One of the most impressive aspects of the ongoing student rebellion of November – December 2010 was the involvement of school students. The big London demos last year showed multi-racial crowds of youth from Croydon, Peckham and the council estates of Islington, who knew that the Etonian toffs in government were mashing up their dreams and their life-chances. The superior sniping of Daily Mail columnists and Sky News commentators who make a career out of slagging off ‘apathetic’ students and youth was shown up for the cynical propaganda it was. “We come from the slums of London…”said one of the kids, and you could hear the anger in his voice.
Strikes and protests by school students have an honourable history. People may have heard of the Burston school strike in Norfolk, where in 1914 children went on strike in protest at the victimisation of their teachers, becoming a cause celebre for the trade union movement, and participating in the setting up and running of an alternative school. This strike ran until 1939 – the longest in British history.
In the 1976 Soweto uprising against apartheid oppression it was black school students who braved the bullets of the South African police, many of them dying in the process.
And in the run-up to Blair’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 walk-outs by thousands of school students took place in schools across the UK: London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Cambridge, Milton Keynes and many parts of Wales including Llanelli, Gowerton, Cardiff, Swansea and Bridgend. In Llanelli over 100 school students walked out, with 15 arrested.
But the first school strikes in Britain took place after the 1911 national railway strike. During August-September 1911 there were strikes by schoolchildren in at least 62 towns and cities, showing the huge impact the rail strike had within working-class communities. In Llanelli the revolt began in Bigyn School, where in protest at a teacher’s punishment the boys left the playground and paraded the streets, visiting other schools and calling on the pupils to join them. New Dock, Lakefield and Old Road Schools came out in solidarity.
At the start of the new September term, the school authorities had apparently detected a new spirit of revolt among the children – they were following their parents’ example! The tactics of the walk-out and the flying picket were being adapted to the playground and the school yard! The chair of the Education Committee was appalled, saying that it was a serious state of affairs to find schoolboys filled with the spirit of unsubordination. “I am inclined to believe,” he said,”it had something to do with the spirit of the times.”