30 years ago: 250,000 school students walked out.

30 year anniversary: When 250,000 school students walked out… and won!

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the 1985 school student strikes. Militant, the predecessor of the Socialist Party, played a leading role in organising them. Hannah Sell, deputy general secretary of the Socialist Party, a school student at the time, spoke to the Socialist.

What were the school student strikes about?

They were in opposition to the removal of unemployment benefits for 16 and 17 year olds. Effectively that meant if you couldn’t get work or you weren’t staying on at school (which in those days only a minority did) you were forced onto the Youth Training Scheme (YTS) – which was a ‘slave labour’ scheme, the equivalent of today’s ‘workfare’.

How were the strikes organised, and what happened?

Strikes had taken already place in Scotland that had been very successful. Two weeks before the national school students strike was the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) conference.

All 200 school students who were at that conference, including me, were called together to organise the Youth Trade Union Rights Campaign (YTURC), which was campaigning against the YTS, and to organise for the strike. It was members of LPYS, supporters of the Militant, who were key to organising it.

So we then went back and leafleted all the schools that we could, organised in our own schools, and got people out on strike – 250,000 across the country.

What was achieved?

We won! I still have a copy of the letter from Tory minister Norman Fowler saying that they were not going to withdraw benefits. They eventually were withdrawn in 1988 but for three years we stopped that taking place.

What are the similarities to what young people face today?

There are lots of similarities. One is the enormous anger that existed.

One thing that was different then was that it was just after the miners’ strike and the idea of going on strike, of that being the main weapon you had to fight back, was deeply ingrained. In my school everyone was on one side or the other in the miners’ strike – it was a dividing factor in society. Obviously that’s not exactly the same today, although when the big public sector strikes took place in 2011 you would have had more of that mood.

In terms of what young people face, there are huge similarities. There was mass youth unemployment, young people were leaving school with no prospects, no chance of decent work. They face the same today but in some ways it’s worse – the ‘home-owning democracy’ was still there as a dream when I left school, now no young person thinks they’ll be able to buy their own house!

I think the idea of school student strikes will catch on again. They have been a feature of many of the movements involving youth since – against the Iraq war in 2003 and during the student movement in 2010. And this year we’ve seen some in Lewisham over academies, so we can see the beginnings of it again.

The first strike in 1985 started a tradition among a whole generation of school students. There was big intimidation at my school – everyone said they were going to come out and then were threatened with suspension. In other schools, students were locked in the tennis courts so they couldn’t get out. In the end only 150 of us were out in Wolverhampton city centre.

But it created the idea of going on strike and later that year ten schools in Wolverhampton came out on strike for the right to a school students union, which we won. We then had the right to meet in the council chamber on Saturdays and organise a school students union that fought on lots of different issues.

The following are quotes from the Militant newspaper in 1985.

  • The Liverpool Labour Party women’s council canvassed support of parents for the schools student’s strike. Leaflets were distributed to explain what the strike was about and to counteract attempts by the press and others to claim that the strike was irresponsibly exploiting the fears of young people.
  • Not only was the school strike in Northern Ireland well supported, it also cut across the sectarian divide. Over 2,000 marched in Belfast behind the Labour and Trade Union Group banner, then proceeded to blaze through the city centre in what can only be described as the biggest and best ever demonstration of Catholic and Protestant youth in the North for decades.
  • Over 10,000 marched through Liverpool. The mood was electric. As Paula Jones 15, from Kirkby, put it: “We have got nothing to lose. We have got nothing in Kirkby. YTS is the last straw, and this rally is more of an education than we could ever learn in school.”
  • Perhaps the worst police harassment took place in Wales. The most ominous case was in Cardiff. On the Thursday three young Socialists were suspended from Glan Ely High School. The next day 100 students walked out in protest. One of them phoned local Militant supporters to come and support the impromptu demonstration.
    However, when they left the building and got into their car they were immediately met by a police van and booked for motoring offences. Another police car ‘coincidentally’ arrived at the same time. Were phones tapped or had the police been ‘staking out’ the building?
    Police harassment didn’t stop the success of Thursday’s demonstration which was joined by over 3,000. The next day 50 school students joined the LPYS at a branch meeting of the Cardiff West branch.
  • In Scotland a demonstration was held on Saturday. Music was provided by Billy Bragg who told the crowd of 2,000: “Get political and join the Young Socialists”
  • In Scotland a demonstration was held on Saturday. Music was provided by Billy Bragg who told the crowd of 2,000: “Get political and join the Young Socialists”
  • After Labour leader Neil Kinnock described those behind the strikes as a ‘bunch of dafties’…
    The strike was backed by Paul Weller and Mick Talbot of Style Council and Suggs of Madness. On Kinnock’s ‘dafties’ comment Paul Weller told NME that Kinnock “is only ill-advised” but added: “That’s only me trying to be optimistic about it.” NME added: “the ‘dafties’ were widely assumed to mean the LPYS and YTURC who together have done more to expose the nature of YTS and attract young voters to Labour than anyone else in the Labour party hierarchy.”