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Schools Need to Get Involved in Politics and Public Life

Schools need to focus on politics in action and be bolder about the need to get involved in public life, says Sebastien Chapleau...

  • Schools Need to Get Involved in Politics and Public Life

The concept of politics has become a dirty one. It is a concept that 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 voices are being heard in response to the pressures faced by our planet, it should become uncomfortable to remain neutral.

Rare are the schools that 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.

Sadly, politics, in many ways, has become something remote from our everyday lives. Brexit is something most of us feel powerless about – however angry it 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.

If we believe in enabling children to be in charge of their futures, a big part of education is giving them the tools to shape the world they live in. This means preparing children politically.

We cannot be true actors who can shape society for what it ought to be if we don’t truly understand the world as it is; we end up leaving decisions which affect all of us to those who are already in power because of their inherited backgrounds, status and connections.

Taking action

Let’s look at an example I worked on as a teacher, focusing on a few lessons and tactics that got us to win. Caroline, whose son Ethan almost got run over a few times by dangerous drivers, began talking about the need for a school crossing patrol near the to make children safer. Here’s how it happened…

  • Caroline made numerous phone calls to the local council’s safety team but nothing ever got done. Accountability at the council seemed to be rather blurred. What was needed was for Caroline to have a clearer understanding of power: her own power, and that of the local council.
  • Bringing a team of children and parents together, as part of a ‘life in the community’ project, we realised we needed to organise ourselves and have a plan. We launched a research project 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. 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. This issue was a real issue.
  • 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. 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 that 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 became keen to support us, especially as they became aware of the hundreds of signatures collected, and the strong alliance of institutions built.
  • Things were at the risk of getting mired in bureaucratic processes. As we’d met with officials, it became clear that our local council had specific ways of doing things in terms of school crossing patrols. 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?” Change often happens when tension is introduced, so we developed a plan of action. One thing we knew was that the council cared about 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. 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 20 minutes earlier than normal, some would put on high-visibility jackets to be clearly seen by cars and members of the community, and others carried on getting people to sign our petition, handing out lollipops to children and parents on their way to school. The local press got involved, and things moved on quickly as a consequence.
  • Our petition was taken to the next full council meeting by our local councillors. A few weeks later, a new school crossing patrol was introduced. One of the difficulties the council officer raised with us was 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 – pupils 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.

Dr Sebastien Chapleau is the founding headteacher of La Fontaine Academy (part of STEP Academy Trust), in South East London, and is an experienced Community Organiser. Find him at sebchapleau.co.uk and follow him on Twitter at @sebchapleau.

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