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Controversial issues: guidance for schools

6. What attitude should schools take to pupil involvement in protest and campaigns?

Young people are citizens, too. They have a right to hold opinions on matters of public policy, and a right to make their opinions heard. They are perfectly free to go on political demonstrations or take part in campaigns - so long as it is in their own free time.

Public action during school hours is a different matter.

Schools cannot condone pupil participation in public demonstrations outside school during school hours, however worthy the cause or just the motive. Head teachers simply do not have the power to authorise such absences, whether or not parents give their permission.

Parents have a legal duty to ensure attendance of their school age children at school (unless they have legitimately withdrawn them from the school system) and schools have a legal duty of care for their students. The duty of care carries on if a student is absent with the implicit or explicit permission of the school.

So if anything happens to a student in these circumstances, the school could be responsible. Permitting absences for protest action, and certainly facilitating them, could also be in breach of the law forbidding the promotion of partisan views in school.

Where pupils leave school without permission, schools are perfectly entitled to impose sanctions. They should also inform pupils' parents as a matter of course.

Sanctions do need to be proportionate, however. In deciding the appropriate sanctions to impose on a student who walks out of school to take part in political protest, the school may wish to take account of the motivation of the student involved, e.g., was it an act of conscience, or was it done for some other reason? It is also important that, where possible, pupils (and parents) are made aware in advance of what they are letting themselves in for by leaving school without authorisation. Only then are they in a position to make an informed moral judgement about taking the 'law' into their own hands and assess the legal and other consequences of doing so.

Campaigning within school is slightly different.

Section 406 of the Education Act 1996 forbids the pursuit of partisan political activities by pupils under the age of 12 while in school. Pupils over the age of 12 are allowed to organize and take part in voluntary political activities in school - with certain provisos. Walking out of lessons cannot be condoned, for example. This is a kind of 'internal truancy' and seriously compromises the duty of care laid on the school. Teachers also need to take care that they are not in breach of the law forbidding the promotion of partisan views in school.

Where these provisos are met, however, there is no good reason why young people should not be allowed - or even encouraged - to participate in the political process themselves on the school premises.

Commentators sometimes complain about the apparent apathy of young people about politics. Where pupils do feel strongly about issues, therefore, that strength of feeling should be harnessed to educational advantage, e.g., through the analysis of media reports, role play, or reflective discussion.

7. The importance of citizenship education

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