#NeverSeconds: Students can change the world - when we get out of the way
When I was at school, I wrote an article in the student newspaper (the Pupils' View) about how fresh, healthy food was disproportionately overpriced compared to the "yellow food" on offer in the school canteen. The result was that the Catering Director for the Local Authority actually left her job. And I got into a fair bit of trouble.
This all happened in Dunoon Grammar School, part of the Local Authority Argyll and Bute who, with similar sense of grievance and bullying last week attempted to silence one nine-year-old Martha Payne with a brutal, long-winded press release and ban of Martha's online activities.
Since the end of the Easter holidays, Martha has been writing a daily food blog about her school lunches, with the support of her dad, as a self-initiated writing project. It also set out in the noble aim to fund the building of kitchens for less fortunate children in Malawi, through the Mary's Meals charity.
Her first posts revealed the tiny portions (hence the name of her blog: NeverSeconds) and, yes, the rather yellow fried nature of her food. But things improved within barely weeks, and most meals were absolutely fine (a summary average of the scores she gave to each meal results in something over 7.5 - not bad for mass-produced school meals, but with room for improvement, a point which was very much Martha's).
Where Martha forgot her camera, she took to drawing her meal. She scored not just out of ten, but also on a health rating, how many mouthfuls it took to get through and, disturbingly, how many pieces of hair were found in it (I've yet to spot the post where there is some hair; again, a good sign).
Within weeks, her notoriety was such that school kids from elsewhere around the world were sharing their meals for Martha to publish on her blog on their behalf.
TV chefs Jamie Oliver and Nick Nairn championed her and invited Martha over to learn how to cook herself.
Vitally, her food portions became bigger, so that a "growing girl" like her had half a chance.
So far, so good, so much a passionate kid with a passion for food, and a good way with words. And a nine-year-old changing her school's approach to food.
Until last week:
This morning in maths I got taken out of class by my head teacher and taken to her office. I was told that I could not take any more photos of my school dinners because of a headline in a newspaper today.
I only write my blog not newspapers and I am sad I am no longer allowed to take photos. I will miss sharing and rating my school dinners and I’ll miss seeing the dinners you send me too. I don’t think I will be able to finish raising enough money for a kitchen for Mary’s Meals either.
Argyll and Bute, the school district rather than the otherwise very supportive school itself, issued a damning edict, preventing Martha from taking any more photos, writing any more blog posts about her lunches. Dinner ladies were, said the illiterate press release (we serve "deserts" to our children, really?), "afraid for their jobs". It was, according to one legal journalist, "one of the most piss-poor justifications of a ban of anything from any public authority".
Mary's Meals, for whom Martha's blog had raised £2000 by Thursday night, the day of the ban, issued a statement outlining the consequences of the ban on her efforts to build kitchens in schools in Malawi, a country with whom Scotland has a long-standing official partnership.
Martha's "Goodbye" post earned over 2000 comments and Twitter's #neverseconds tag went into meltdown. #NeverSeconds, the girl Martha Payne and, excruciatingly, Argyll and Bute council all hit the top trending terms in the UK. Her blog, having reached 2m hits in just over a month already, now saw its blog counter unable to keep up as she broke through 3m in one day.
And I was livid for her. How dare councils, and this council in particular, once more attempt to bully those in its learning community. I sent a quick tweet to the Education Minister, who is also the member of the Scottish Parliament for the area, requesting he do something in what had already been established a ridiculous and illegal abuse of power. He tweet back that he agreed, having requested the Head of the Council to lift the ban immediately.
Within 20 minutes the Head of the Council was on the radio, announcing a change of tack.
Argyll and Bute finally managed a new statement, the politicians showing more sense than their feckless faceless bureaucrats and lifting the ban.
As a result of the debacle, Argyll and Bute has gained a global reputation for awful PR, a tortoise-like reaction time on Twitter and, potentially, an interesting place to go on holiday. Was it all a tourism ploy? Given the repeated mess they get themselves into, they're almost certainly not not that clever.
But, on a positive note, Martha's long-term goal of raising £7000 for a new kitchen in a Malawi school was rather superseded: she was at nearly £50,000 ($100,000) at the weekend just past, now at £100,000 ($200,000) with more rushing in every day.
She has also created the beginnings of, hopefully, lasting change: she will head up a council summit on school meals and work with them longer term on improving the quality of food for every child in the district. Happily, she's back to blogging it all once more with the support of her school and, reluctantly or not, her Local Authority. She has now had her first kitchen in Malawi named in her honour.
Martha shows every facet of great learning: real world change, making the environment around her better, sharing her thinking with the world, having a conscious for the world beyond her immediate horizons, and robustness in the face of incredible media and social media pressure. She is another 'Caine', with a supportive parent and facilitating adults around her. She'll go far.
Donate to Martha's campaign through her blog: http://neverseconds.blogspot.co.uk/