It’s about giving pupils a chance to have their say | Life | Life & Style

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kate harrisSTEVE REIGATE

Kate, 39, started the project two years ago

But that would be doing a huge disservice to the thousands of pupils across the UK who last week took part in a debate on Russian foreign policy which would have taxed even the smartest adult minds.

Students across the country voted on whether the World Cup could help repair Britain’s relationship with Russia as part of a weekly in-school debate organised by Votes For Schools, an initiative set up by former teacher Kate Harris.

Kate, 39, started the project to halt what she sees as a dangerous disengagement from politics by young people.

“I want a society where politics is relevant,” says Kate, who lives in Warlingham, Surrey.

“Politicians have to start speaking to 15-year-olds because they’d be stupid not to if they want to remain in power.”

At the heart of her mission is to give a voice to the disempowered.

“Two years ago we started out with one school in Halifax and now Votes For Schools conducts weekly debates in more than 400 primary and secondary schools, with 350,000 students voting on anything from knife crime to extremism and the royal wedding.”

Her success is hard to reconcile with a turbulent past that saw her almost derailed by an alcoholic mother, teenage pregnancy and domestic abuse.

“I have been through periods of my life when I have felt incredibly disempowered,” says Kate, referring to a childhood overshadowed by her mother Barbara’s drinking.

“Yes, I have lovely memories of a mum who came to infant school to do paired reading with me,” recalls Kate, “but then the next day she wouldn’t even turn up to get me from school.”

Barbara and Kate’s father, Paul, had moved from their native Liverpool to Essex after they married and it was then that Barbara began to binge drink.

“She was a bright woman but she was isolated and bored,” says Kate.

Within three years Paul had left the family home, taking Kate and her sister Jenny with him. Paul, who later remarried, eventually won full custody of his daughters.

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Pupils at Packmoor Primary, Stoke-onTrent, cast their votes after one of the school debates

LIFE settled down, with Kate and Jenny doing well at their local school in Croydon, and seeing their mother every fortnight in London.

Then disaster struck again.

“I remember one day being sat on the steps of Victoria station. Mum was drinking, surrounded by tramps, who were going through her handbag. Luckily we were spotted by the police who arrested her. I’ll never forget dad’s face when he turned up to our meeting point to find us wearing police hats, accompanied by two officers.”

From that point on, Barbara was allowed only supervised access to her girls and it sparked a swift deterioration in her mental state.

“She lost all will to want to get better and just embraced a life of addiction,” says Kate.

Resentful and angry, Kate had little contact with her mother until, at the age of 17, she found out she was pregnant.

“One of the well-documented consequences of children being exposed to alcoholism is becoming a teenage parent,” says Kate.

“I was an athlete, I worked hard at school but I ended up going out with a much older guy. David was 21 while I was 16.”

Although the relationship was volatile and David was prone to violent outbursts, Kate resolved to make it work.

“Not coping was never on the agenda,” she says.

“I was going to be the best mum that I could.”

But when Kate announced in 1997 that she was going to college to train to be a teacher, David flew into a jealous rage and punched her to the ground, while she was holding their baby in her arms. Kate pressed charges and David was found guilty of assault.

Within a year she was working as a teaching assistant at De Stafford School in Caterham, Surrey.

It was the first time in a long time that she had felt genuinely happy and fulfilled.

But that all changed when, after several years, Kate saw her mother unexpectedly at a relative’s house.

Barbara looked the worse for wear.

Four days later she was found dead after a drinking binge.

Coming to terms with her mother’s death, their relationship and all the questions that remained unanswered proved difficult but Kate did finally come to understand that her mother did love her.

“I was so angry that she abandoned me but she was an addict and she didn’t get the help she needed,” Kate says, wiping away tears.

One of the ways she coped with her grief was work, rising to become head of the citizenship department.

“Because of my experience, I tried to put my students on the right path. I told the girls being a teenage mum was tough; people sneered at me and looked down their noses. But I didn’t say ‘don’t be a teenage mum’. All I could do was give them the facts.”

A change of head and a greater emphasis on academic achievement prompted Kate – who married, had another child and is now divorced but with a new partner – to leave De Stafford in 2016 and, with business associate Vivienne Creevey, she started the company she had always dreamed of.

“Because of Votes For Schools, week in, week out students are learning about what’s going on in the world and forming opinions, and then they’re voting.”

Kate’s eyes light up as she recalls one Year 4 boy: “The debate topic was homophobic bullying and the use of the word gay and he wrote: ‘We’ve always used that word in the playground but we understand now that it’s not okay and we’re not going to do it any more’.”

Kate sits back, looking satisfied but not complacent.

“I am on a mission to make politics representative and that can’t happen until you break down those barriers and everyone uses their vote. And that starts with the young and engaging them right now. There’s no time to lose.”



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