Why? The world is facing growing challenges which require our urgent attention. If not now, when, and if not us, who?
What? Every child, by the time they leave school, should have worked with others to craft, and win, a campaign that has made their life, and that of their community, better.
How? Schools need to focus on politics in action and be bold(er) about the need to get involved in public life.
Politics puts lots of people off. The concept of politics has become a dirty one. It is a concept which schools are often wary of, in spite of the growing movements we can see across the world: from #ClimateStrike actions to #ExctinctionRebellion protests. As more and more voices are being heard in response to the pressures faced by our planet, it should become uncomfortable to remain neutral.
Rare are the schools which don’t see their role as ‘enabling children to grow into successful leaders who can shape the world for the better.’ However, unlike systematic approaches to the teaching of, say, reading, writing, and mathematics, schools rarely know where to start when it comes to teaching children to become successful leaders who can have a direct – and real! – influence on the world they live in.
Young people love to vote and participate. Whenever there are ‘elections’ at school, they get involved in big numbers. When it comes to voting for favourite performances on TV shows, they also vote in mass.
As Professor Peter Mortimore (former Director of the Institute of Education) wrote in 2011,
In 1950, 84% of the electorate turned out to vote but only 65% did so in 2010. A survey of first-time voters carried out for Radio 1, just before the last election, reported that 30% did not believe their vote would count and 20% felt they did not know enough about politics to make a decision. Despite these comments, however, more than half claimed they would vote if they could do so online or using text messaging. And, from the 15.5 million votes cast during the last series of the X Factor, we know young people like voting.
When it comes to real democracy (affecting decisions which have an impact on how we live) and because we don’t know what participating actually means, we get confused – at best – or switch off. Participation rates at local and general elections – albeit on the increase, in some cases – is poor (2015 general election: 66.1%, 2016 London mayoral election: 45.3%)
People care about what directly affects them, on their doorstep. Sadly, and because of the way people have forgotten about civic participation, politics, in many ways, has become something remote from our everyday lives. Brexit is something most of us feel powerless about – however angry it certainly makes us. Poverty is something we’re all angry about but feel unable to really challenge. Most of what is discussed on the news concerns us, but seems increasingly out of our reach, when it comes to influencing debates. Children, therefore, have no other option, in most cases, than grow up to become turned off by politics. Politics isn’t relevant. But that’s only because we’ve let that be the case.
With an increasing focus on creating ‘meaningful’ curricula, and with the way the world is quickly changing, I’d argue that we are presented with an amazing chance: the possibility to revive civic participation in local communities, particularly in schools, and engage our children in public life.
Learning to work through a collective (your class, your year group, your school as a whole, your school community) and agree what needs to be changed (learning to use your voice, learning to compromise, etc.) and, collaboratively, devise tactics which will see you develop your leadership, take action, and bring about change, is something schools can easily facilitate.
Education should be about preparing children to be active participants in society. It is about enabling them to be successful and in charge of their destinies. It should be about teaching them to not remain neutral in the face of injustices. And there is no better way to do that than get our children to connect their hopes, through their learning, to the world they live in.
A big part of what a successful education should be about, if we believe in enabling children to be in charge of their futures, is about giving them the tools which will enable them not to only participate, but also shape, the world they live in. This means preparing children politically. It means preparing them to fulfil their birth right: we cannot be true actors who can shape society for what it ought to be it we don’t truly understand the world as it is. And not being taught about our sense of power and agency, where to start when we want to affect change in our lives, is why we leave this to those who are already in power. We end up leaving decisions which affect all of us to those who are in (already) power because of their inherited backgrounds, status, and connections.
Lots is going on in an increasing number of schools which can give us hope. From students taking action on issues of street safety, to classes organising campaigns to hold local councillors to account on issues of recycling, to schools negotiating with large institutions like Transport for London on the regularity of buses on certain routes, at certain times, lots of neighbourhood-level work is shaping up. And students/schools, by being focused on winnable issues, are bringing about real change.
Let’s look at an example I worked on as a teacher, focusing on a few lessons/tactics that got us to win:
Setting: When a parent comes to you and says that she’s really worried about her child walking to school because drivers along one of the busiest arteries into East London from South London, and which sees thousands of vehicles every morning, just before the beginning of the school day, you know this might be an issue to engage with.
Caroline, whose son Ethan almost got run over a few times by dangerous drivers, began talking about the need to get a School Crossing Patrol near the school to make her, and others’, children safer.
- How do you use a specific issue to build and understand power? Caroline, very determined to get a School Crossing Patrol back near the school, made numerous phone calls to the local council’s Safety Team. At her surprise, nothing ever got done, and she kept being transferred from one person to another. Accountability at the Council, was, she started thinking, rather blurred. “Who is in charge, and who could get things done?” were questions she should have thought of earlier. What was needed was for Caroline to have a clearer understanding of power: her own power, and that of the local Council.
- The importance of research action to build power and test out if an issue is really an issue. Bringing a team of children and parents together, as part of a ‘life in the community’ project, we realised that we needed to be a bit more sophisticated. In other words, we needed to organise ourselves and have a plan. Now, was Caroline and her son Ethan’s issue an issue which others cared about? To understand where we stood in terms of this, and to develop stronger links between members of the community (involving the school and its neighbours), it was decided to launch a research action in the school, as well as the two other schools immediately next to us. Children organised surveys, presented to other classes (in our school and our neighbouring schools). Parents approached other parents in the mornings and at the end of the school day, asking questions about street safety and possible solutions which would help improve things. Doing this, anecdotes about the ‘lollipop lady’ that used to work near the schools kept coming up in conversations. Caroline’s fondness for a ‘situation as it used to be’ (world as it should be) was shared by many, and using this as a catalyst to get people’s reactions, hundreds of people agreed to sign a petition to show their support, sharing testimonies about their own children being knocked over by unvigilant drivers. This issue was a real issue.
- Understanding your opponent’s self-interest is key and having a strategy to agitate power is essential. Now that the team had the support of the wider community, we needed to see how we could move things on and achieve our goal. To get power to recognise our call, it was thought important to build alliances. This, because of the research action, we did very well with other schools. We also needed to build links between ourselves and public officials who might be able to support us. As a first step, we met with a council officer. This meeting was important in terms of developing our awareness of the council’s priorities, financial situation, and bureaucracy. It was also useful in terms of developing the leadership of the parents involved in the campaign. For emerging leaders, it was a good lesson in how to plan for a meeting, chair a meeting, and speak with one voice. Children were supported with skills which had an immediate impact on the way the campaign developed. We met with local councillors to get them involved in the campaign. Two out of the three local councillors for the ward where the school is situated became keen to support us, especially as they became aware of the hundreds of signatures collected, and the strong alliance of institutions built.
- Tension is needed to speed things up. Action is the oxygen of a campaign. We’d been keen to build links between members of the community and local councillors. However, things were at the risk of getting caught in, what we thought, were unnecessary and potentially dangerous, bureaucratic processes. As we’d met with our local councillors, it became clear that our local Council had specific ways of doing things in terms of School Crossing Patrols. We were told that roads would have to be inspected at various times, on clear days, and by a specific team of experts at the Council. Then, a report would have to be produced, and a decision might be made. What that meant for us was: our voice is not that important (we are not ‘experts’, even though we know the local area much better than most ‘experts’ at the Council), the support of the community does not seem paramount, and, most importantly, the life of Ethan isn’t a key part in this equation. But, as Ethan had clearly said during our first meeting with the council officer: “What is more important? Numbers, or me? Is my life not what we should be talking about here?” As we knew we had a point, based on personal testimonies, but also because of the fact that there arehundreds of cars going past the schools in the morning, and at the end of the school day, we concluded that a report would only delay things and that we had to speed things up. Change often happens when tension is brought in, so we gathered again as a team and developed a plan of action. One thing we knew is that one of the Council’s key self-interests is publicity, and any pressure around their image might be helpful for us. Our plan, therefore, became clear. We had to become ‘lollipop ladies and gentlemen’ ourselves, and publicise our demands more overtly. Identifying talents and expertise in our group, a team of children and parents designed our own ‘Stop Sign’ or ‘Lollipop’. We found high visibility jackets in our cupboards. We designed flyers to let people know what we were doing. For a whole week, we took things in turn: some of us would look after the children as we’d dropped them off at school twenty minutes earlier than normal, some of us would put on high visibility jackets to be clearly seen by cars and members of the community, and some of us carried on getting people to sign our petition, handing out lollipops to children and parents on their way to school. We helped our own children cross the road safely, and we made a fuss about it. The local press got involved, and things did move on quickly, as a consequence. The daily actions we took were great fun, really helped strengthen the links between all of us and beyond, and also led to cars slow down as they approached traffic lights! We were good at all these things, and parents developed their leadership further. The community woke up to its needs and didn’t just watch, but got involved.
- The action is in the reaction. Our petition was taken to the next full Council meeting by our local councillors. Whether or not an ‘official’ report was produced is still unclear, but what is sure is that a few weeks later, a new School Crossing Patrol was introduced. One of the difficulties the Council officer raised with us as we met her is that they sometimes struggle in terms of recruitment of School Crossing Patrols: we offered to help advertise the position and support them identify a suitable candidate. The new ‘lollipop lady’ was recruited quickly and from the school community.
Our challenge is to make this the norm and ensure that, as part of their learning – and, therefore, as part of our teachers’ training – students learn more about how power is organised in society, how to manipulate it and, eventually, how to claim it back. This can only start on our doorstep; we should stop focusing on Westminster or other nebulous institutions. We should focus on what’s going on in our local neighbourhoods. Focusing on huge issues – and even though some wins are possible in those areas – often leads to impatient dissatisfaction.
Aiming to make children successful readers, writers, and mathematicians works well when schools have a plan. Likewise, and if interested in shaping the world for the better, we need to educate ourselves more politically and be clearer about the way the world works and how we can operate politically within the world we live in. We need to learn to win here and now.
In the words of Professor Henry Giroux, in an address to University Graduates:
Education should be preparing people to enter a society that badly needs to be reimagined. As future educators, I would hope you would teach your students to become agents of social change, teach them the skills, knowledge and values that they can use to organize political movements capable of stopping the destruction of the environment, ending the vast inequalities in our society, and building a world based on love and generosity rather than on selfishness and materialism. You can use your classroom to do this, even though that may mean transgressing established norms and bureaucratic procedures. I also want you to remember that schools are not going to change one classroom at a time. Teachers need to organize not just for better pay, but also to once again gain control over their classrooms. That means building a movement to create a different kind of educational system and a more democratic society. Get involved in politics, run for local school boards, become publicly engaged citizens, use the power of ideas to move your peers and others, and work to develop the institutions that allow everybody to participate in the creation of a world in which justice matters, the environment matters, and living lives of decency and dignity matter.
Find me on Twitter @sebchapleau.
This article was published in the September 2019 issue of Teach Primary.