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We distracted the teachers, legged it and came here

News ArchiveSubmitted by Cemendur:

March 20, 2003

'We distracted the teachers, legged it and came here'

By Tom Baldwin and Ben Hoyle

TEENAGE voices chanted “scum, scum, scum” at the police in Parliament Square yesterday, the air smelt faintly of cannabis and, in the middle of it all, was a banner proclaiming “Eton College Orwell Society. People not profit. Peace not war.”
But where were the pupils from Britain’s most exclusive private school who had joined hundreds of other children for a direct action protest against the war? “They’re easy to spot, they’re really well-dressed,” a helpful Socialist Worker activist said. “Yeah, they’re really cool,” added the girl next to him. “They were chanting, ‘Tony Blair’s a w*****.’ ”

Rory Villar, a shaggy-haired sixth-former with a flower tucked behind his left ear, was one of about 50 Etonians at the demonstration. “We are here to protest against the atrocities that will surely happen in Iraq. We want our voice to be heard. We hope that we will inspire trade unions to take industrial action against the war,” he said.

Of course, not everyone at Eton agrees with him. “Prince Harry pulls my peace badges off,” he said, but added that school had “officially sanctioned” their day off from lessons — after consulting parents — because it “believes in free speech”.

State schools take a different view. A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Pupils have the right to protest outside school hours. However, we expect pupils to be in school during school hours. Unauthorised absence is truancy and head teachers will take the appropriate action.”

Cape Cornwall School in Penzance has already suspended 20 pupils who took part in an anti-war rally instead of attending classes, but the prospect of getting into serious trouble did not prevent children staging demonstrations across the country. There were sizeable rallies of children in Birmingham, Manchester, Swansea and Edinburgh. Pupils have been encouraged to walk out by leaflets from the Stop the War coalition, but word was spread more rapidly through the internet, e-mail and text messages.

There has not been such a wave of teenage militancy for more than 30 years and ministers do not know what to make of it. Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, has said that he is encouraged by any form of political activity from a notoriously apathetic generation, but there are real concerns about the disruption in schools caused by such truancy.

At the same time, some ministers fear that the anti-war protests mean that some children will come into contact with the far Left or anarchist groups responsible for recent violence at May Day rallies.

While the Parliament Square protest was fertile recruiting ground for such groups, any mention of mainstream political parties was greeted with derision. Joe Cartlidge, 16, from the Cheney School in Oxford, said that if he were going to join a political party it would “probably be the SWP — I can’t see any real difference in the others”.

Another Eton sixth-former, Ed Caldecott, stood outside Parliament wearing a “McLenin” T-shirt, suggested the failure of politicians inside was galvanising youth. “I’m a libertarian, so political parties are not for me.”

Opinion polls show that middle-class voters are the most hostile to war and many of the young people at the protest suggested that this was also true of their children. It was not only the Etonians who said that their parents were accountants, doctors and lawyers.

A clutch of 14-year-old girls from Haberdashers’ Aske’s in New Cross, South London, said that teachers had refused to let them stage a protest outside the school, even though they had parental permission.

“They threatened us with suspensions and detentions. Someone set off a fire alarm and the fire brigade arrived. We distracted the teachers, legged it and got the train here,” Naomi Benjamini said. “It’s important that we show Tony Blair we are against war. Our opinion matters as much as anyone’s.”

Sam Kinloch, 14, was one of of about 70 pupils who ran out of lessons at Langley Park School for Boys in Bromley, South London, and caught the train into town. He said: “It’s my first time on a protest, but I’ll be back when war is declared. It’s a brilliant atmosphere and there’s so many people from school here so we shouldn’t get into trouble.”

Jeremy Freedman, 16, from the mixed-sex sixth form at Camden School for Girls, said: “About 30 of us are here. The school will not mind, I’m sure some of the teachers would be here themselves if they could. We can do what we want because it’s right to protest.”

Extra police vans were called as the childen climbed over barriers and attempted to stage sit-down protests in the street. Brooke Geremew, 11, of Latimer School in Enfield, North London, said: “We’re not allowed to be here today, but we’ve come to express our feelings.”

The Chief Superintendent in charge of maintaining order wore the expression of a supply teacher as he said around five arrests had been made. “We had to take away their exercise books because they ere ripping pages out and throwing them at my officers. They are basically naughty children behaving outrageously, but we are mindful of the fact that they are very young and we’re not seeking a confrontation.”

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