This morning I had a letter from the head teacher of my daughters secondary school about a student protest that occurred on Friday 24th February. It blamed pupils and then it blamed some parents for the young people who had taken a stand against not being allowed to use the toilet and the impossible to follow (and misogynistic) school uniform rules.
In the national media, reports were made about similar protests in other schools, not only in Cornwall but across the country, Essex, Yorkshire. Some protests had become more agitated whilst others remained peaceful.
A video widely shared on Twitter and a story covered by Kent Live, showed girls protesting outside of a police station and their school in Dover chanting “educate your sons, protect your daughters” following their fears that sexual harassment towards girls in their school was not being dealt with and that "they faced sexual harassment on a daily basis".
Another article from the Guardian states pupils at a school in Merseyside protested as they accused their school “of “degrading” and “inhumane” treatment of female pupils after they were made to line up so that male teachers could inspect the length of their skirts.”
Just a few months ago, Launceston College in Cornwall, was in the local and national news as parents “blast(ed) school over brutal discipline regime”, there were reports of “excessive disciplining” over minor issues such as dropping a pen or looking out of the window.
There have been an impressive range of articles in the main-stream media about attendance, truancy and school refusal. It is known that local authorities have increased the number of financial penalties that they issue to parents, sometimes to over 100% increase in recent years, making punishing families for non-attendance a new and profitable income stream.
Children and young people have not long been out of the pandemic and lockdowns that changed their lives forever. Major milestones missed, rites of passage missed and no real way to get any of that back and no national attempt to repair. In our work with children and young people they still talk about how they are expected to act as if it didn’t happen and as if they had the experiences and the learning that they actually never got. They are aware of the pressure to catch up but also anxious and stressed about the lack of acknowledgment that they have not had some of the foundations socially, academically that support their success, well-being and their futures.
Our work sees two sides of the current education system, we work with children who are in mainstream schools in our outdoor youth work and also with children not accessing mainstream education in our alternative provision. There appears to be an increase in school refusal and school based anxiety, we are more in demand in both sides of our work than ever before.
“This article fails to acknowledge the overwhelming reason for persistent absence reported by parents, which is unmet & unrecognised SEND, especially autism, PDA & ADHD, where problems are triggered by the school environment & compounded by a lack of knowledge & understanding”
This is a serious matter, in the uk, the biggest cause of death in young people is suicide. Square Peg notes that suicide in this age group increases every September. Self harm has also significantly increased.
“Received a message from a parent whose 12 yr old attempted suicide today, first day back from half term. Huge row over attendance. EWO beating down door. Kid fled. Turned up at sch, put into isolation, attempted suicide. Parent called to pick up. Told to go to A&E as CAMHS issue.”
Square Peg Tweet
Many report mental health as a reason for non attendance due to the school environment being so hostile that many children and young people can’t manage it. Reports of detention for minor infractions such as not charging tablets, isolation for wearing the wrong uniform, all despite a cost of living crisis. Students report being scared of not understanding homework, fear of asking questions in class in case of humiliation by staff, behaviour points for no homework when school technology failed but the homework was very much complete, not being allowed in the school building at break times preventing study, revision and homework getting completed and access to resources, an increased lack of empathy from staff and a “toughen up” attitude to serious concerns, canteens that run out of food, no space to sit and eat, not enough time to eat, friends struggling with mental health, bullying and other problems such as hunger or poverty, extreme sanctions for minor issues or unbalanced non sensical sanctions, gender and racial discrimination, “pervy staff” and sexual harassment from other students, endless rigid rules not balanced with adequate support
So back to the school protests last week. Framed as rioting at Penrice Academy in Cornwall, and as “potentially unsafe” at my daughters school, despite reports that it was peaceful, not enough discussion has happened in the media asking why schools are locking toilets, issuing red cards that will publicly identify you as being on your period or having a urinary or bowel medical issue, not maintaining toilets to a decent level-no toilet roll, no locks on doors, no toilet seats, why are pupils not drinking water in the school day, and why is it a surprise that the pupils are angry about this?
I can’t help but think back to the 2011 youth riots, framed as mindless destruction. According to the conversation, riots are never mindless and classic attempts to understand the root cause are often misleading “In fact, when people riot, their collective behaviour is never mindless. It may often be criminal, but it is structured and coherent with meaning and conscious intent.” Martin Luther King Jr famously said “riots are the language of the unheard”
Attempts to have their opinions heard and their needs met are failing and the impact of this on our children and young people is colossal. The recent protests can be seen as behaviour as communication. They feel unsafe and they know their basic rights are ignored and their basic physical needs are denied and there are no functioning lines of communication open. Those students who WERE NOT absent from school with school trauma, unmet SEND needs, illness or academic anxiety chose to take to their school grounds and protest. Today schools across the country have sent out emails using fear, guilt and social pressure on parents to prevent the pupils having a voice and being heard despite the UN Rights of the Child, Article 12 that states that “It is every child/young person's right to have their voice heard in decisions that affect them.”
Parent blaming is a known and common page in the education playbook. Methods and approaches that gaslight parents and their children, punish them for having unmet needs or illness, harms the child, the parent, the family and infects whole communities with social, physical and psychological ill health AND it doesn’t even improve educational outcomes. At a time when communities are struggling with the cost of living crisis, still reeling from a pandemic, with more families than ever using food banks, a choice between heating or eating this winter, schools and their staff are needed more than ever. We know there are amazing teachers out there, and this certainly isn’t about teacher bashing-I was one once- but they are also exhausted, overworked and government directives, chronic under funding, authoritarian, hostile structures are harming them too.
I hope I am not alone in this but I for one am proud of those students across the U.K. for standing up to authority when the rules don’t make sense and worse than that, they make you ill.