The plans could wreak havoc with the education of thousands of children, experts told VICE World News.
Radical anti-vaxxers in the UK are pulling their kids out of mainstream education and mobilising to set up their own schools instead, founded on militant sovereign citizen ideology they mistakenly believe exempts them from British law.
Those behind the initiative claim these proposed unregistered “schools” – one of which, in the northern English city of Sheffield, is already holding lessons for otherwise homeschooled students once a week – will be protected from prosecution by the authorities by a sort of self-appointed, sovereign citizen police force, who refer to themselves as “peace constables.”
According to the movement’s ideology – which centres around a badly mangled interpretation of the concept of common law, which they falsely claim trumps actual UK law – these uniformed volunteers have the power to dispense their own brand of justice in defiance of the government.
The man behind the breakaway schools initiative is a self-described peace constable named Olli Riddett, who already operates a preschool in a village in Cornwall, southwest England, which is officially regulated by the UK schools watchdog, Ofsted.
“Eventually there are going to be a large number of peace constables to oppose [the government] and to enforce the common law in the land – that’s basically what we’re trying to do,” Riddett told VICE World News.
“Hopefully we can use the constables to give us support.”
The push to set up the breakaway schools comes amid rising agitation from the anti-vax movement, which has surged since the UK government began rolling out shots of COVID-19 vaccine to 12-15 year-olds in schools last month. The jabs are voluntary and require parental consent. Anti-vax activists have been taking increasingly radical direct action, including protesting at schools, attempting to storm public buildings, and sending hoax vaccine “consent” letters, purporting to be from the NHS, to schools to disseminate to students.
Experts say that, while the breakaway schools movement has yet to advance much beyond planning stages, the initiative is deeply concerning, especially given claims on Telegram from anti-vax parents that they were pulling their children out of mainstream schooling.
“This is an unregulated way of funneling children into a conspiracy mindset at a very early age,” said Joe Ondrak, head of investigation for Logically, a tech company that combats online disinformation and has been monitoring the Telegram chatrooms where the breakaway schools are being discussed.
With more than 3,300 members of the largest national Telegram group – which describes the initiative as a “revolutionary act in the education of our children” – Ondrak said the project had the potential to, at the very least, wreak havoc with the schooling of many kids in the UK.
“There are going to be a few thousand children across the UK with very disrupted education,” he said.
Ondrak said the initiative highlighted the growing radicalisation and assertiveness of anti-vaxxers drawn into the sovereign citizens movement, an increasingly militant group which saw itself as locked in an existential conflict with the state.
Sovereign citizen ideology – whose followers subscribe to the delusional belief that they are exempt from the law, citing baseless, pseudo-legal gibberish as their justification – predates the pandemic by decades. But the fringe movement has recently gained a strong foothold in the conspiracy-addled, corona-skeptic scene in many parts of the world, spread exponentially within the paranoid climate of online chatrooms and Telegram and WhatsApp groups.
In the UK and Ireland, the ideology typically centres around a radical distortion of the concept of “common law.” Common law, referring broadly to the body of law based on previous judicial decisions, is a legitimate feature of the legal system in the UK and many countries it influenced.
But, through a convoluted and fallacious reasoning – usually drawing on thoroughly debunked arguments citing Magna Carta, the 800-year-old charter of rights signed by England’s King John to appease a group of rebel barons – sovereign citizens claim “common law” gives them the right to override the actual law. The movement’s followers claim their “sovereignty” allows them to refuse to pay their taxes, form their own “common law courts” to arrest, try and detain people, and appoint “peace constables” to enforce their authority.
Sovereign citizens have recently been linked to increasingly radical actions, including attempting to seize Edinburgh Castle, and publicly threatening to arrest politicians and officials and put them on trial. Last month, an elderly COVID-19 patient was removed from a hospital ICU in County Donegal, Ireland, by a sovereign citizen activist spouting rhetoric about common law courts; the patient died days later.
“The belief that they have the ability to do this, plus the intensified rhetoric that ‘they’re coming for your children and your children are going to die,’ is really concerning,” said Ondrak.
“All it takes is one person to decide they’re going to perform a citizen’s arrest on [chief medical adviser to the UK Government] Chris Whitty, or whoever, for things to end in tragedy.”
The breakaway schools project is being organised on Telegram groups devoted to creating a network of “National Community Schools”, or “National Community Learning Hubs”, across the country. The Telegram groups, viewed by VICE World News, are awash with conspiracy theories, misinformation and scaremongering about coronavirus vaccinations, and militant rhetoric about the need to take urgent action to prevent the vaccination of children.
On the forums, where users describe having pulled their children out of mainstream education, anti-vaxxers share templates to deregister their children from school, as well as threatening, legalistic “liability notices” if school officials proceed with vaccination campaigns, which have been “served” at recent schoolgate protests by radical activists.
One recent post gives a link for an NHS trust’s childhood vaccination service, which it describes as “the team that will likely be responsible for murdering children” and urges members to “contact them and advise them of the crimes they are about to carry out.” Users also circulate anti-vax propaganda targeted at children, encouraging them not to get the COVID-19 jab.
Riddett, who launched the breakaway school initiative, told VICE World News that he had created it as a forum for thousands of people around the country who had “woken up” – anti-vaxxers aligned with the sovereign citizen movement – and wanted their children out of children out of mainstream education, but were seeking an alternative to homeschooling.
“I thought: someone needs to set up a community school,” he said over a phone call. “With common law and the uprising now – especially now there’s peace constables coming round – people are going to feel confident to run a common law school without the authorities trying to stick their nose in.”
While he said the project was still in its infancy, with supporters still trying to secure premises and funding, he heard of parents pulling their children out of school on a regular basis, and at least one such “school” was already operational – to an extent.
The “Sheffield Freedom School” is run out of an allotment in the city. While its website, which promises “support and advice to deregister your child” from mainstream education,” offers an option of five days a week of full-time tuition, one of the two co-founders of the school told VICE World News that it was currently running at nowhere near that capacity.
“At the moment, we only meet once a week,” said the woman, who declined to be named. “We are still figuring it all out.”
In an appearance earlier this year on Ickonic, an online video platform featuring anti-vax conspiracy content hosted by Gareth Icke, the son of prominent UK conspiracy theorist David Icke, the two co-founders explained their motivation for setting up the school.
“2020 happened, and a lot of parents were disaffected with schools their children went to,” said one of the women, who was introduced by Gareth Icke as being able to explain why “your kids are better off outside of government schooling systems.” “They would like to home educate, but they don’t know how, or how children will meet other children,” she added.
The co-founder who spoke to VICE World News said the school community – which numbered about 40 people – was comprised of homeschooled children, their parents, and teachers, who wanted to create a group environment to give homeschooling parents some breathing space. The children who attended ranged in age from 1 to 14, while the class sizes ranged from three to 16.
She told VICE World News that the school had started independently of the National Community Schools initiative, but had merged with the network once it was launched. While she expressed some concern about adhering to UK education laws – telling VICE World News that they aimed to limit their hours of operation “so we didn’t have to register as a school” – she also said that common law “peace constables” were involved in the school’s operation, “so we feel quite protected” if any issues arose with education officials.
“We feel pretty confident about it, but if problems arise then National Community Schools offer the common law court,” she said, referring to the notion that “peace constables” or others affiliated with the sovereign citizen movement would step in to defend the “sovereignty” of the breakaway schools.
Under UK law, all settings which provide full-time education to five or more pupils must register with the UK Education Secretary as a school, and those who fail to do so can face prosecution.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education told VICE World News: “We have had no applications for registration of independent schools linked to anti-vaccination organisations and it would be illegal to set one up without registration. Any parents who are considering removing their child from school on the grounds of safety concerns should make every effort to engage with their school, and think very carefully about what is best for their child’s education.”
The department did not provide any data on whether there had been an uptick in parents withdrawing their children from mainstream education during the pandemic.
Riddett said he had also listed his own preschool – which operates as a regular childcare institution, open to the general public – as a hub on the National Community Schools network, to make clear to local parents he operated a “safe space” for those who shared his views and were opposed to coronavirus restrictions.
“We’re starting to see [other hubs] pop up,” he said. “I guess it’s up to we, the people, to act within our rights, to learn them and stand up to enforce them. It seems like a far-off concept, but it’s only a psychological step away.”
Ondrak said that while sovereign citizen ideology had been around for decades, the movement had gained much wider traction during the pandemic, merging with radical anti-COVID vaccine conspiracy theories and what he called “laundered QAnon narratives” playing up a looming catastrophic threat to children.
“With the government rolling the vaccine out to 12-15 year olds, more and more people are getting worried that this is, in their mind, a genocide towards kids,” he said. “These people genuinely think there is an existential threat to themselves and to children and that’s why it’s so much more pitched and fervent.”
For Riddett, his dive down the rabbithole of “common law” ideology was brought about by the pandemic. While he said he had long had an interest in conspiracy theories, and had been opposed to vaccinations, it was the pandemic that led him to “wake up,” diving into corona-related conspiracy theories online, and eventually meeting up with like-minded people IRL.
“COVID has brought to light how governments can dictate,” he said, calling coronavirus “a smokescreen for rushing in new measures.”
“There’s no actual evidence of the virus existing,” he added, somehow unaware of the mountains of evidence that COVID-19 does in fact exist, and has been linked to the deaths of nearly 4.8 million people around the world.
Earlier this year, Riddett, along with about 50 others, undertook several days “training” in common law theory in Cornwall, qualifying as a “peace constable.” The constables are given uniforms, IDs, and have authority “above the police” to intervene to remedy injustice, he says.
“I’m under an oath to protect the people, if I see something going on I’m under duty to see that it’s [put] right,” he said, citing examples like stopping police brutality against anti-lockdown protesters, or helping people resist mask-wearing or lockdown mandates.
Since then, he’s become increasingly assertive in putting his newfound knowledge into practice, notifying his local council – in what is a common tactic for sovereign citizens – that he was refusing to pay his council tax, as he was sovereign and not obliged to.
“All council tax liabilities are null and void for all living people,” he explained. “Nothing’s really that real, you don’t have to abide by any of this shit they’ve made up, they’ve taken over our country and we’ve forgotten we have rights.”
His ambitions go further than failing to pay his council tax, though. Once enough peace constables are empowered, Riddett explained, the common law courts movement hopes to be able to enforce its jurisdiction through the UK, prosecuting and locking up the politicians responsible for foisting a hoax pandemic, and coercive new means of social control, over the public.
“We’ve got two jurisdictions in our country, and they’re becoming more and more evenly matched,” he said.
“When we get to the point where we’re making things nice and even, we can start challenging people and putting people behind closed doors, especially the ones that are driving it.
“Just waking people up is the most important thing to begin with.”