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Tuesday, 08/04/2003, 09:00-09:30 and repeated 21:30 - 22:00
Jonathan Freedland looks for the past behind the present. Each week, The Long View, recorded on location throughout the British Isles, takes an issue from the current affairs agenda and finds a parallel in our past.
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Pupils striking for peace in 2003 and the school stikre in 1911 in London.

On 5 September 1911, a group of thirty or so boys marched out of Bigyn council school in Llanelli (south west Wales) to protest over the caning of one of their peers. Within days, pupils in more than sixty towns throughout Britain had taken to the streets to express their grievances. What accounted for their actions? Are the recent pupil protests against the war in Iraq another manifestation of a long-running tradition of discontent among pupils, fed up with authorities not listening to their concerns? The school strikes of 1911 were not unique. The first nation-wide strikes occurred in 1889 and, like 1911, took place during a time of widespread industrial unrest. Llanelli and other towns experienced mounting tensions in railway, dock and other industries- in August, 600 soldiers were sent into Llanelli to keep the peace, but in the ensuing riot there were several fatalities. Children were not immune from all of this - some of their parents were directly involved as employees within the respective industries. They were also aware of the emerging adult labour movement - as one boy told a Daily Mirror reporter, 'our fathers strike - why shouldn't we?' But should the strikes of 1911 be seen merely as copy-cat protests?

The Strike of 1911
Image of children's strike at Bigyn school, 1911.

The particular incident which triggered the first strike in 1911 was the hitting of a child by an assistant teacher in the absence of the Headmaster, who was away from school on sick leave. Gwilym Harries, the headmaster, was keen to play down the whole matter, pointing out that all but two pupils were back in school after only a few hours absence. But during this time the strikers proved active in seeking support from pupils in neighbouring schools as they marched and sang their way through the streets of Llanelli. En route, they stopped at Park Street Chapel and held animated discussions on what to do next. While some of the children were out for a laugh, a politically- aware hard core were more determined to pursue their cause. A flavour of the mood survives in the melodramatic words of one pupil who went on to lead the strike in Newport: 'Comrades, My bleeding country calls me. The time has come. Someone must die for the cause.' Having made their point, the Bigyn boys returned to school up the hill.

The Strike of 1911
Left hand image: Park Street Chapel where pupils stopped in 1911 to discuss the strikes.
Right hand image:Old Bigyn school, that has since been knocked down,c.1980

By the end of the week the strike had spread to schools in Liverpool, Sheffield, Birmingham, London, Glasgow and other cities. The remarkable speed in which the strikes developed was blamed by local councillors on the newspapers. While some of the protests were violent - for instance, boys in the East End of London were armed with sticks, iron bars and belts - the vast majority were peaceful affairs. The 1911 strikes shouldn't be overplayed. Numerically, while thousands were involved nationally they represented less than one per cent of the total school-age population. Their significance doesn't relate to numbers - but the fact that young people, albeit a minority, felt empowered enough to speak out on issues that concerned them.
On Location
Jess Dando, Michael Lavalette, Jonathan Freedland / Jon Calver, Chris Woodhead, Russell Grigg, Simon Nehan

While in 1911 these were all school-related - discipline, hours, leaving age, holidays - there's no doubt that these were genuine grievances and wider educational concerns were brought to the fore. A few members of school authorities recognised the serious nature of the strikes and looked for ways to improve home-school relationships, while others called for a firmer hand. In wider society, reforms to improve welfare provisions for children were well underway but corporal discipline remained the mainstay of controlling pupils for many teachers until the 1980s. While schools today are required under the National Curriculum to provide opportunities for pupils to discuss a range of social issues, for instance in citizenship lessons, evidently from recent anti-war protests this isn't seen by a minority of pupils as sufficient provision. Their decision to march through the streets remains the most dramatic form of pupil protest.

Simon Nehan - actor
Dr Russell Grigg - historian
Michael Lavalette - sociologist
Prof. Chris Woodhead - Research Professor of Education, University of Buckinghamshire, former Chief Inspector of Schools.
Jess Dando - school student

Further Reading
The origins and significance of the school strikes in south Wales, 1911, R. Grigg, The Local Historian, vol.33 no.3 (August 2003).
When the Kids were united, D. Partridge, BBC History Magazine, September 2003, pp.24-26.
Protest by Pupils, R. Adams, (Falmer Press, 1991)
Hooligans or Rebels?, S. Humphries (Oxford, 1981)

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Jonathan Freedland
Jonathan Freedland is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster. A twice-weekly columnist on the Guardian, he also presents BBC 4's The Talk Show on Monday nights at 8.30pm. He is author of the book Bring Home the Revolution, an acclaimed analysis of modern America.
Read a full profile of Jonathan Freedland on BBC 4 ..>>

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