School Petitions: Why Children Should Be Encouraged To Campaign

Lewisham, London, UK. 26th January 2013. A child signs a petition at the protest to save  Lewisham A&E. Protest march and rally against the proposed closure of Lewisham A & E. © Matthew Chattle / Alamy Live News
Lewisham, London, UK. 26th January 2013. A child signs a petition at the protest to save Lewisham A&E. Protest march and rally against the proposed closure of Lewisham A & E. © Matthew Chattle / Alamy Live News

"Bring back sausage rolls on the school menu!" It might not sound like the most ground breaking and urgent of campaigns, but to nine-year-old Isaac Heale, it was a pressing matter. So pressing, in fact, that he got a petition together, with a good number of signatures from fellow pupils.

"What on earth do you think you're playing at?" came the furious response of the headteacher, to whom he had been sent by his teacher to be reprimanded.

"I couldn't believe it," says his mum, Laura. "I was proud of Isaac for what he did."

At home, explains Laura, she regularly explains to her children why she signs certain petitions and what she hopes they will achieve. "It's about people coming together to protest in a reasonable way. Yet Isaac was really told off when he had a go at one. He was left feeling very confused." The same thing happened to Alfie Wicks, an eight-year-old pupil in another part of the country. "The school recently banned football in our playground for much of the week at break time and it was clear that a lot of us were really upset about it, so I got some signatures together," he says. "But the teacher ripped it up in front of me."

Alfie's mum was as bemused as Isaac's. "I thought it was brilliant how Alfie took such a methodical and reasonable approach to telling the teachers how the students felt," she says.

In fact, she adds, with the election coming up, there is surely no better time for children to take such action, particularly as the younger generation is always accused of having such apathy around democracy and politics. "Here was a young boy showing democracy in action!"

Ellie Levenson, author of The Election, a picture book for children aged 3-7 looking at democracy and elections, agrees. "I think it's great when kids show enthusiasm for a cause, and use their initiative to try to achieve change.

"Growns-ups often dismiss these attempts or give a blanket 'no' to change but the better thing to do would be to sit down and explain their reasoning for their decision and see if they can offer any concessions to their demands that make the children feel like they have gained a small victory.

"Certainly to tell children off for presenting their case and shutting down debate is pretty draconian and doesn't support them in learning how to be an active citizen in future years."

It's never too early for children to learn about how society operates and how to change things if those in charge aren't doing what you want them to, she believes. "Children have an innate sense of fairness - think how quick they are to notice and complain if someone else has more than them, or in fact if they have more than someone else - and we should build on this to help them learn to process information about how things work, and encourage them to think about how things can be changed."

Increasingly, primary schools have a student council – a group of children who represent the voice and opinions of all the children within the school – and most schools argue this is proof that they do support student democracy.

But many parents and students feel it doesn't amount to much in reality. "My nine-year-old daughter is on the student council of her primary school, but it doesn't seem to involve much, if anything," says Sally Roach. "There's this long blurb on the school website about it and how it represents the student voice, but I think the school just pays lip-service to it. I know for a fact they wouldn't welcome student-led campaign. A student-backed campaign, perhaps, but not student-led."

Some schools are better. "The pupils on our student council are asked for our view on many things and are often asked to go away and ensure that view is representative of all the other pupils," says Will Cassell, who is in Year 6.

But even he says most of the views requested are reactive. "The students are generally not encouraged to come along to the meetings with our own ideas about what we want to change. It's about the school asking us what we think of their ideas."

There are some exceptions, however. "Our student council is one of the best things about our school," says Maisie Williams, a year 3 pupil. "The teachers really listen to our ideas and as a result of our suggestions, we've managed to bring in a tuck shop and make some changes to the school assemblies."

Less than a third of young people express any interest in politics, according to a survey by the Office for National Statistics last year. It found 31% of 16 to 24-year-olds were fairly or very interested in the subject, compared with about half of those aged 55 and over.

With the younger electorate becoming increasingly disengaged with the democratic system – and with the lack of younger voters a real concern for the forthcoming election – Will Brett, head of media at the Electoral Reform Society, says it's time we took a new stance. "We need to find ways of getting them more interested in our system of representative democracy. It's extremely precious."

What do you think? Have your children campaigned on an issue at school? How was it received?