How I became a full-time activist

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Seven years ago, I spent New Year with my friend Artemy Troitsky and family in their dacha near Moscow. At that time, Artemy was one of Russia’s most well-known political commentators, an arch-critic of Putin and other oligarchs and a lifelong campaigner for social and political justice. He was also a rock music academic and impresario who brought the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and Lou Reed (amongst many others) to perform live in the USSR in the seventies, for which he was put under house arrest.

At his dacha I met and talked into the early hours with amazing activists such as Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina, environmental campaigner Eugenia Chizikova, half of Russia’s answer to Gilbert and George artist Vladimir Dubossarsky and many others. My daughter Suzie, aged 4 at the time, contributed with the memorable pun “Putin in the bin”! I was awed by the courage of these people, who had been imprisoned and worse by the totalitarian regime they fought against with such heart. A few months after our trip, Artemy and his family were forced to leave Russia, having been placed on Putin’s Enemy of the State list.

That night I tried to explain that even though there was much in the UK that needed tackling, we (or certainly, I, bar earlier smaller-scale forays into homelessness and human rights) generally fooled ourselves that the odd march and plenty of clicktivism would make a difference to our ailing society. I started to fully recognize that gnawing sense so many of us now share, that if we don’t act and continue to act in meaningful, policy-focused ways, little of genuine substance will change.

A year later, in 2015, the tiny Syrian boy Alan Kurdi was washed up face-down on a beach in Turkey, fleeing from a war in his own country that at that time involved 28 nations and who knows how many financial and vested political interests. By 2016 came the xenophobic Brexit win, then Donald Trump was elected president of the US.

The refugee crisis and racism now rampaging in full sight across the West made me want to head straight to Greece or Calais. However, the needs of my young family kept me UK-bound. On thing was certain. I could no longer swallow the feelings of anger and pain the political landscape brought up in me.

Around this time I stumbled across a SATs quiz on Facebook and tried it. Although I’m an experienced writer and journalist, and proficient in several languages to boot, I didn’t max out on my score, and was totally flummoxed by commands such as “underline the fronted adverbial” and “insert a subordinating conjunction”. I couldn’t believe my daughters, aged 7, were being taught this drivel. I couldn’t believe our living English language was being reduced to a set of dead-on-the-slab, clinical right and wrong answers. All because of the government’s adherence to SATs (days and days of tests every child must sit under GCSE-style exam conditions), which were introduced by Thatcher and put on steroids by Michael Gove.

Fronted adverbials, in many ways the least likely of atrocities to bring on revolution, were my personal final straw! I informed my headteacher that I would be taking my daughters out of school for a children’s anti-SATs strike day, run by the fantastic parent campaign group Let The Kids Be Kids. He responded by writing to all parents, saying they were permitted to take one day’s authorized leave if their children were in year 2.  The strike itself was full of determined parents and kids having fun. I was most struck by the teachers there who were scared to speak out.

Our head also wrote that while unilateral action was one thing, in the future he would rather parents and school worked together to bring about changes to the system. I went to meet him the next day with a fellow school mum, Cath.

From this meeting, a vibrant new parent campaign group was born, founded by myself, Cath and a handful of mums, working closely with local head teachers and union reps, and focusing on education – a major platform. Save Our Schools UK quickly rose to prominence, capturing plenty of mainstream news coverage with imaginative events such as Message In A Bottle which saw children deliver 30,000 messages to Downing Street and address 50 MPs in the House of Commons, detailing the harms they suffered directly because of government’s long-term underfunding of education and adherence to outmoded, ideologically-driven policy based on Victorian principles, that fails more than a third of UK children every year.

Fast forward to, first, the awarding of £3 billion in additional funding by then Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening (remember the time when reasonably capable people were in power?) and then to Boris Johnson’s election promise of £14 billion, which, in one of those fiscal sleights of hand we’ve become so used to, shrank to £7 billion the minute it was examined in detail.

Fast forward, also, to being invited by the NEU to run the More Than A Score anti-high-stakes assessment campaign on a professional basis. And so I launched my new agency Can Can Campaigns, hiring stellar colleagues like comms director Jill Robinson, art director Vicky Trainer and fellow Save Our Schools UK activists Gemma Haley and Anna Cole.

Cue more attention-grabbing actions. We took young kids to Parliament en masse in our March of the 4 Year Olds, which featured on mainstream front page news; we staged anti-SATs sit-ins around the country, and over two years we gathered support from head teachers, teachers and parents running into the many tens of thousands.

We now have several campaign wins chalked up, including the dropping of Baseline tests in English and maths for 4 year olds last September and SATs 2021 cancelled for the second consecutive year, our best and sweetest victory to date. Of course these rapid changes would not have happened without the chaos caused by Covid. As a campaigner, you learn to claim the wins when you can, in full knowledge that real systemic change is slow, and that these victories are energizing sunbursts along the way.

The disruption to tests this year gives us a strong platform on which to move forward and demand that they are dropped for good, replaced with an accountability system for schools that does not rest on the shoulders of every young child in the country.

Education matters. All our children matter. We act for them, and for the future of our society.


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