tolerate actions we do not necessarily agree with," argues Mr Maitles.

"I don't think we should just tolerate actions we do not like; we should actively encourage them even if we don't agree with them. Parents in France may not have liked the idea of their young people out demonstrating and the risks that brought, but they recognised their right to do it."

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