When school students fought the system

Submitted by cathy n on 6 October, 2006 - 12:36

By Colin Foster

From the Blairites, and from further to the right, we hear more and more about “restoring discipline” and “restoring old-fashioned standards” in schools.

The real chaos generated in some schools by social decay and by incessant “restructuring” from above is being used as a springboard for the re-imposition of more punitive, authoritarian regimes in schools.

Maybe we will have to fight again some battles fought in the 1960s and 1970s. And they were real battles.

Corporal punishment in schools was not finally abolished in England until 1989 (and in private schools not until 1999). That was a victory for a struggle over decades which had, eventually, made the once-commonplace beating of children in schools into something rare enough that it could, relatively quietly, be abolished by law.

In the USA, corporal punishment is still legal in 21 states, mostly in the South. In Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi, it is still relatively common, with over 5% of all students being beaten in the school year 2002-3. 38% of students beaten are black.

Britain lagged behind many other countries in Europe, which outlawed corporal punishment in schools long ago — in 1820 in the Netherlands, in 1860 in Italy, in 1881 in France.

In 1965, Risinghill comprehensive school, in Islington, north London, was shut down by the local authority, basically because the head teacher and the staff refused to use corporal punishment.

No-one was able to stop it being shut down, and the head teacher, Michael Duane, never got another similar job. But Leila Berg wrote, and eventually got published (in 1968), a book about Risinghill which became a best-seller. A new book on the school is currently being put together by ex-students from 1965.

School students themselves then started organising, According to an account by Graham Stevenson, in 1969 in Manchester, some two hundred school students went on strike against conditions at Miles Platting School. Of particular concern was the use of the ‘tawse’, a fringed leather strap used to beat students.

In London, the Schools Action Union (SAU) was formed in January 1969. As part of a campaign for genuinely comprehensive education, the SAU organised a demonstration in June 1969 to Dulwich College, a selective school in South London, to test the openness of its ‘Open Day’. It also called a strike for the last day of the Christmas term in 1969. The SAU claimed 500 members in late 1970, mostly in London.

The activists came under pressure. One member of the Young Communist League at a prestigious Midlands school found his father under irresistible pressure to remove him from the school, after the boy had refused to name the dozen fellow pupils he had recruited to the League.
Five school students at Kingsdale School in London were expelled after the 1969 SAU Christmas strike.

In 1968 the National Union of Students had set up a scheme allowing all full-time students over 15 years of age to join the union as “associates”. In 1971 it followed up by convening Area Conferences to discuss setting up a national union of school students would be debated. The founding conference of the National Union of School Students was held on 20 May 1972, with one hundred delegates from thirty Area Conferences. NUSS grew to 12,000 members in August 1973.

In schools in Westminster and Forest Hill, mass petitions were able to forestall victimisations of activists. In May 1972 there was a strike of some eight thousand school students against the use of the cane.

On March 1973, sixth formers at King Edward’s High School for Girls in Birmingham, boycotted lessons and picketed outside their school in support of a campaign for higher student grants.
In one Manchester school in 1972, four hundred school students a massed in the playground to protest against the head teacher’s action in suspending a pupil for NUSS activities. A delegation was sent to the head teacher and threatened with expulsion. After a meeting was held with the Local Education Authority, the victimised NUSS member was re-instated.

The Educational Institute of Scotland, the largest teachers’ union in Scotland, supported NUSS, but both the NUT and the NASUWT opposed it. Although the Young Communist League played a big role in NUSS, and the Communist Party officially supported it, the CP’s best-known teacher activist, Max Morris, was extremely and publicly hostile to it. He vigorously suppressed the NUSS in the school where he was head teacher.

In autumn 1973, NUSS launched a high profile campaign against corporal punishment, with the support of some thirty MPs, and forced a vote in Parliament (which went against reform).
Another big campaign eventually won the re-instatement of a NUSS activist in Edgware after he had been suspended for 15 weeks. In a bizarre last minute twist, the suspended student received a copy of a letter from the local education authority intended for a school governor from the LEA. The letter recommended re-instatement, but urged it be done in such a way as not to give the NUSS any credence.

By 1976, NUSS was waning, but still strong enough to organise a lobby of Parliament on caning. In 1977, pupils at East London’s Wanstead High, encouraged by a students occupation at Loughton College, voted in a mass meeting by 190 to 70 votes to occupy part of the school in protest at education cuts.

By then it appeared that the whole school students’ movement had petered out with little to show for it. In 1977, Croydon Education Authority became the first in England to publish figures for beatings of children in its schools, and it reported 1324 canings in the school year 1976-7.

The figures went up the next year, before eventually declining: 1581 in 1977-8, 1318 in 1978-9, 1049 in 1979/80, and then down to 755 in 1981-2 and 250 in 1984-5. Purley High School alone had seen 394 canings in 1977-8, or an average of two per school day. As late as 1980 a study by Edinburgh University’s Centre for Educational Sociology, conducted among 40,000 school leavers, showed that only one in 20 boys went through secondary school without getting the tawse.

The campaign against beating was carried in those years by the Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment. STOPP had been founded in 1968, around the same time as the school students’ movement, but had the greater durability of an adult-based organisation. It eventually won. It probably would not have had the impetus to do that without the student activism of the 1970s.

• Most of the information in this article on SAU and NUSS from:

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