When I was 14 I managed my first, rather comic act of political rebellion. Partly inspired by Ken Loach’s film Cathy Come Home, I chalked “Long live the proletariat” on the blackboard at Crewe Boys’ Grammar. Our RE teacher, the Reverend Geddes, wandered in, inspected it and, humiliatingly, corrected my spelling before getting on with the lesson.
Schools Out! tells an altogether more inspiring tale of rebellion, politics and youthful fire.
There are times when history can seem like an onion. When I was young back in the 1950s and 60s, we had no doubt what it was. It was written clearly on that odd, papery exterior: kings, queens, 1066 and all that. In the intervening years another narrative has emerged in which all kinds of invisible histories took on solid form. Instead of the human story being seen from the perspective of the rich, white and powerful, we started to get a glimpse of the working class, the victims of empire, women, black and Asian people. More recently, the LGBT story has begun to be told.
Histories of the young have been slower coming. History, after all, is written by adults and, as Tony Cliff used to remind his audiences, you can often leave the old to the liberals! Michael Rosen’s Penguin Book of Childhood was one early exploration. Schools Out!, a “hidden history of Britain’s school student strikes” is a welcome addition to an emerging field of study.
Michael and Stephen’s story has the pace and ability to grip of a novel. Though it is meticulously researched and referenced, it is no dry, academic tome. It does what any good popular history should do. It emits the aroma of the events it describes. It sets the context of the British events that make up the core of the book by reminding us of the international picture: the Soweto school strike in 1976 which cost the lives of Hastings Ndlovu and Hector Pieterson, murdered by the state. The strike shifted the gears of the anti-apartheid struggle and the young led it.
Then there were the civil rights actions. Four years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, black school students were resisting Jim Crow oppression. The famous student revolt in France in 1968 was mirrored by a school students’ movement.
The authors conclude that there are two forms of school student action: the sporadic, such as a 1914 strike against teacher brutality in Bolton, and more sustained, generalised revolts. The book looks at six major school student strike waves in Britain: 1889, 1911, 1968-1974, 1978-80, 1985 and 2003.
Anyone who has had a nodding acquaintance with the left or with the trade union movement might recognise that these dates have something in common. They were all periods of political or social struggle. 1889 was the period of the mass movement that paved the way for the New Unionism when unskilled workers took the stage. The school strikes of 1911 occurred in the middle of the Great Unrest of titanic class struggle across Europe.
The later chapters deal with events I was fortunate enough to participate in myself. 1968 was the “year of the barricades” when images of the war in Vietnam, Black Power, women’s and gay liberation were part of the fabric of the news bulletins. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the rise of anti-Nazi agitation and the emergence of School Kids Against the Nazis. In 1985 school walkouts against the compulsory imposition of the Youth Training Scheme (YTS) coincided with the final days of the Miners’ Strike and Liverpool council’s battle with the government. Finally, 2003 saw the explosion of a worldwide cry of rage at the “War on Terror”.
The authors show that, “In these periods the school strikes did not occur in isolation, or appear out of the blue. They were not mere ‘disruptions’ to school routines, but a serious challenge to the political establishment.”
The narrative is intensely political and we meet the actors in each drama — the Young Communist League and SWP in the National Union of School Students, Militant, later the Socialist Party, and the SWP in the anti-Nazi, YTS and anti-war agitation. Indeed, many of these participants are leading socialist activists today. We race with Mike Morris through the streets of Liverpool as part of the YTS movement and march alongside Rehad Desai and Erika Loredo at the time of School Kids Against the Nazis, Rock Against Racism and the Anti Nazi League. We fume at the likes of Roy Hattersley dampening the struggle and cheer Terry Fields, Dave Nellist and Paul Foot giving voice to it.
This stirring account shows that school students were not just mimicking adult struggles. They were making themselves the subject rather than the object of history, raising their own demands and refusing to be patronised, ignored and oppressed.
Finally, it rejects recent conclusions by some that young people are no longer rebellious. Read this book. It contains the rhythms of past struggles and possibly the drumbeat of future ones.
Alan Gibbons is a writer and political activist.
Schools Out! by Steve Cunningham and Michael Lavalette is published in late May by Bookmarks, £12.99