As school students organise walkouts for Palestine, Michael Lavalette looks at the history of school strikes in the anti-war movement and beyond

Thursday 7 December: National Day of School and Uni Walkouts

Over the last few weeks, increasing numbers of children across the country have walked out of their schools to strike against Israeli savagery in Gaza. Not surprisingly the strikes have caused apoplexy amongst sections of the press and political establishment who denounce the strikers as ‘truants’ or ‘easily led’ young people under undue pressure from parents and troublemakers.

Yet the young people’s actions are just the latest example of an established tradition of school strikes and protests. Over the last 150 years in Britain and other countries across the globe, young people have taken strike action as part of broader campaigns for social justice.

The most recent notable example comes from the regular Friday strike for climate action, initiated by Greta Thunberg. These Friday strike days spread across the world, though often with relatively small numbers of students striking to draw attention to the climate crisis. But occasionally the Friday strike days pulled in tens of thousands of student activists. When COP26 came to Glasgow, for example, there were significant protests, walkouts and demonstrations by young people in the city.

A more dramatic example from earlier in this century was the mass school walkouts against war in Iraq. Organised broadly under the banner of the Stop the War Coalition in late February 2003, these saw school students up and down Britain walk out against the war. The strikes took place in all the major cities with large numbers taking part in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol, Leeds, Nottingham and Glasgow. But the strikes weren’t confined to the large cities. Preston, Brighton, Lancaster and Gloucester were amongst those that witnessed significant action by students.

The strikes took place in the face of opposition from the schools and local authorities and they drew a vitriolic response from politicians and media commentators.

In some schools head teachers tried to lock students in school buildings and locked school gates! Yet pupils climbed out of windows, left via fire exits and clambered over school walls to join with hundreds of others at town and city-centre rallying points.

In the towns and city centres, pupils made speeches, demanded no war on Iraq and then left on impromptu marches and sit down protests on main roads.

The school strikes were part of the militant response to New Labour’s drive to war and grew out of the great anti-war demonstration of 15 February 2003. The march gave confidence to school students that they could, and should, protest against the war. As a result, the students became active participants in the anti-war movement.

Over the next few years school strikes became a key element of the anti-war movement armoury. For example, in 2006 Labour’s Foreign Secretary Jack Straw invited US Secretary of State Condolezza Rice to a three-day visit of North West England. She was met with protests everywhere she went. On her first morning, Straw took her to one of the schools in his Blackburn constituency. I was chair of Preston Stop the War at the time and we had met with locals beforehand to plan a picket of the school. On the morning of her visit we were joined by hundreds of school students who refused to go in whilst she was there. And the young people, the majority of whom were of Pakistani heritage, produced one of my favourite chants ever! Just as she appeared to walk into the school they all started chanting: “No more Rice, we want chapatis”!

But school strikes such as these are not new. A few years ago, I did some research with a friend for a book called ‘ Schools Out! ’ We were surprised to find that there are school strikes in Britain most years! These ‘sporadic’ strikes are fairly localised but involve students taking action over all manner of things, including Ofsted visits, bad headteachers, school uniform policy and a range of local grievances. They rarely get much attention, though are usually coveted in the local press. They don’t necessarily last very long, but they do show young people’s willingness to engage in political action (despite the lofty claims of politicians that young people are ‘disinterested’, ‘apathetic’ or ‘misled’).

But as well as these ‘sporadic strikes’ there is a rich history of broader school strike waves of protest. These involve thousands of young people and spread rapidly across the country – just like the 2003 strikes.
There were large, significant school strike waves in 1889 and 1911. Both occurred as part of major industrial strike waves at this period and in both episodes young people followed the tactics being undertaken by trade unionists. The walkouts were followed by mass pickets. Scabs were attacked and prevented from going to school. Flying pickets were sent to schools that were not yet out on strike and mass rallies were held to boost morale. The school strikers were campaigning against school fees, corporal punishment and rote learning – all legitimate demands and demands which most parents agreed with.

In the late 1960s and 1970s there was another wave of school protests. This time school students set up their own organisations, first the Schools Action Union and then, later, the National Union of School Students. These organisations led strikes over a range of issues. They demanded recognition of their union, they protested about having to wear school uniforms and they led campaigns against racism and fascism, especially in the 1970s when the National Front tried to organise in schools. The growth of school student activism at this period took place against the background of the growth of the movements of the late 1960s: the women’s movement, the gay movement, the anti-racism movement and the militant trade union movement of the period. The school students learned from and grew alongside these other movements for social change.

In 1985, Britain was rocked by another wave of school student protests. These occurred just after the defeat of the Great Miners Strike of 1984/85. They erupted first in the coalfields of South Yorkshire, but quickly spread and were particularly significant in Liverpool and Glasgow. The strike wave of 1985 was about youth unemployment and the government’s notorious Youth Training Scheme (YTS). The YTS was hated. It was an exploitative cheap labour scheme and the students struck against their forced recruitment onto the scheme.

The examples above are all from Britain. But the school strike and youth protest are common globally. Let’s take just three examples.

First, towards the end of World War Two as the Soviet forces pushed west, the people of Warsaw rose up against the Nazis. The Warsaw Uprising lasted from August to October 1944. Children and young people played an active part in the events. Boy Scouts and Girl Guides ran with messages between groups of fighters. Children were involved in removing and supporting the injured and even were involved in basic nursing and medical interventions. But children and young people were also involved in frontline fighting. 15 year-old Andrew Borowiec was a member of the Polish Home Army and lobbed one of the first grenades at the Nazi forces on the first day of the uprising. And a 13 year-old boy, known as Antek the machine gunner, who was killed on 8 August is immortalised in a statue to all the child soldiers of the Uprising that stands in central Warsaw.

In 1963 in the US city of Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King was leading the fight against Jim Crow racism and segregation. But the fight wasn’t going smoothly and King was arrested. He wrote a letter from prison asking for young people to join the fight. His appeal divided opinion, with many of his supporters claiming children shouldn’t be involved. But the young people answered the call and came out in their hundreds. They marched out of the Baptist church on 13th Avenue and were confronted by the cops. Hundreds were arrested, but they kept coming. The cops turned water cannons and dogs on the children, but they kept on coming. As the pictures were beamed across the globe the pressure on the politicians mounted and eventually Birmingham was desegregated – and the children were central to the victory.

Finally in 1976, in Soweto South Africa, 20,000 school children took up the struggle against apartheid. They marched out of their schools in protest at being taught in Afrikaans- They confronted armed police who opened fire and an estimated 176 were killed. Yet the students didn’t back down and the Soweto Uprising became a key turning point in the regeneration of the anti-apartheid movement.

Young people taking up political issues and demands, and walking out of schools against injustice and oppression are not new. Those young people protesting against Israel’s murderous attacks on Gaza are the latest example of a heroic tradition of school student rebellion.

05 Dec 2023 by Michael Lavalette

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