I rather like the idea of kids calling a school strike and spending the day hanging around outside Strangeways. Why did we never do that when I was at school?! Seriously, school strikes were called for very good reasons – in that particular case, calling for the abolition of the cane and for schools to pay monitors who were used as lackeys – and this book, whilst it’s not very reader-friendly, makes some interesting points about how young people between 1889 and 1939 were nothing like as obedient to authority as the powers that be would have us believe. There were school strikes across the country in some years, notably 1889 and 1911. No-one tells you about that, do they? And it certainly never happens in school stories! And yet protests by schoolchildren can be incredibly important – look at what happened in America after the tragic shootings in Florida in March.
This book is hard going. It’s full of theories about behaviour. Theories are fine in science or maths or economics, but not so great when talking about history or social science. Whig history, Marxist history … if any of these theories actually worked, we’d be able to extrapolate what’s gone on in the past to predict exactly what’s gone on in the future. Anyone confident that they can predict with reasonable accuracy how world events, or even just national events, are going to pan out over the next few years? Also, the author is obsessed with trying to show that the middle-classes were trying to control the working-classes via the media of schools and youth organisations. OK, he has a very good point, but he doesn’t seem to want to let the reader come to their own conclusions, so really he’s being just as controlling as the educational establishment he’s criticising was! And it’s not very polite to keep referring to the people he interviewed for his work as “old people”!!
Still, the book makes some good points. It covers various aspects of the life and culture of working-class children in the UK between 1889 and 1939 – school, borstals/reformatories, youth organisations, legal and illegal work, and street gangs. The chapter on street gangs was particularly interesting. Or maybe that was just me finding it interesting because so much of it was about North Manchester 🙂 . But it was the rewriting of history over school strikes that really struck me.
Every generation seems to take the view that When I Were A Lad/Lass we all behaved ourselves in school and we were scared of the teachers and scared of the police and didn’t dare defy our parents and all the rest of it, and The Youth Of Today are all totally undisciplined and so on and so forth. But there is very much an idea that, however large class sizes may have been, and however bad conditions may have been, there was absolute discipline in schools. Even though there can’t have been, because we’re always hearing about corporal punishment, and corporal punishment wouldn’t have been used if the kids had all been so well-behaved in the first place!
There is some mention of general skiving, but the strikes weren’t about trying to get out of work – they were about genuine grievances. Excessive use of corporal punishment was one. Homework was another – not because of laziness, but because it was genuinely difficult for many children to work at home in the evenings, because of poor lighting and lack of space. Schools were supposed to provide meals for children in cases of need, but that wasn’t always done, which was another source of grievance. Sometimes a popular teacher had been sacked in order to save money, or there were plans to relocate the school to an inconvenient location. In other cases, there was anger that the authorities were interfering with longstanding local traditions by trying to make children go to school during wakes weeks or on the days of local fairs And some children genuinely found it a problem to attend school for such long hours, especially with the raising of the school leaving age from 12 to 14 in 1918, because they had to take part-time jobs as their families needed the money.
There were school strikes in 62 areas of the UK in 1911. I’m just going through the list, and we’ve got five areas of Manchester, plus six other parts of the North West … and many of the other areas are in either other parts of Northern England and Scotland. And it all started in Llanelli, which was at the centre of a strike by coal miners and railway workers that year. Other areas were involved, though, and the longest-running school strike was in Burston in Norfolk, where a separate Strike School was eventually set up, with support from trade unions, the Co-op and left-wing political groups.
And there certainly wasn’t just a “Wa-hay, no school today,” attitude. The strikes were properly organised, just as strikes by adults were. Banners, committees, protests. Boys and girls were all involved, and children from all different religious backgrounds were involved.
But no-one teaches you about this. Our school history curriculum certainly wasn’t about trying to impose any sort of Establishment view on children. We learnt about the Peterloo Massacre, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the development of trade unionism, the Chartists, the suffragettes, the General Strike … it was quite radical, really. But no-one mentioned school strikes. We’re all supposed to think that children in the past respected, and were even afraid of, anyone in any sort of authority. I’m not for a moment saying that they shouldn’t. I feel incredibly sorry for teachers, when you hear about some of the abuse that goes on in schools. But this wasn’t about a lack of respect for teachers – in some cases, it was in support of teachers. It was about protesting against what was seen as unfair treatment. And it was about children not being over-awed by The Authorities – not being seen and not heard, when they needed to be heard.
I wouldn’t particularly recommend this book, but Googling something like “1911 school strikes” or “1889 school strikes” does bring up some very interesting articles. Oh, and I do wish someone had put it in a school story. We get plenty of midnight feasts and running away. And then, today as in the period covered by the book, we get people whingeing that children, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, are ignorant and delinquent and even dangerous. But no-one wants to tell us about schoolchildren organising themselves, for legitimate reasons, and protesting against the authorities. Now why could that be?!