Chapter 21 – Standing
Up for Yourself at School
Young people have rights! According to the organisation
the United Nations, you have the right to be educated,
eat healthy food, and get decent health care. You also
have a right to life – which the basic right not
to be killed. When you look across the world at the fighting
and destruction taking place, you might wonder sometimes
what’s happened to those rights.
In the West, young people have their rights that we
tend to take for granted. At school, no one expects a
Muslim or Catholic to attend a Protestant church service.
If you’re Jewish, you have the right not to be
served pork in your school dinner; and if you’re
Catholic, you’d expect to be served fish on Fridays.
These are religious rights but there are others, too,
such as the right of a pacifist not to be forced into
the army. It’s all about conscience – not
doing something which offends your personal beliefs.
Everyone should have that right whatever their age.
However, you may find you are unhappy about something
which clashes with your beliefs at school – and
I don’t mean a belief in not doing homework! It
has to be something which really offends your conscience.
It could be that you’re asked to do something which
you believe is racist or sexist. Or it could be something
which is in conflict with your belief in the rights of
animals not to suffer. Whatever it is, you have a right
not to participate in that activity because it goes against
your beliefs. But you have to plan how you’re going
to do it.
One issue which may arise, for example, is the question
of dissection. It may be that you find dissection objectionable
but that your school expects you to take part.
The first thing to do is to ask at the beginning of
the school year whether dissection is going to be included
in your science or biology class. If this is the case,
the next step is to gather as much information as possible
about the subject – the alternatives to dissection,
the school’s policy, and whether the school is
legally entitled to make you take part. The best way
of doing this is to make contact with national or local
organisations which will support you and give you the
latest information (see the index of organisation on
In the UK, you don’t have to take part in dissection.
Teachers can’t make you nor can they mark you down
for refusing. (Of course, some may not tell you this!)
You may find, however, that your school has a policy
of exempting veggie students from dissection. The thing
to do id to plan what you’re going to say, then
go and see your teacher. Explain your objections and
ask to be given an alternative. Stay calm and be polite.
The worst thing you can do is get drawn into a shouting
match. If you find it hard to talk to your teacher, write
a letter instead. You may also want to ask your parents
to write a letter supporting your choice. (Although you
don’t need your parent’s support to act on
and defend your beliefs, it can help!)
Many teachers are understanding, particularly if you
give them a chance to make alternative arrangements,
rather than just opting out on the day of the dissection.
However, some teachers aren’t so helpful and might
refuse to do anything. In this case, you may want to
consider organising further support.
Jennifer Neal is a sixth-form student. She was asked
to dissect a rat when she was 15, and she says:
‘The rats were stiff, so to open them out flat on their backs to cut open
their stomachs, their legs had to be broken and pins put through their paws.
The teacher told us not to think of it as breaking bones, but to imagine we were
breaking bits of plastic.
I refused to take part and my teacher made fun of me. The next day I wrote
to Animal Aid for leaflets and petitions against dissection and gave them out
to my class. I was surprised at how many people agreed with me, even though
they’d gone ahead and done the dissection! Most of my class signed the
petition so we had a meeting to decide what to do next.
About ten of us gave out more petitions to other years in the school and we
collected signatures on our breaks. In the end about three-quarters of the
school signed. We then arranged a meeting with the head of biology and handed
the signatures to him. We also took along a booklet of alternatives to dissection
and asked for them to always be available.
At first he tried to make us out to be trouble makers, but I think our strength
of numbers really made a difference because after a while he listened to us.
A week later, he said in class that the school was going to buy alternatives
for anyone who didn’t want to dissect. Most people chose the alternatives
and eventually, the school phased out dissection altogether.’
All this isn’t just theory, it works. Students
all over countries such as Britain and New Zealand have
brought an end to dissection in their schools.
Another big issue you may be faced with at school is
the right to veggie meals. Some schools have moved with
the times and provide pretty delish veggie food every
day, but if yours isn’t one of them, don’t
be afraid to ask for a better choice. Again gather together
as much information as you can: about what other schools
in your area offer, what groups such as the World Health
Organisation think about a veggie diet and, of course,
use the information in this book. Start by keeping a
note of what veggie food is offered over the course of
a week or more in your school.
When politicians want to change things they usually
try to find out how much support they’ve got. You
can do the same. You could do a survey of other pupils
to see what they want, find out the teachers’ views
and perhaps even a few parents. See how many would like
a decent veggie option every day – it probably
won’t be just veggies who support you either, many
meaties also like to have the choice.
Finally, arm yourself with recipes which are suitable
for school caterers and then go and see your head teacher
or cook. Most respond well (honest!) and will add at
least one proper veggie meal a day. If you’re unlucky
and come up against the ‘I can’t be doing
with these fads’ type of attitude there are other
things you can do.
Parents can play an important part so try to get them
involved. If they’re sympathetic, ask your mum
or dad to have a little word in the head teacher’s
lug hole; this usually works wonders! The more parents
and teachers who are involved the better. Again, get
as many pupils involved as possible and get a petition
going. It’s your right to be vegetarian and most
schools do accept their responsibility to cater for you – but
if they don’t, sort ‘em out!
Graeme Simmons, 16, of Brighton definitely needed a campaign
for better veggie meals at his school. He explains:
‘When I went veggie I asked the cook what food I could eat. She gave me
a bowl of pea and ham soup and told me to take out the meat! I couldn’t
get through to her, so I went to see the head teacher. She was quite sympathetic
and admitted some teachers wanted veggie food as well. She had a meeting with
the caterers that provided food to the school and we were given a choice of one
main vegetarian meal a day from them on. It’s not great but it’s
better than being offered dead pig!’
Laura Jones, 14, of Oswestry in Shropshire has gone
a step further. Her school provides vegetarian and vegan
‘I contacted the veggie organisation Viva! For recipes and had a meeting
with the head cook. I couldn’t believe how helpful she was, she saw vegan
cooking as a new challenge and her food is amazing. The only problem is that
the meat eaters all now want the veggie choices so I have to get to the counter
before it’s all gone.’
Unfortunately, not all schools are open minded. Katherine
Leaf, 15, of Glasgow says that her school is:
‘embarrassingly backward when it comes to vegetarianism. There are three
veggies in my class but other pupils and teachers weren’t interested when
we tried to get a veggie option on the menu. Even my mum contacted the head teacher,
but suddenly I went from being seen as just normal Kathy to a stirrer and then
my friends backed out of the campaign. They said it was because they had decided
to take packed lunches, but really there were scared of getting into trouble!
I still can’t believe that the head teacher takes vegetarianism as some
kind of personal threat!’
When you plan a campaign, first be aware of the kind
of influences schools are under. They are usually under
huge pressure from governments who provide money out
of taxes to pay teachers’ wages and run the schools.
It is often governments who set the cirriculum, decide
class sizes and even dictate the content of lessons.
In the end, teachers have to answer to government for
the money they spend and the decisions they make. If
things aren’t seen as going well in schools it’s
generally the teachers who are blamed.
When you try to make demands at school you are in a
way, challenging teachers’ judgement and control.
Some teachers and school authorities may react by thinking. ‘If
it’s any good for them, we would have thought of
it already!’ Teachers are themselves usually under
a lot of pressure from those above them and they might
not have the energy – or inclination to deal with
pressure from you, too. Many won’t react like this,
but be prepared for the worst. If you want to be taken
seriously then you have to prove to the teachers that
you are for real.
The first and most important lesson, as I’ve said
before, is to gather the facts. The second is that there's
strength in numbers. It doesn’t really matter what
you’re complaining about – dissection, school
meals, better resources – you should tackle them
all in much the same way. Argue your case amongst your
friends and classmates everywhere you can get them to
listen. Gather like-minded people around you and work
out exactly what it is you’re complaining about
and what action you want the school to take. If you don’t
make clear and easily understood requests, the chances
are that nothing will happen.
Sometimes the biggest problem in organising support is
apathy – other pupils just can’t be bothered.
This might be because they don’t share your concern,
or because they don’t know the truth of the situation
or because it’s the type of school that squashes
any initiatives. Sometimes students think they’re
powerless and can’t change anything.
The answer to apathy is information and involvement.
Make sure people know all the information you have available
and try getting them actively working on something. You
might do it by forming small groups with special tasks,
perhaps to find out what other schools in the area are
doing on your particular issue or what help different
pressure groups and charities can offer.
At the end of the day, you might find that the issue
which concerns you isn’t of any interest to other
pupils. If that is the case you can carry on by yourself
but it might make success a bit harder to achieve.
If you are working with others, it’s important
to democratic and to listen to all viewpoints. Don’t
allow one person to dominate the meetings or to belittle
others in the group. Encourage everyone to have a say.
But you can’t debate things indefinitely and there
comes a time when you have to take decisions. Again,
do it democratically and having reached a decision – stick
to it. If you ignore the majority view the group is likely
to fall apart.
You also need to be prepared for some of your supporters
to cave in and desert you at the first bit of conflict.
Now that you know this may happen, try and prepare for
it. Decide between you what it is you’re prepared
to settle for and how far everyone is prepared to go
to get it. Once everyone’s had their say, they
all understand what’s involved, and you’ve
made the decision, tell the group that anyone who is
not prepared to go along with the decision should leave
now. Really stress it. They probably won’t leave,
and it will make it more difficult for them to back out
Once you’ve decided to do something – do
it! If you don’t act your supporters will lose
interest. Even if your first demand is just a verbal
request to a teacher, tackle it seriously. Plan what
you want to say, make a note of the main points so you
don’t forget then and work out in your head the
words you intend to use. You may find it helps to practise
saying them out loud so you feel confident about them
in your meeting.
When the meeting’s over, make a note of the date
and time, who you spoke to, what decision was reached
and why. You need these details to remind you of what
happened when you report back to the group, even more
importantly, you might also need to refer back to them
one day in order to prove a point about what was said
If this first meeting is unsuccessful, put your request
in writing and send it to someone more senior. Be polite
and calm, avoid using aggressive or confrontational language,
set out your demands clearly – the reasons for
them and what you want to happen. Obviously, the furthest
you can go in the school itself is the head teacher or
principal. If you have to take it that far, use every
means possible to spread news of your request to other
students. Put notices up on your school bulletin board,
write in to the school magazine, raise it with the school
council if there is one, and gather as much support around
you as possible.
If you don’t get any joy from the head teacher,
you can take your request even further: to the Board
of Governors for instance, or the Parent Teacher Association
(PTA). Each time you go a step further, include details
of the previous steps in your request – what was
said and what has been decided so far.
More often than not, the situation will have been resolved
or a compromise reached before this stage. However, if
your request still isn’t being taken on board,
there is still more you can do. If you genuinely feel
your grievance is real and isn’t being taken seriously,
you can try getting support further afield. One way of
doing this is by getting publicity in the local press,
including newspapers, radio and television. But be careful
before you do this. Once you start down this road you
are in much deeper water. You need to be very sure it
is the issues which are important to you and not the
glory. You will also need a lot of support because once
you take this step, it becomes very hard for the school,
the Board of Governors, or anyone else, is to back down.
The only way of settling this situation is by compromise – each
side giving in on something. So again, you need to ask
yourself what it is you’re prepared to compromise
If you do decide to go ahead with this step, then the ‘Letters
to the Editor’ section is a good place to start.
This is because letters tend not to be interfered with
and are printed as you wrote them. If a journalist decides
to interview you, that’s a different matter. It
could be exactly the break you need, but be careful.
Media often has its own agenda and journalists may decide
that the real story isn’t the one you want them
For them it might be much more interesting to do a piece
about bolshy school kids challenging their ‘elders
and betters’. You know the kind of thing – ‘Bring
back the cane! It wasn’t like this in my day! It’s
all the fault of pop groups/drink/teenage sex! What’s
happening to the world?’ If that does happen then
you’ll know you’ve got right up their nose – and
probably have a very good case!
However great the uproar and however far you go, the
most important thing is never to lose sight of what you’re
arguing for. Most people respect beliefs, principles
and courage; hardly anyone respects a loud mouth!
Asking for change means questioning the powers that
be, and won’t always be welcome. Every veggie,
often without realising it, is doing this to some degree.
But even if you don’t win a particular campaign,
you will have influenced other. Simply by stating your
beliefs, you will have planted a seed in other people’s
minds which may affect their attitude in the future .
. . to animals and perhaps to a lot of things. So don’t
be afraid to make your voice and views heard.