1985 school strike exhibit shows how young people can organise to fight back

John Cosgrove, Liverpool Youth Fight for Jobs

The school student strikes of 1985 showed how young people are able to organise and fight back when their futures are under attack. Across the country hundreds of thousands of teenagers took to the streets in protest at the Tory government’s plan to make the hated Youth Training Scheme (YTS) compulsory for 16-17 year olds or they would have their unemployment benefits stopped.

The Bluecoat Arts Centre in Liverpool is displaying twenty photographs taken at the time by former Militant newspaper photographer Dave Sinclair as part of its ongoing Democratic Promenade exhibition.

At the exhibition, it was fantastic to get a clearer picture of the sheer number of students on strike. Some of these young people had clearly developed political ideas, judging by the placards and banners on display.

It was also clear to see that students as young as thirteen can and will become enthused and involved in political activity to protest and strike to fight for a better future for all young people.

YTS schemes were set up in 1983 and were initially optional, before conscription was threatened by Tory minister Norman Fowler in 1985. Supposedly offering workplace training for 16-17 year olds, employers took advantage of this to have full time workers for less than £30 per week without the commitment of a full time job at the end of the scheme.

Within my own city of Liverpool, the Labour Party Young Socialists had helped to organise the action. Not envisaging the scale of the response from students, organisers agreed that the event would be stewarded by the socialist-led Liverpool Labour councillors, parents of the students and only two policemen.

On the day it soon became clear that the numbers were far more than anyone had imagined, with an estimated 30,000 students on strike in the city. After meeting on the plateau outside St George’s Hall, a march made its way down to the Pier Head where local socialist MP Terry Fields addressed a rally.

Today conditions are certainly worsening for young people across the country. School students and teenagers face cuts to youth services and EMA, university tuition fees being trebled and the massive jobs losses up and down the UK.

These are certainly issues which have seen many forms of protest undertaken already, including student protests in November and December 2010. School students also walked out in 2003 against the war in Iraq. A student strike similar to the one in 1985 is an increasingly likely outcome.