When the kids are united

Recent marches by schoolchildren against tuition-fee hikes and budget cuts signal the revival of a long and illustrious tradition of pupil protests in Britain, Clive Bloom observes

January 20, 2011

Many years ago, one of my school chums turned up late to class with the excuse that a skinhead had shot his dog. I always thought it was a great reason to miss double maths, but bunking off to protest against the hike in university tuition fees and the loss of the education maintenance allowance (EMA), as tens of thousands of schoolchildren did recently, might be an even better one.

Let loose on London late last year, the schoolkids acted as you might expect: like schoolkids, generally horsing about, shouting slogans and burning placards on the plinth of Nelson's Column, before marching off to Parliament with reggae music blasting from a portable sound system. From the looks of it, we might have been in France, but instead we were witnessing a very British tradition of school protest that goes back to the 19th century.

For the children of working-class and unionised parents engaged in struggles for fair wages and decent working conditions more than a century ago, stridency and self-confidence were their birthright. Adult battles served as inspiration to pupils fighting the authorities over compulsory schooling. Starting in 1889, there were waves of national school strikes, often led by pupils after incidents in which schoolmates had been punished too severely. Strikes at schools centred on issues such as corporal punishment, the length of the school day, holidays, the school-leaving age, exploitation of "monitors", unpleasant teachers and bullying headmasters or headmistresses.

In 1889, there were strikes in Hawick and elsewhere in Scotland, and in London in Finsbury Park, Homerton, Woolwich, Plumstead, Kennington, Charlton and Lambeth; in 1911, school strikes occurred in Hull, Llanelli, Darlington, Portsmouth, Birmingham and Liverpool. Similar action swept Enfield, Islington, Hoxton, Fulham, East Ham and Deptford. Those waves of strikes would be echoed by action later in the 20th century, and were not uncommon up until 1939, as strikes in Haringey (1914), East Ham (1929) and Chatham (1938) attest.

Middle class and respectable, educationalists and teachers soon recognised that working-class children were not merely copying their trade-union parents, but using organised working-class militancy to articulate the deepening rift not only between young and old, but also between middle-class authority (the teachers) and working-class demands (the schoolchildren).

Needless to say, the educationalists and teachers were not amused. The October/November 1889 issue of The Educational News, the journal of the Educational Institute of Scotland, declared that "schoolboy strikers...are simply rebels. Obedience is the first rule of school life...School strikes are therefore not merely acts of disobedience, but a reversal of the primary purpose of schools. They are on a par with a strike in the Army or Navy...They are manifestations of a serious deterioration in the moral fibre of the rising generation...They will prove dangerous centres of moral contamination."

Schoolchildren participating in the strikes of the late 19th century would use pickets, marches in the street and demonstrations to make their point. Contemporary illustrations show them marching through the streets carrying flags emblazoned "NO CANE", to the amusement of police and shoppers alike. The authorities were rattled. In 1889 in Bethnal Green, schoolboy ringleaders were even seen to carry red flags and wear scarlet "liberty caps".

Whether or not a school picket ended with some window-breaking, the punishment was always severe, with miscreants lined up to be beaten in front of the whole school. Some children were publicly birched or sent to the workhouse. Reprisals were greatly out of proportion to the crime and were clearly meant to intimidate any other children looking on and likely to sympathise. Meanwhile, their parents were meant to take the "revenge" punishments as a covert message about the reception their own demands could expect to receive.

After a strike at a school in East Ham during 1929, one newspaper sourly noted the growth of "active resistance to discipline" among "the unmoulded minds of...children" that had "in most cases" occurred at "the instigation and approval of the parents". Strikes at school were swiftly suppressed and soon forgotten, but as the authorities feared, collective action left an indelible mark on the strikers' personalities, and represented a first step in the political education of many.

Jump ahead 70 years. On 19 March 2003, the Stop the War Coalition organised school walkouts as part of rallies in London and around the country against the impending invasion of Iraq by UK and US forces. Among the hundreds of thousands of people protesting that day were about 5,000 pupils in Birmingham, 3,000 in Manchester, 1,000 in Sheffield and 300 in Swansea, with numerous others from Edinburgh, Leeds and Bristol bunking off school to join the protests.

In November and December 2010, schoolchildren again showed an appetite for protest when they picketed Parliament and marched in London to protest against the rise in tuition fees, the end of the EMA and threatened cuts to sports funding to schools. On this last issue, at least, protests had enough momentum to cause the government to back down.

Britain invented the idea of the schoolchild and glorified it in print: one has only to think of those doughty boarding-school heroes and heroines in the works of Angela Brazil, Enid Blyton and J.K. Rowling. But there is a darker, more anarchic side, too: think of the bolshie babes of St Trinian's, the dirty-kneed scamps of the Just William stories and the comprehensive-school warfare of the wonderful scruffs of Bash Street - a comic tale so near the reality of the 1960s as to make authority quake.

With the lifting of the tuition-fee cap at English universities, debt and class division have reappeared as threats to those not yet at work or in higher education. Old-fashioned resentment at injustice has given way to concerted action by those who have the leisure to protest. The latest demonstrations by schoolchildren and students point to the reappearance of almost-forgotten class resentment, not only against bankers, financiers and business tycoons such as Philip Green, but also against those who rule and who have broken their pledges.

Such resentments were a feature of the post-war welfare state, too, but by 1968, they had broadened and become international in scope.

The greater importance placed on secondary education after the Second World War and the liberal atmosphere in educational circles bred a generation of articulate baby boomers: angry about the US' military role in Vietnam and about imperialism, class exploitation and gender inequality. In 1968, sixth formers painted the words "HM Prison" on the roof of Ilford County High School in Barkingside, Essex. The roof had to be replaced. This was subversion at its most practical and visible.

But the young people who protested in 1968 were a very different generation from today's. New people, new rules. The young have realised that 15-year-olds can outface the police and get away with it; they are aware of the impact of 24-hour media and the power of the photo opportunity; they have tactics to beat kettling; they have been able to target the Conservative Party's headquarters and the royals. More importantly, they will learn from WikiLeaks how to subvert government websites and fight a virtual as well as a traditional campaign.

The old contract between voters and politicians, in which the latter undertook to do what they had pledged in their election manifestos, has been broken. The Liberal Democrats, for some time the favourite of the young and marginalised, are now seen as fraudulent, even by those who have yet to exercise their voting rights.

Until 1968, schoolchildren had an adult model of politics to follow. There was a tradition of working-class trade unionship and an intellectually educated leadership who were politically savvy and theoretically sophisticated. The changes in recent protests have highlighted a certain loss. Political nous has not advanced at the same speed as technical knowledge, and technical brilliance is no substitute for a really solid understanding of political systems offering an alternative future. But neither the students nor the schoolchildren of today have found their equivalent of Karl Marx to help focus and channel their anger.

Police tactics, too, are changing, as forces deal with increased violence and younger protesters. Criticised in two internal reports in 2010 for their handling of the G20 protests in London the year before (particularly their heavy-handedness and lack of legal and human rights training), and having been accused of dubious methods of entrapment in the past, the police may use the actions of students and schoolchildren as an excuse to renege on consensual policing and return to 19th-century methods of coercion and control. They will become not keepers of the peace, but protectors of the Establishment.

In 1911, The Graphic weekly newspaper showed a schoolboy protester being "arrested" by his mother. Better than being coshed by a cop, perhaps.

A crisis that goes beyond cash and cuts: Fears for fairness spark middle classes' distrust of the state

On 9 December 2010, Alfie Meadows and his mother, Susan Matthews, decided to have a day out in London.

Like many others that day, the two were protesting against the coalition government's plans to raise the cap on undergraduate tuition fees. Meadows, in his second year studying philosophy at Middlesex University, saw an immediate connection between the threatened closure of the department and the current crisis. It was sufficient to motivate a quiet lad into action.

The police began kettling the crowd at the bottom of Whitehall, and Meadows and his mother became separated at some point in the early evening. At about 5.30pm, Meadows' mother got the news that her son had been struck on the head. He suffered an extradural haematoma in the ambulance.

On arrival at the hospital, the 20-year-old's mother persuaded staff of the urgency of the case and an immediate operation saved his life.

That evening, as Meadows had his 15 minutes of fame as a casualty of the protests, his mother was about to take up her role as a rather modest human rights campaigner forced to speak for others from the immediacy of personal experience.

Matthews is a senior lecturer in English literature at Roehampton University, a job she has held for 20 years. Educated at the University of Oxford, she is nevertheless a believer in education for all, especially those who are the first from their families to attend university. For Matthews, those educated in English literature, and more broadly the humanities, have the potential to gain a voice in the public debate central to the democratic process.

Moreover, her family has for years been involved in what prime minister David Cameron likes to call the "Big Society". Married to a man who has worked in the community and now teaches art to those in prison, Matthews is not a natural protester or a troublemaker. She admits that she was a comfortably brought-up middle-class girl, with a nice middle-class education, who "didn't get" what "other people did" about the Vietnam War and the class struggle.

The Iraq War politicised her for the first time. For Matthews, there suddenly opened up an "absolute disjunction" between what was being said and the reality on the ground. Seeing no "logic to going to war", she took to the streets, with millions of others, bringing one of Alfie's sisters along for the ride.

The abject failure of the Iraq protests threw her into the arms of the Liberal Democrats. She voted for them for the first time in the 2010 general election, only to find another "betrayal" and the effective neutering of the policies she supported. Ed Miliband's rebranded Labour Party is, for her, simply "unbelievably feeble" in the face of welfare cuts.

At the anti-fees demonstration, she was shocked by the "scorn" of the police and was told by one officer that "protest never works".

Alfie Meadows' particular circumstances are now the subject of an inquiry by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Matthews says she feels no guilt at participating in the protest that led to her son's injuries, just a newly awakened sense of activism motivated by the need to right a wrong.

She finds herself in a tradition of radical libertarianism and street democracy that stretches back to John Lilburne in the 17th century and comes up to date with Brian Haw, the peace activist who camped in Parliament Square.

It is this sense of needing to right a government wrong that infuriates and motivates liberal middle England. The perception that power corrupts can make unlikely but articulate advocates of liberty, and Matthews is articulate.

She is now campaigning with many others to get kettling outlawed under European human rights legislation, but she admits that she has no real sense of how to solve higher education's crisis. She still believes in the 1960s ideal of "communal responsibility" and feels that education is a form of communal insurance. As for how it is all to be paid for, she hesitates and is unsure; she advocates cancelling the Trident nuclear weapons programme and calls for more debate of the issues.

In the past few years, distrust of the state and its institutions has been growing. Yet the anxiety goes deeper than that. Many people fear that what should have been addressed by an older generation was ignored, that such neglect led to the current mess, and that it may now be too late to help their own children. Not since the poll tax riots has Middle England been so rattled.

It is small things that motivate the middle classes: fairness, even-handedness, reasonableness. There is now a feeling of injustice and moral outrage that has gone far beyond the Guardian readers of Islington and Crouch End.

The betrayal of the trusting and supportive middle classes - of those who believed until relatively recently that election promises were made to be kept, that policing was by consent, that education was a right and not a privilege and that English, philosophy and history counted for something in the civilising process - may in time prove to be the most significant betrayal of all.

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Reader's comments (1)

I live close to ICHS and remember well the daring roof painting job of 1968. I recall it was just cleaned off origonally but the letters still showed up clearly if it rained ! Is there a photo of it out there somewhere I wonder ?