The school students’ protests last week over Sats tests was widely treated as an unprecedented event.
But a new book, Schools Out! The Hidden History of Britain’s School Student Strikes, reveals the action is more common than people might think.
Co-author Michael Lavalette told Socialist Worker that he was “astonished” at how many have taken place.
“There’s hardly a year in the 20th century when there’s not a school strike somewhere in Britain,” he said. “If you look at the history books, that’s just not acknowledged.”
Students at a Midlands school struck in 2014. They had worn bracelets to support a student with cancer—and the head said it breached uniform policy.
In March last year pupils at Prendergast Hilly Fields College in Lewisham, south east London, struck against plans to turn it into an academy.
But school students’ action is often dismissed. Michael said, “During last week’s Sats strike children made placards saying they didn’t agree with testing.
“And yet it’s interpreted as parent activity. There’s a tendency to explain it in a way that denies the political agency of young people.”
The book says there have been school student strikes “for as long as we have had compulsory education”. In England and Wales this means from 1870.
But they “jar” because they challenge dominant ideas about childhood and education being a “benign benefit”.
From the start Britain’s schooling system “was based on hierarchy, complete subservience to the teacher, rote learning and obedience”.
Strikes are ignored, denigrated or trivialised partly because they challenge that.
“Part of schooling is about getting working class kids used to discipline,” said Michael.
“So when they go to factories and offices they’ll put their heads down and do what the manager says.
“Social control is very much part of schooling. And the reaction to school strikes emphasises that.”
The book details six major school student strike waves—1889, 1911, 1968-74, 1978-80, 1985 and 2003.
Demands ranged from the abolition of corporal punishment, different flavour crisps in the canteen, to an end to war.
In 1889 children struck demanding shorter hours, no homework and better teachers. They sent flying pickets to pull other schools out.
The Times newspaper found the demands “very shocking” and was surprised at the level of organisation among children. But it still sought to portray the action as “frivolous”.
Several strikes called for free education—and the end of corporal punishment, at a time when children could be caned for coughing.
As one Hull striker put it, “We pay three pence per week and get slugged for it.”
Strikers in 1911 also called for the abolition of corporal punishment.
The strikes were political. One boy in Liverpool said, “Our fathers starved to get what they wanted.
“What our fathers have done we can do.”
Strikes in the late 1960s and early 1970s were “much more overtly political”.
Strikers’ demands included more democracy in schools and freedom of speech.
The Schools Action Union (SAU) was set up and started publishing a newspaper.
An SAU branch was set up at Eton where students denounced the school’s “dictatorial system”.
In May 1972 a series of strikes sparked by local grievances grew into “a more organised, orchestrated campaign of protest”.
The government was so panicked that it contacted the security services.
Robert Armstrong, private secretary to the prime minister, wrote of the PM’s concern.
His letter warned, “When a similar development occurred in France in 1968, it caused a good many problems and proved very difficult to get under control.”
The Home Office “quickly sought to establish what intelligence the security services, special branch and the uniformed police had on the student movement.”
Based on the responses it warned that there was “a good deal of discontent” in schools which was likely “to be a continuing problem”.
The government’s panic disproves the idea that school strikes are silly or irrelevant.
Yet many continued to dismiss them. Labour leader Neil Kinnock called the organisers of the 1985 strike, against the Tories’ Youth Training Scheme (YTS), “dafties”.
One Birmingham striker retorted, “We are young people with rights and we do not need crap from quislings like him.”
Liverpool student Debbie Riley said, “We’re not stupid. If we’re old enough to go on cheap labour YTS, then we are old enough to go on strike for our future.”
All the major student strike waves took place at high points of working class struggle. All were times of “significant and sustained periods of generalised protest”.
The book argues that there was a “clear relationship” between the school strikes and the wider struggle, but that students consciously took action.
Michael said, “School strikes are often said to have been caused by adults or outside agitators. Children are said to have been easily led by Reds, rebels, anarchists or Marxists.”
Dave Kersey was involved in a school strike in Sheffield in 1978. He said, “You hear people dismiss school strikes as some form of larking about.
“But school strikes are not entered into easily. They are difficult to organise and they involve a very significant challenge to authority. They are serious political events.”
Michael said, “Schools are not the easiest place to organise. Pupils can be victimised, suspended or expelled. The fact that they continue to take action is uplifting.”
School student strikes also scare the establishment because of the long term impact they can have on those who take part.
Michael said, “All of the people we spoke to said it shaped the rest of their political life.
“Almost all of them have been political ever since. When you break out of the confines of school and face retribution, it can challenge people’s thinking about the system.”
In 1985 Catholic and Protestant strikers marched together in Belfast in a show of unity. Michael said, “In 2003 you had 13, 14 and 15 year olds talking about imperialism.
“In 2010 school students were asking why the government was bailing out banks when there was no money for their Education Maintenance Allowance.
“There was a lot of generalisation.” The book gets across the excitement among students who struck.
Angela McCormick recalls striking in 1985. “As we marched into town I remember my pal shouting at me, ‘Do you feel our power, Angela?’ And I did! It was a great, exciting feeling.”
It also flags up the danger that those at the top will try to co-opt students.
The National Union of School Students (NUSS) was set up in the 1970s.
It succeeded in forcing government ministers to take it seriously. But this came at the cost of adapting its methods to be more “respectable”.
There are also contradictions in how teachers react to students’ action. Several students in the book describe teachers tacitly supporting them.
Yet others were hostile—and the NUT teachers’ union in the 1970s opposed students having more say in how schools were run.
Michael said this reflects the changing nature of schools at the time. “In the 1970s there were two types of teacher,” he said.
“Younger teachers had been part of the 1960s student generation.They were more open to students having a voice.
“But an older group still didn’t see themselves as working class or trade unionists, but as professionals.”
Children have been part of working class struggle in Britain for more than a century and remain so today. For Michael that’s a reason to have hope.
“It confirms that the nature and structure of capitalism means there are always tensions that burst out,” he said.
“Even some of the most vulnerable—young people in schools—at times take collective action to try and shape their world.
“You should expect that, at some point, there will be school student strikes coming to a school near you.”