Sunday 28 November 2010

Should student protestors be treated as 'truants'?

Last week's walkouts by school students have posed a lot of difficult questions for teacher trade unionists.

Active trade unionists - and many others at the sharp end of government attacks - have been inspired by the mass turnouts at the student demonstrations. They have helped to change the debate from 'will' we fight the cuts to 'how' do we fight the cuts.

It seems that debate was taking place in the middle of Whitehall on Wednesday. The school students who linked arms around that police van, to try and prevent others falling into the trap of attacking it, showed clearly that they knew exactly why they were in Whitehall - and what strategy was needed to defeat the attacks on EMA and their hopes of a university education.

Many young people have also understood that they should link up with trade unions. For the NUT, the 'how' has got to mean urgently co-ordinating ballots for national strike action with other unions like the UCU and PCS against the joint attacks on pay, jobs and pensions. However, the timescales needed for national ballots mean that this action won't be taking place before the Government votes on tuition fees.

So, in their urgent struggle, students and school students are likely to be taking action again before Christmas. The UCU Higher Education Conference voted to call on other public sector unions and the NUS to mobilise activity on the day that Parliament debates the fee increases. As on November 10th, NUT Divisions should try and support local activities where they can.

These attacks are also an attack on teachers' jobs. If young people cannot afford to - or cannot see the point in - staying on post-16, then pupil numbers will fall. The Government's White Paper has alreday proposed cutting funding for school sixth forms.

However, what many youth (and their parents) have been asking is whether the NUT can support them when schools try to discipline them for attending demonstrations during school time.

First of all, the NUT has made it clear that teachers cannot encourage pupils to be absent from school. That has to be a decision for school students and their families. Teachers may also have concerns about young people, who might otherwise be in our care, being out of school - concerns that parents will need to think about.

However, where schools are considering taking disciplinary action against pupils who attended demonstrations, I think it is right for NUT groups to question where Heads and/or governors are coming down heavily on pupils. Parents may well also want to complain against sanctions being applied against their sons and daughters.

Not every teacher will agree. The self-organisation of pupils can be seen as a threat. But why should it be? It's true that there were some difficult days in some schools last week with excited pupils and disruption to lessons - particularly where schools were trying to prevent pupils leaving the school site. But some schools avoided such a confrontation by taking a more sympathetic approach and asking parents to discuss with their children about what they should do.

Ceratinly, rather than just trying to clampdown on walkouts, schools could follow the suggestion of a teacher writing in last week's London Evening Standard and provide space for pupils to discuss the issues involved.

Surely schools should distinguish between pupils who are just 'truanting' and young people who want to legitimately protest about an attack on their funding and futures.

What do you think?

Martin Powell-Davies

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