Teacher Talk

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The Independent Online

Mark Emmerson is head teacher at Stoke Newington School and Media Arts College in north London. Last week, the organisers of demonstrations against George Bush called on schoolchildren for their support. Students from Stoke Newington School attended the march

Did you, personally, back the demonstrations against the President's visit to the UK?

I think that a head teacher should not be motivated by political opinions. I certainly would not express my opinions on George Bush publicly, although they may be clear from my views on other things. I leave it up to the children to work things out for themselves.

Why did children from your school attend the demonstrations?

Students and teachers were encouraged to go after the end of the school day at 3pm. This was first of all because I believe that it's important for young people to learn political skills.

And second of all, as in everything related to school management, the decision was about being pragmatic. When you stop being pragmatic, things get out of control. We don't want, and never have wanted, to stop the students expressing themselves.

Should schoolchildren be involved in politics?

Every teacher, as I've already said, wants children to be more politically aware and involved. But there was a difficulty with the way some groups, particularly the Stop the War Coalition, were opportunistic about recruiting students before the war started. For example, we had a lunchtime demonstration at that time outside the school. I was perfectly happy for students and teachers to go and protest outside the school, but when students got down there they were encouraged to march without a proper plan or a meeting point. Some ended up as far away as Temple tube - and this was irresponsible, both of them and of those who encouraged them to march.

A lot of the students who went to the Stop the War march were not particularly politicised, either before or after. They just took it as an opportunity to take time off school, and were often those who could least afford to.

It's not just the war and Iraq: children should understand that education is a political issue, too. People have fought long and hard to give them that opportunity, and we are ensuring that they have it.

In what other ways, do you think, is it right for schoolchildren to express their political views?

It's up to the child, but they don't have the right to disrupt the school day. It's an important principle that they do not impose their politics on others. There's plenty of activity that takes place within an acceptable framework.

Instead of going on demos before the war, for example, some of our students organised a peace concert instead. They promoted, performed and ran it in our own school's theatre, and then gave the money that it raised to charity.

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