Thousands of students poured out of schools, colleges and universities on Wednesday of last week—the biggest student walkouts since those against war in Iraq in 2003.
The huge turnout from schools and further education (FE) colleges was particularly significant.
The protests were called over government plans to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA)—currently paid to 600,000 poor 16-19 year olds to help them stay in education—and the huge increase in maximum tuition fees to £9,000 a year.
But the depth of anger voiced by the students, and the size of the demonstrations, show that they are about much more.
The police, media and the government failed in their attempts to intimidate the students after the occupation of Conservative HQ in London on 10 November. If anything they fuelled the rage students feel at being attacked and betrayed by a ruling elite.
Jamil Keating led a walkout of over 400 students from Xaverian Catholic Sixth Form college in Manchester. “We feel like the rich have been completely let off the hook. It’s the poor that are being made to pay,” he told Socialist Worker.
“We have to fight, we have no choice. Being a socialist has taught me that we have to link up with as many people as possible—students and workers to win. It’s time for students to show the government our power.”
Alesha, from Westminster Kingsway FE college in London, walked out of her A-level classes. “When I leave here after my exams how is my life going to change?” she asked. “There are no jobs—especially for young people without experience, like me. My older sister can’t find a job and she did really well at college. I want to work and look after myself, not rely on my mum.”
The sense of a generation thrown on the scrapheap was palpable throughout the protests.
Samir Hinks from Bury College echoed this: “We’re the ones who will have all our rights taken away. The Lib Dems have lied. The first demo on 10 November was a spark, now it’s turned into a roaring inferno.
“There is a huge sense of unfairness at the system—it’s two-tier. We have to fight tooth and nail for everything while the rich get it handed to them on a plate.
“This isn’t just about the cuts to education—it’s about being young and working class and not having a future.
“This is what capitalism is doing to people all over the world—making profit out of the poorest and destroying the planet. I became a socialist because I don’t just want to stop the cuts, I want to smash the system.”
Many school walkouts were organised through Facebook and by word of mouth.
Arnie was one of 1,100 who walked out of Chiswick Community School, in west London. He said, “I was expecting a handful of people but suddenly there were hundreds, then a thousand.”
In other places students organised collectively, holding discussions about the best way to protest.
“A group of us started organising the walkout about a week before,” said Jamil. “We set up a Facebook group and made leaflets and put up posters.
“People were worried about losing their EMA for missing lessons, but we won them round with an argument about facing thousands of pounds of debt in the future because of fees.”
George Darrell, a student at the Arts University College in Bournemouth described how the confidence of students was transformed by walking out: “The atmosphere was brilliant—when we got to the meeting point students from local schools and colleges were already there.
“We came through the opposite gate. The two groups spotted each other and ran together. There was hugging and cheering, everyone started chanting. This gave us so much confidence.”
In some places, where students had been hesitant about walking out or encountered resistance from teachers, anger and confidence exploded.
“Our school wouldn’t let us hold a sit-in,” said Shona, a year 11 student at Chorlton High School. “They said we had to do it in break time. We didn’t feel like this would make the point strongly enough so we organised a walkout.”
The heavy-handed response of police in some places didn’t deter protesters either—it spurred them on. “The cops stopped us with barriers when we tried to get to Bournemouth town hall,” said George.
“This could have demoralised us but all the college students pushed round the barriers and got through.
“We wanted to block roads and be seen. People shouted ‘to town, to town’. We took over the roads on the way and had a sit down—about 600 of us. There was a strong feeling of unity.”
Arnie said that the police were to blame the students for the clashes in London. “They are saying that it’s our violence that made them kettle us—but that’s wrong. I was there.
“We were marching towards Parliament Square when they made a line across the road and surrounded us on all sides. They wouldn’t let us past.
“People who hadn’t been on protests before started to get scared but we were determined to carry on.”
The protests have raised deeper questions about how to win the battle against cuts and the injustices of the system. People who had never been involved in political activity before were taking up the most radical arguments about how to win.
Joshua goes to the Nacro Training Centre in Leeds. He sent out a challenge to the Tories: “Come to my college and see what life is really like for us. Maybe then you’ll understand.
“The government have made me question voting—what’s the point if all they do is lie to us to get our support?”
Jamil said, “When I went into college the day after the protest, everyone was talking about the walkout and what we’re going to do next. One classmate said to me—‘we have to make it like strikes—one day is not enough to win, we have to do more and more’.”
Shona said, “It’s us that are going to be affected by these changes, we wanted to take responsibility for our future.
“It’s not just us we have to fight for but future generations. It’s good that students are thinking about it.
“The government don’t understand—they’ve never been denied anything, no one’s ever said to them, ‘no, we can’t afford it.’
“We’re going to carry on organising against the cuts. We need to stay organised and make people are aware of what the government wants to do and how we can stop them.”
Some students also spoke about the importance of uniting with workers and others under attack.
“Our walkout brought the cuts as a whole to the front,” said Samir. “We went to the town hall. Council workers there are losing three days pay over Christmas. They were really supportive and helped to cement the link between students to workers. It makes sense to people.
“Positive action and protest and walkouts are a way to fight back—that’s what we’re learning and what will stay in student’s minds. “
Joshua added, “I hadn’t been on a protest before and it felt great to be a part of it. It wasn’t just me or a couple of others—when we’re all together it makes our message louder.
“If there’s more people next time we can be ever more powerful. We might not have the power now but we can take it.”