In the past few weeks tens of thousands of school students have made an extraordinary entrance into political activism. On the day war broke out waves of walkouts, sit-ins and protests against the attack on Iraq swept the country, completely confounding journalistic stereotypes of 'apathetic youth'.
A series of wildcat student strikes began on 28 February, when 800 Glasgow school students walked out of classes to shut down an army recruitment office. On the same day about 1,000 school students in Northern Ireland and 400 more in Wales also struck.
News of the strikes spread throughout Britain. Student members of the Stop the War Coalition coordinated a national day of action on 5 March to coincide with 'books not bombs' protests in the US. An estimated 6,000 students took part, and many others were prevented from leaving school to join them. Hundreds of London students blocked the streets around Parliament and Downing Street. Impressive as the day was, it was eclipsed by the wave of protests as war broke out. On 19 March the protests included 5,000 Birmingham students surrounding the main council building and 3,000 pupils blocking Manchester city centre. The movement swelled further after the bombs began falling that night, School pupils were joined by older students and striking workers as 5,000 protested in Glasgow, 2,500 blockaded Sheffield's major roundabout, 2,000 protested in Brighton and 1,000 more in Leeds. School students dominated the 3,000-strong demonstration that wound through east London to Whitehall, where they joined thousands more from throughout London in shutting down Parliament Square.
In many places students have had to confront the issue of school and even police authority. Even many teachers sympathetic to the protests believe that they should be 'authority figures' who their students defer to. This, combined with legitimate but exaggerated fears for pupil safety, has led many to attempt to prevent the strikes. Some students have been warned that they will be treated as truants. Support from many parents as well as the drive and commitment of the students themselves has undermined this threat.
When warnings about 'truancy' failed, some schools organised minute's silences or discussions as an alternative to the strikes. This assumes that students only want to make a moral or religious observance. But what drives this new school student movement is not individuals' attempts to assuage their consciences through token acts, but a determination to have a material effect--to stop the war.
Faced with classroom politicisation, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) has not covered itself in glory, advising its members not to express a partisan view on the issue. Students who are used to teachers condemning bullying may find this refusal to be drawn on the question of militarised, geopolitical bullying paradoxical. But then they already have a government eminent that stretches credulity by condemning their music for 'glamorising violence' while waging bloody war.
Many commentators cannot accept that students can rationally reflect on the world and resolve to change it, so they insinuate that malevolent, subversive forces must be manipulating them. Every time there has been an upsurge in student activism this patronising accusation has been made. The major school student strikes of 1889, 1911 and 1972 all came at a time of industrial unrest. The experience of their families collectively challenging the status quo undoubtedly played a large part in inspiring that classroom militancy. The tactics of striking and picketing also owe a debt to workplace action. Each time the authorities ridiculed their demands as the result of 'childish imitation' of their rebellious parents. Reactionaries who laud rote learning, a repetitious method of instilling obedience, continue to condemn any sort of emulation that draws creatively from the tradition of protest.
Sometimes people are blasé about student protest--seeing it as consequence-free exuberance. While it is true that university students have more scope for protest without the ramifications faced by workers, the same is not true of school students. They are legally required to attend school, and disciplinary action can affect their future career choices. Therefore school students don't take collective action lightly. It has only been possible because of the strength of the anti-war movement. But despite the growing mood of resistance in the workplaces--to low pay and privatisation as well as the war--there hasn't yet been the scale of industrial action of 1889. 1911 or 1972 for students to learn from. But inexperience also has its benefits. The school strikers are too young to bear the scars of the defeats of the Eighties. The optimism of the strikes is fed by the and-capitalist belief that 'another world is possible', and a determination to pursue it. In the process school students can act as a catalyst--like the students who sparked the general strike in France in 1968--for the working class action that has the potential to stop the war machine by paralysing its profits. As students told the People's Assembly: 'If we can do it, you can too.'