Student protests at St Aloysius College: Archway school agrees to meet some of youngsters’ demands

Students protesting outside St Aloysius College. Picture: Lucas Cumiskey

Students protesting outside St Aloysius College. Picture: Lucas Cumiskey - Credit: Archant

A student protest outside an Archway school yesterday has proved a partial success after the school vowed to address some of their concerns – including a review of sixth formers’ dress-code and an end to compulsory study time.

Students protesting outside St Aloysius College this morning. Picture: Lucas Cumiskey

Students protesting outside St Aloysius College this morning. Picture: Lucas Cumiskey - Credit: Archant

Up to 100 youngsters exercised their democratic right to protest yesterday chanting: “We shall not be moved” during a demonstration organised by students in Years 10 to 13.

They were stood outside peacefully for more than four hours, despite teachers calling up parents to threaten exclusion if they did not get back to class.

Among their demands to the school’s executive head Jane Heffernan was an end to the alleged humiliation of staff in front of students, which the students argued led to an exodus of long-standing and respected teachers. They were also demanding an end to strict rules including boys being made to shave.

About 20 staff followed long-standing head Tom Mannion out of the school last year and new management and governors were brought in. Mr Mannion had been suspended following his arrest as part of a fraud probe, and when he was later cleared he heard nothing from the school and took early retirement.

The tweet posted by St Aloysius College after a day of student protests. Picture: @StAloysiusC

The tweet posted by St Aloysius College after a day of student protests. Picture: @StAloysiusC - Credit: Archant

A delegation of students was eventually selected to meet Ms Heffernan and senior staff – first outside the school and then in her office. Sonny Elton, one of the group’s de facto representatives, said that due to the delegates being “intimidated” during the meeting, no deal was struck and “nothing was achieved”. Sonny himself couldn’t attend the meeting because of tweets he’d sent out during the day but told the Gazette another protest could take place later this week.

The school has now moved to stop that, however, by agreeing to a number of demands.

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In a message posted on Twitter St Aloysius staff said: “Thank you to the student spokesmen for the positive meeting this afternoon.

“Our senior leadership team have agreed to address issues including; reviewing the post-16 dress code, ending compulsory study time, and more rewards for hard-working students.

Tom Mannion. Picture: Sam Gelder

Tom Mannion. Picture: Sam Gelder - Credit: Archant

“The meeting also allowed our team to address and offer explanation to wider issues:

“•Year 11 study leave will not be permitted in line with Department for Education guidelines.

“• Mark Taylor, the council’s school’s director, addressed students concern regarding staff turnover, describing it as a national challenge which St Aloysius “has done well to combat through recruitment and retainment of staff.”

The school added: “We are pleased students recognise there are already systems in place which are better forums for communicating and having their issues heard within school. We look forward to discussing issues further during more regular school council meetings.”

Students protesting outside St Aloysius College. Picture: Lucas Cumiskey

Students protesting outside St Aloysius College. Picture: Lucas Cumiskey - Credit: Archant

Parents have come out in support of their children. Ilkay Oner told the Gazette yesterday she received a call saying her 14-year-old son would be excluded for a day if he didn’t get inside, but she told the school to go ahead and punish him.

She said: “It’s a peaceful protest – they are just fed up with the administration. I believe they are deliberately failing these kids. They are so fixated on petty behaviour rules. If their top button is undone, detention. If they smile, detention.

“My son is in detention every day. He’s never been in trouble and was a model student at primary school who won the citizenship award.”

Another parent wrote to the Gazette to say: “I fully support and commend the student’s right of democratic protest. My son and I have first-hand experience of what I would call senior staff exercising their power of control over the students without unjust reasoning and no notification given to parents when a sanction has been given to their child.

“An example of this is a child being sent to the learning support centre for having dyed hair. During this incident the school polices as set on St Aloysius College website had not been adhered to.

“Sanctions are been given to our students based on individual staff’s views and opinions. Currently the minor behaviours and sanctions given to the students appears to be the prominent focus of the staff not the children’s education.

“The school reacts to children expressing their rights to protest is to exercise the power of exclusion. As a parent I urge the governors to please step in and listen to our children’s voices.”

The Islington branch of the National Education Union has backed the students. A spokesperson said: “Many of the issues the students are reported to have raised mirror those that have been brought to us by members at the school and with whom we are currently consulting as to the best way forward to resolve any conflict and difficulties that exist at the school.”

A typed list of demands from the students states: “We have had enough of the treatment of staff and students under the new management.

“It is humiliating to see staff being talked down at in front of students – it is demoralising.

“We have lost too many good teachers due to mistreatment and [there have been] too many unreasonable decisions imposed.

“You have actually made us reach the point where we feel right to protest for the sake of our school and education.

“We have our exams soon and should be focusing on that.

“But here we are – we are that desperate for you to change your ways.

“We actually want our teachers when our exams come about – so stop driving them away.

“So know that we’ll protest if things do not change and until management listen to their school.

“Those who do not follow the protest correctly do not represent all of us.

“We want to find a fair peaceful solution after today.”

One 16-year-old, who didn’t give his name, said pupils in the learning support centre are treated as like “criminals” and threatened with exclusion for minor indiscretions. He also likened the new management to a “dictatorship”, a comment echoed by several other teenagers.

He added: “Exclusions can increase people’s chances to join knife crime. So by expelling kids all the time they may feel they have to go to the trap house [a drug dealing den] just to make money.”

Another pupil added: “All the good teachers are leaving. The teachers who many of us grew up with and respect are leaving because they have been undermined.

“On Friday one of the heads of year got shouted at [in front of the pupils] and it’s unfair.”

They claimed that on another occasion their geography teacher, Mr Mahmoud, had been embarrassed in front of students.

“She sent Mr Mahmoud into the corner,” claimed the teenager. “He is a full grown man with degrees.”

Hamza and Shan, both 16, said they were protesting against a school policy that bans facial hair.

“I showed them an extract of the Quran where it says you can’t shave your beard off,” said Hamza. “And she [Ms Heffernan] said: ‘That’s bulls***.’

“Mr Mannion gave us our own room to pray because he thought our religion was important as well.”

Ms Heffernan strongly denied the school has any Islamophobic policies.

Shan added: “Muslims express piety through beards. As Muslims we sit there and respect their masses and understand. We can’t even express our faith.”

Sonny said: “She [Ms Heffernan} recently excluded one of our mates [after he was] stabbed 10 times, about two or three weeks ago, around Cally.

“The stabbing was the catalyst but this [the protest] has been in the mix for ages.”

Fawaz, 16, said he’d recently been excluded without “being given a chance” to improve his grades and behaviour.

He claimed Ms Heffernan “tricked” his family into thinking he was only going to attend her other school, Cardinal Pole, in Morning Lane, Hackney, for “a week or two” – but Fawaz alleges this was a lie, and he now attends the school full-time.