In the last week of the spring term, hundreds of school students walked out of classes to stage protests against the sexist, racist and transphobic culture dominant in their institutions. Students in Highgate School walked out on 25 March to take a stand against “rape culture” that had gone unchallenged for years.
Students across at least four schools in South London, centred around Dulwich College and James Alleyn Girls School, Jags, planned a strike for the following day. Their complaints were more specific, concerning the sexual harassment and rape of Jags girls by Dulwich boys.
While senior management at Highgate said they “fully support and commend the actions of our pupils today”, Dulwich’s headteacher Dr Joe Spence took the opposite approach, threatening students that, “the police have told us they will ticket and fine protesters”. Unfortunately this was enough to force the organisers to back down… for now.
Everyone’s Invited, Everywhere’s Affected
These protests did not come out of nowhere. Resentment and anger have been building for years. At the beginning of 2019 the National Education Union (NEU), published a detailed report, It’s Just Everywhere, on sexual harassment in schools going under the radar.
In June 2020, former Wycombe Abbey pupil Soma Sara set up Everyone’s Invited, a website that would publish, anonymously, all school students’ testimonies of sexual harassment and assault. By early March this year, it hosted over 5,000 young people’s harrowing experiences; by the beginning of April it hosted over 13,000.
Race and Colonialism
Student and parent unrest has also spilled over into issues of racism and Islamophopia. At Batley Grammar School in West Yorkshire a “teacher” distributed a Charlie Hebdo cartoon depicting Mohammed in a turban drawn to resemble a bomb. Students were shocked and when their parents found out, they protested outside the school. The school has since removed the module from their curriculum and apologised.
That cannot be said about Pimlico Academy in Westminster, which is still in denial about its racist culture. The state-funded school was recently taken over by Future Academies, and a new head teacher, Daniel Smith, was appointed. Since Smith’s appointment, Black Lives Matter has not been recognised and Black History Month passed uncelebrated. A Union flag was erected prominently in front of the school.
A new dress code stipulated that hairstyles must not “hide the face or… block the views of others, [be] no longer than collar length and kept short on top”. Hijabs “must look conventional and understated… black or navy blue”. These were rightly viewed as attacks directed against Afro hairstyles popular among black students, and against young Muslim women.
With admirable alacrity the students tore down and burnt the Union flag almost as soon as it went up. When the NEU passed a motion of no confidence in Smith and started balloting for strike action students followed suit, daubing the school gates with graffiti calling for the head’s sacking and striking on the last day of term. Unrepentant, the school issued a statement of “regret” that the issues had been raised “in such a public way” and assuring parents that it was “an isolated event”. We can be sure staff and students will make even more “public” noise next term!
These events, following the Climate Strike walkouts in 2019 and last year’s protests over BLM and the exam algorithm that discriminated against state school students, prove that a new generation is ready to fight. With their education interrupted by covid, cuts to school, college and university budgets and few jobs on offer, young people have a world to win and very little to lose.
School students must now form permanent organisations to continue their struggles and unite them. This will require a revolutionary socialist youth movement that can contribute to the worldwide fight against the capitalist system and its culture of racism, sexism and homo and transphobia.