Students are furious at a new uniform policy that bans hairstyles that “block the views of others”—such as black students with Afro hair. Hijabs that are “too colourful” are also not permitted.
“It’s basically racist,” one student told Socialist Worker. “It gives the school a bad image. It will put people off coming here.”
Another added, “It’s unfair. We are good people and we want to make a change.”
The protest follows anger that has been building for months since a new principal, Daniel Smith, took over in September. Students told Socialist Worker that they have since felt “excluded” from a say in what happens in school.
“They kind of shut our voices down,” explained one student. “We had a student council, but it was shut down. I wouldn’t say the head teacher is racist. But we asked him to take down a union jack flag several times, and he ignored us.”
“The head teacher is treating children unfairly,” added another student. “We’re not allowed Afros, so that means black people aren’t being treated the same as white people.
“Some students are being picked out. And they never talk about Black Lives Matter.”
Students said there was nothing to celebrate Black History Month last year in the school, whereas there had been activities previously. Many were also angry at the treatment of women and young girls.
“There are so many issues in the school,” said one student. “There have been sexual assaults but nothing is done about them. They said that if we protest we could be expelled. But they can’t expel all of us.”
Students originally planned to protest on the astro turf where they usually assemble for school at the start of the day. But after being “locked out” they relocated to the basketball court.
Chants of, “Black Lives Matter” and, “We want change,” rang out. Some students held anti-racist placards. Others wore red to remember Sarah Everard, who was kidnapped and killed earlier this month.
There was a defiant and supportive atmosphere as parents, former school students, youth workers and locals gathered to watch the student protest. “Good for them,” said one youth worker. “They’re standing up for themselves.”
A parent added, “They’re showing their power. It’s nice to see.”
There was widespread anger among parents, some of whom have organised a petition demanding that the head teacher resign.
Several told Socialist Worker that the way the school is run is damaging for their children.
“Since the head teacher changed, there have been a lot of problems,” one said. “The lunch policy means they don’t have enough time to eat properly.
The other day, my daughter had around half her lunch left but she didn’t have time to finish it.
“She’s asked to go to the toilet and been denied and been very uncomfortable. And children have had the tags on their Kickers cut off because of the new uniform policy—without even asking parents.”
The parent said her child now refers to the school as a “prison” and doesn’t want to return there.
Another said, “There was so much love in the school. Now it’s gone in a few months.” And another said her year 11 student now doesn’t want to stay at the school sixth form.
“We have a parent teacher association but it’s not allowed to meet in school,” added another. “Parents have been told not to pick children up at school because of social distancing. But really they just don’t want us interfering.”
And it isn’t only students and parents who are angry. NEU union members at the school held a vote of no confidence in the principal Daniel Smith on Tuesday. They could look to strikes.
One ex-Pimlico student said it is “sad” to see how the school has changed. “When I came here a few years ago, it was all about inclusion,” she said.
“But now I feel like the voices of young people are hushed. A lot of the time, young people aren’t listened to.”
Students proud of the protest and vow to keep fighting
There was an upbeat mood outside Pimlico Academy in south London on Wednesday afternoon. Students felt their hundreds-strong protest had been a big success.
The sit-in protest in the school’s basketball court continued all morning and eventually pushed the school to close early in the afternoon.
Leo told Socialist Worker it had been “productive”. “There was definitely unity between us students and also teachers,” he said.
“This started from the students – it wasn’t from the teachers,” Abigail added. “It’s the students who did this.”
Aiden was pleased that the protest had “been all over Twitter”. “I’d say 99.9 percent of the school were there,” he said. “There were teachers there supporting it.”
Students wore heart stickers on their uniforms and faces to draw attention to the problem of sexual harassment in school. Many had written “BLM” on their faces to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
Leo explained why students are so angry.
“I’m in Year 11 and it used to be a very positive place,” he said. “Now I feel intimidated in school. It feels authoritarian and restrictive, which makes it harder to learn. The culture is different—it’s very ‘British’ oriented, even with the food.
“We all come from very different cultures. That should be respected.”
Students feel school has become more “formal” and conservative.
“There used to be a ‘wall of fame’ in the Drama department – that’s been taken down,” said Abigail. “We had an LGBT+ community noticeboard. They’ve taken that down.
“Now the walls are all blank. It’s like a prison.”
Alex said it would be worse for students in younger years who “would have come to an open day and seen art everywhere on the walls”.
“They said having things on the walls would encourage students to loiter in corridors,” he explained. And he was angry at how the new principal has imposed changes without speaking to students.
“He makes all these rules and then hands responsibility for it to other people,” said Alex. “Other teachers were out talking to us during the protest. But he hasn’t even been out all day.
“He’s nothing like you’d expect a head teacher to be. You’d expect a head to get to know students individually and talk to them. But the only encounter I’ve had with him was him telling me off in a corridor.”
It’s the students who did this.
Abigail added, “Lots of teachers want to leave. Before Mr Smith came we didn’t have any of that. So it’s obvious that he’s the main reason they are leaving.”
Students were told that they had won their demands as a result of the protest. These included removing a Union Jack flag from the school.
But many stressed that they want real changes, not just words.
“I fear they will try to appease us—say they are listening but then take no action,” said Leo. I really do want to see change. But I’m scared there will be broken promises, and they’ll push things under the rug.”
Aidan said Wednesday’s protest had boosted students for any future battles that lie ahead. “I feel like we’re more confident now,” he said. “So if he tries to do this kind of ridiculousness again after Easter, he knows we won’t just be quiet about it.”
The right fears resistance
Tory donor, peer and private equity tycoon Lord Nash heads the Future Academies trust that runs Pimlico Academy.
Teachers there struck and protested in 2008 when Nash successfully lobbied to take over the school.
Tory-run Westminster council approved the academisation plan despite three consultations showing overwhelming opposition.
So there was fury from the right wing press at the strength of the Pimlico protest. The Times newspaper devoted several articles to Tory MPs denouncing it.
The Daily Mail newspaper raged about the “academy of anarchy” where students had the audacity to question principal Daniel Smith. It was unhappy at “Marxists cynically exploiting” the action, after some students carried Socialist Workers Party placards.
Its real fear is about the impact action can have. “The tactics worked,” it said of the student protest.