Martha Payne, I salute you. This nine-year-old has won a victory for child activists everywhere. A few hours ago she was allowed to reinstate her blog on school dinners as her local council performed a screeching U-turn on its call to censor her. National media agencies rejoiced and the Twittersphere is still beaming. Hopefully the experience won't just make her a stronger activist, it will inspire a generation of young bloggers to follow suit.
Everyone's for child empowerment in principle. Far fewer of us can handle it in practice. When Martha photographed her school meals for her #neverseconds blog and gave them a health rating and a mark on her "food-o-meter" everyone thought that was sooooo sweet. Until it actually started ruffling feathers. Then Martha told the world how she was hauled out of maths class and ordered to stop blogging.
Apparently, this was a decision on behalf of Argyll and Bute council, who issued an amusingly long and defensive press release against the "unwarranted attacks on its schools catering service … which have led catering staff to fear for their jobs".
It's astonishing. This nine-year-old should have been held up as a heroine for the region. She's a shining example of what true education is about. We don't go to school to learn passively and swallow what is given to us, whether it's dogma or croquettes. True education is about learning to question and to challenge. The pinnacle of education is when you're empowered to have agency in the world. That's exactly what Martha had.
Perhaps that's why she captured national attention. Even before the outcry she had 2 million hits and raised money for Mary's Meals charity, which donates food to the third world. When the censorship started Jamie Oliver, Ian Rankin and Mike Russell MSP jumped on board. By mid-morning she was the top "trending" item in Britain and the third most popular worldwide. But we should be careful not to be overtaken by celebrities – the point about this story was that a child was leading.
Kids learn early if they're going to be listened to or trampled on. One of my first political experiences was with our school canteen. We were 17 and our meals were horrific – chips, beans and cheese and… no, wait, that was it. We asked them to change, but they wouldn't, so a collection of us decided to make and sell our own healthy, home cooked food right next door at knocked down prices. Everyone joined the boycott, including the teachers. The next week, variety had been introduced and hygiene increased. Victory was ours, and it inspired us to keep going.
Nor are these fights trivial. School dinners might sound like small fry, but you quickly come up against major issues of power and status. In our school, the canteen couldn't be changed because it wasn't just a local contract; it was a national deal between Serco and the national government that gave them exclusive rights to serve us without competition for years.
I'm not sure who served Martha's meals, but power was certainly involved. The council sounds arrogant and out of touch, and because she lives on the west coast of Scotland, standards for school meals are different. There are reports that improvements throughout Britain appear not to have been applied to her unidentified school.
Martha's work is also important because of our country's growing obesity challenge. The fact that obesity now costs the NHS £500m a year and is affecting one in every three children in the UK means we need more health and variety, and we need kids taking the lead on that. Again, Martha is a shining example.
After the victory in my school canteen I went into politics, and now I proudly serve as a councillor in Southwark. Together as a council we have introduced free healthy school meals for all kids. Getting that right and giving young people a sense of ownership over that service is essential. I hope others in Southwark will follow Martha's lead and blog their experiences to hold us accountable. We adults could learn something, the food is likely to get better and kids get involved. We'll all have second helpings of that.
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