My teenage daughter is a pretty robust character, but one evening a couple of weeks ago she returned from school clearly upset.
‘I will definitely still be able to have children won’t I, Mum?’ she asked, after I had persuaded her to tell me what was troubling her.
I tried to swallow my rising fury — as both a mother and a secondary school teacher I knew exactly where this anxiety was coming from.
My daughter had happily received her first Covid vaccine at half-term last month.
But, since then, anti-vaxxers had been gathering outside her school to wave their placards, and their messages had managed to lodge in even her sensible mind.
‘Don’t poison your children,’ was the slogan on one banner.
‘Our children are dying from a vaccine they don’t need,’ read another.
Such protesters also focus on the future ‘infertility’ of teenagers who have the jab.
Their claims are, of course, utterly without merit — but not without harm.
As the Mail has highlighted in recent days, this misinformation is being deliberately peddled to our young people — confusing and frightening them in equal measure — by a growing and determined legion of anti-vax ‘warriors’ who have co-opted Britain’s school gates as the new battle line in their culture war.
They are the reason that both teachers and parents have called for the introduction of exclusion zones outside schools — known formally as public spaces protection orders and administered by local authorities — to prevent these toxic protesters from spreading their dangerous nonsense to our children.
Spreading misinformation: Francesca Dill (centre, foreground) on a march in protest against coronavirus vaccinations for youngsters. The 32-year-old mother is behind Outreach Worldwide whose 50 UK ‘chapters’ target pupils with dangerous conspiracy theories. She has posted social media footage of herself telling children the Covid jab is ‘deadly’ and could leave girls infertile
Certainly, it seems like a no-brainer, a simple and effective way to protect both teachers and, more importantly, their pupils from those who seek to politicise our playgrounds and pollute the minds of young people with their lies.
This week, however, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has rejected the idea, saying that while he would prefer protesters to avoid targeting schools, it is the police who should be dealing with the problem.
Well, I am here to tell him he is wrong, and that his decision is a failure that lets down teachers, youngsters and parents, too.
Of course, you don’t have to be either a parent or a teacher to know that the education sector has faced extraordinary challenges in the past 20 months.
Even before this latest slice of lunacy, schools were having to cope with myriad complex issues. Continuing to provide virtual lessons through lockdown was tough enough.
But, even now that pupils have returned to the classroom, many additional challenges remain.
Some of the children I teach have health problems which require them to isolate, meaning that, with my colleagues, I have to do ‘hybrid’ teaching: working in the classroom and providing online tuition.
Keely Knight (above), a hairdresser who previously worked as a mentor for vulnerable children, is spreading anti-vaccine propaganda outside schools. She is one of the most trusted lieutenants of Outreach Worldwide leader Francesca Dill
Many pupils have ongoing mental health issues as a result of isolation from their peers.
Having to run the gauntlet of placard-waving morons at the school gate — on the front line of a war children should not be part of — is hardly going to help.
I am bewildered and outraged at the way they are being targeted. Like most people, I gratefully accepted the opportunity to get the Covid vaccines and, thanks to Britain’s world-leading jab rollout, life has largely returned to normal.
Who would not want that? Well, not everyone, it seems.
My first inkling of this grim threat was when my daughter — who attends a different school from the one I teach at — came home with a letter from the headmaster. Her school was offering vaccines to pupils, and he had been on the receiving end of abusive emails and letters.
He wrote that he had been called, among other things, a ‘Nazi’.
Instead of facing this square on, his tactic was to distance himself from the vaccine drive, insisting that, while the school had become a vaccine centre for pupils, it had nothing to do with organising them.
My daughter was baffled by this stance — and I was dismayed to see a headteacher kowtowing to such nonsense.
I was also starting to see the invasion of the anti-vaxxers at my own school, where some senior leaders had found themselves targeted on an online community forum, accused by local residents of being complicit in a ‘social experiment’ for simply playing their part in the essential vaccine rollout at school.
Things have got considerably worse since then.
Today, schools all around the country, even at primary level, are being routinely targeted directly by anti-vaxxers spreading their vile misinformation.
One of the main cheerleaders is a group called Outreach Worldwide, led by a 32-year-old mum, Francesca Dill.
It has served headteachers with ‘notices of liability’ if they allow pupils to be jabbed at school.
Last week, the group was outside a secondary school in Sevenoaks, Kent, telling 12-year-olds that the vaccine would poison them. In particularly chilling video footage, Dill can be seen asking the school’s headmaster why he was facilitating the jab ‘knowing that children are dying’.
On one level, of course, this is the free speech Dill is entitled to, and which we rightly prize as a society. Dill and her misinformed cohorts should be able to wave their placards.
But whether or not you agree with their message (and any sane person should not), it is surely abundantly clear that they are waving them at the wrong people: not policy-makers but vulnerable children and their families.
Indeed, it is hard to escape the irony that it is the youngsters that these cultist conspiracists claim to be protecting whom they are damaging the most.
Already bewildered and overwhelmed by the events of the past two years, young people’s trust in the adult world has undoubtedly been eroded.
To then have to face yet another grim threat at the gates of the one place where they are owed a clear-eyed and reason-based view of the world is nothing less than despicable.
And, make no mistake, this messaging is taking root. I’ve seen it in my own classroom where pupils have told me they ‘don’t trust’ the vaccine.
Rapper Remeece’s trips to spread false and dangerous myths about the vaccine have taken him from Cornwall to Glasgow, videos posted on his social media accounts show. He is pictured at a protest in central London on October 16
Whenever I try to drill down into the cause of their fears, I hear the gobbledegook of the conspiracy theorists fed back to me.
As a mother of girls, I’m particularly disgusted by the gendered nature of the fearmongering, which focuses in large part on wombs, menstrual cycles and reproductive harm — deliberately and cynically playing on the abundant insecurities adolescent girls have about their bodies.
And the effect of this endless torrent of lies about infertility? Well, alongside the suspicions I hear in my own classroom, many of my daughters’ friends are now self-confessed vaccine refuseniks.
I can only fervently hope they do not pay a real price for this in the future.
Of course, it is enormously difficult to stop the spread of lies and nonsense on social media these days. But we have a duty to try.
And what we certainly can do is to stop this direct threat at the school gates.
It’s why I implore Nadhim Zahawi and fellow ministers to reconsider this opposition to exclusion zones, which would offer at least a small buffer of safety around our schools.
I can say with conviction that everyone within those schools is working incredibly hard after an unprecedented period of difficulty. That the anti-vaxxers are being allowed to turn them into a battleground of dangerous mistruths shames our society.
The author, who is writing under a pseudonym, is a teacher at a secondary school in the South-East.