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UK school employee Robin Sivapalan organises anti-Blair protest, faces dismissal.

Robin Sivapalan, a classroom assistant at Quinton Kynaston school in London, organised a protest of school children when UK Prime Minister Tony Blair visited the school to make a media announcement about his retirement, on September 7th.

Footage of the protests, from YouTube:

There is more footage here.

Sivapalan distributed a leaflet to school students on the day of the protest - the text of the leaflet is here.

Now, I disagree utterly with the politics behind the protest - at least as far as the Iraq War goes. I think getting rid of Sadaam Hussein was a good thing to do, and therefore disagree with the 'No War' chants, and the description of Blair as a 'warmonger' in the leaflet is wrong.

But do I support the right to hold this protest? You bet I do. I even signed the petition.

I was part of a very long discussion about this at Harry's Place. It's a pro-Blair site, and a lot of people were against the protest because it was organised by their political enemies - although the author of the post about the issue did come down on the side of free speech. I copped a fair bit of flak in the comment boxes for taking the free-speech line, but after I kept my cool and held my ground, we got some interesting things out of the discussion.

The most useful and striking thing that was said by the anti-protest people was by Graham:

... some of us had our own school education seriously affected by middle-class wankers palying at being "the vanguard of the proletariat" in the seventies and we are not going to stand around and let self-satisfied puffballs ruin the chances of another generation of working-class kids.
I thought this was a step away from just saying "It's a school, students aren't there to protest, he should be sacked!". While I think teachers should be able to discuss politics at school, all kids deserve a top-class education, so anyone who wants to see protests like you can see in the YouTube videos also needs to think about how we are going to deliver that education.

My reply said:

The vast majority of parents would place their child's success above free speech, so anyone who wishes to encourage messy, time-consuming democracy for 11-year olds would need to make certain that students were also taught to thrive and survive in society as it is.

There are a number of measures used by parents - behaviour, exam results, employability are probably the big three - to judge a child's education.

Is it, for instance, possible to teach students that it is ok to protest, and that is ok for teachers to talk politics and encourage protest, while also providing a solid education turning out smart, employable students?

I'd ask the people who criticise Sivapalan to say what they most want to see out of high school graduates?

FWIW, I think kids in primary school should be drilled in arithmetic and spelling till it comes out their ears. Its the only reason I can do long multiplication and division by hand today.

Which got us onto some useful discussion, as Graham replied:

I'd most like to see them not having to come to me as adults in order to learn basic literacy - in other words, I'd be quite happy if I was out of that particular job.

and continued:

In the next week or so I will probably be allocated about 30 GCSE English students with ages ranging from 16-60 (Schools do have a habit of offloading troublesome younger students to adult ed sometimes nowadays, but we will leave them aside for now.) At the first lesson I will ask them about their experiences at school and I would lay a bet that 95% will say they either had teachers who didn't care, a different teacher every week or they messed about and bunked off (and lets not forget that they were ALLOWED to mess about and etc.) All will state that their experiences of school education were "shit." All will be nervous of returning and expect the worst.

In London now David teaching is just not an attractive career option. In my opinion once upon a time (and at least at my own school) pupils really were confronted with teachers from totally different backgrounds leading to a standoff of mutual incomprehension. Over the last few years they have instead been confronted by supply teachers who really do change weekly (and who are very often your own countrymen.)

It's too a big subject to really explore in detail but here are just two illustrations of the problem: one of my best friends is from Sydney and has worked in an East end school for years now. He tried forming cricket teams and after school clubs and was frustrated by bureaucracy at every level. The only reason he stays in the country is because he married an English woman, herself a fantastic teacher, who eventually had a mini-breakdown after having too much responsibility piled on to her (along with too little support in the classroom.)

So how can the situation be improved? Well more local teachers (from all communities - but crucially who feel connected to those communities) would be a start. Am I hopeful? Not since I found out that one of my GCSE students (yes, an English GCSE student!) had at the same time as taking a geography degree, been thrown into teaching the subject in a (new) South London academy, was one week in front of his pupils in his preparation and subject matter and was in every way having his career prospects sacrificed just so that the school could say it had another black teacher.

To which I replied:

There is no way kids could ever get the education they deserve if teachers change every week. There is no way a holidaymaker can do this work, except as an invited guest into an already stable environment.

I think the activist Left (revolutionary and social-democratic together) needs to start asking people who are suffering from bad education what is going wrong, and what they need.

More money is almost certainly necessary. Social-democratic governments are still spooked by the need for low taxes (I blame Daddy Bush), so tax rises for anything would be fiercely resisted.

The Left can help to change that by arguing that the money spent on better education is worth it. If a majority actually want and demand it - think that a better country is worth maybe an extra few hundred dollarpounds in tax a year - that could help to change things.

I hope this will lead to some discussion at Harry's Place about what the Left can do to encourage a better education system.

And on a side note, this is an interesting example of what happens when ordinary people have access to cheap video cameras and a worldwide publishing system like YouTube. In this case, apparently the protest was reported on mainstream TV. But what happens the next time the police riot and attack a rally? I hope there will have dozens of videocams/cameraphones trained on them, and videos of police brutality all over YouTube.

Its becoming harder and harder to hush things up. And I love it.

But be prepared for the state to hit back - video blogger Josh Wolf is going back to jail in California for refusing to hand over his unpublished video footage to the Federal government.

Keep your feeds open.

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