The Stepney schoolchildren’s strike, 1971- Radical Social Action

I hope you’ll forgive me if you know this story, but it’s well worth retelling, especially when the notion of social action by young people is increasingly incorporated into the status quo. 

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A short account of a strike of 800 pupils in Stepney, east London on May 27, 1971, which successfully won reinstatement of a teacher who was sacked for publishing a book of pupils’ poetry.

“It was one of the proudest days of my life, it taught me that you can make a stand. It was about dignified mutual respect. He didn’t expect the worst of us, he believed everyone could produce work of value. He opened your eyes to the world.”

[In 1971] eight hundred pupils went on strike in Stepney, demanding that their teacher, Chris Searle, be reinstated after the [Sir John Cass Foundation & Redcoat] school fired him for publishing a book of their poetry. At a time of unrest, following strikes by postmen and dustmen, the children’s strike became national headline news and they received universal support in the press for their protest.

More than two years later, after the parents, the Inner London Education Authority, the National Union of Teachers, and even Margaret Thatcher, then Education Secretary, came out in favour of Chris Searle, he got his job back and the children were vindicated. And the book of verse, entitled “Stepney Words” sold more than fifteen thousand copies, with the poems published in newspapers, and broadcast on television and read at the Albert Hall. It was an inspirational moment that revealed the liberating power of poetry as a profound expression of the truth of human experience.

Many of those school children – in their fifties now – still recall the event with great affection as a formative moment that changed their lives forever, and so when Chris Searle, the twenty-four-year-old student teacher of 1971 returned to the East End to recall that cathartic Summer and meet some of his former pupils, it was an understandably emotional occasion. And I was lucky enough to be there to hear what he had to say.

I grew up in the fifties and sixties, failed the eleven plus and I hated any kind of divisiveness in education, I saw hundreds of my mates just pushed out into menial jobs. So I got into a Libertarian frame of mind and became involved in Socialist politics. I was in the Caribbean at the time of the Black Power uprisings, so I had some fairly strong ideas about power and education. Sir John Cass Foundation & Redcoat School in Stepney was grim. It was a so-called Christian School and many of the teachers were priests, yet I remember one used to walk around with a cape and cane like something out of Dickens.

The ways of the school contrasted harshly with the vitality and verve of the students. As the drama teacher, I used to do play readings but I found they responded better to poetry, and I was reading William Blake and Isaac Rosenberg to them, both London poets who took inspiration from the streets. So I took the pupils out onto the street and asked them to write about what they saw, and the poems these eleven-year-olds wrote were so beautiful, I was stunned and I thought they should be published. Blake and Rosenberg were published, why not these young writers? We asked the school governors but they said the poems were too gloomy, so they forbade us to publish them.

I showed the poems to Trevor Huddleston, the Bishop of Stepney, and he loved them. And it became evident that there was a duality in the church, because the chairman of the school governors who was a priest said to me, ‘“Don’t you realise these are fallen children?” in other words, they were of the devil. But Trevor Huddleston read the poems and then, with a profound look, said, “These children are the children of God.” So I should have realised there was going to be a bit of a battle.

There was even a suggestion that I had written the poems myself, but though I am a poet, I could not have written anything as powerful as these children had done. Once it was published, the sequence of events was swift, I was suspended and eight hundred children went on strike the next day, standing outside in the rain and refusing to go inside the school. I didn’t know they were going to go on strike, but the day before they were very secretive and I realised something was up, though I didn’t know what it was.

I didn’t have an easy time as a teacher, it was sometimes difficult to get their interest, and I had bad days and I had good days, and sometimes I had wonderful days. Looking back, it was the energy, and vitality, and extraordinary sense of humour of the children that got you through the day. And if, as a teacher, you could set these kids free, then you really did begin to enjoy the days. It gave me the impetus to remain a teacher for the rest of my life.

I tried to get the kids to go back into the school.

Tony Harcup, a former pupil of Chris Searle’s and now senior lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield University, spoke for many when he admitted, “It was one of the proudest days of my life, it taught me that you can make a stand. It was about dignified mutual respect. He didn’t expect the worst of us, he believed everyone could produce work of value. He opened your eyes to the world.”

During the two years Chris was waiting to be reinstated at the school, he founded a group of writers in the basement of St George’s Town Hall in Cable St. Students who had their work published in “Stepney Words” were able to continue their writing there, thinking of themselves as writers now rather than pupils. People of different ages came to join them, especially pensioners, and they used the money from “Stepney Words” to publish other works, beginning with the poetry of Stephen Hicks, the boxer poet, who lived near the school and had been befriended by many of children.

“Stepney Words” became the catalyst for an entire movement of community publishing in this country, and many involved went on to become writers or work in related professions.“The power to write, the power to create, and the power of the imagination, these are the fundamentals to achieve a satisfied life,” said Chris, speaking from the heart, “and when you look back today at the lives of those in the Basement Writers, you can see the proof of that.”

The story of the Stepney school strike reveals what happens when a single individual is able to unlock the creative potential of a group of people, who might otherwise be considered to be without prospects, and it also reminds us of all the human possibility that for the most part, remains untapped. ” I just want to thank the young people that stood up for me” declared Chris Searle with humility, thinking back over his life and recalling his experiences in Stepney, “How could you not be optimistic about youth when you were faced with that?”

By the gentle author
Taken from http://spitalfieldslife.com/2011/08/16/the-stepney-school-strike-of-1971/

Thanks also to https://libcom.org/history/stepney-schoolchildrens-strike-1971

 

Tackling the causes of mental illness is the only way we’re really going to help people get better

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Further to our last post, What future in mind? Critical Perspectives on Youth Wellbeing and Mental Health Psychologists for Social Change argue powerfully that Tackling the causes of mental illness is the only way we’re really going to help people get better.

If we don’t examine the wider context of why and how someone develops their distress, the problem can end up being situated inside the person. It is a person’s brain that is the problem and not these wider factors. This individualisation of psychological distress not only puts the onus for recovery squarely on the individual’s shoulders, but it shifts the focus away from the societal, cultural and political factors which contribute to people being in these positions in the first place.

Thinking about mental health as something that starts and stops with the individual is never going to lead to a healthier and more connected society. We need to see the bigger picture, to consider how things like social disadvantage and inequality tug at the very fabric of what makes society functional. We need to draw on other approaches, like community psychology, public health and mental health impact assessments of policies. Policymakers are not blind to this. NHS England, for example, uses a formula that takes into account health inequalities when it assigns resources to local health authorities. But it needs to go much further than this. Tackling the social root causes needs to be at the core of all policy.

 
One current example that may turn out to be a missed opportunity is the government’s recent proposals for child and adolescent mental health. This is vital to get right as the association between social disadvantage and mental health starts young – in the UK, family income has been found to be inversely related to socioemotional difficulties in children as young as three.

With its narrow focus on the role that schools and colleges can play, the government’s proposal is actually a huge diversion away from the real issues, which we would argue is rising poverty and poor educational policies. And we are not the only ones to think so – last week a joint report from the Education and Health and Social Care Select Committees found that “it lacks any ambition and fails to consider how to prevent child and adolescent mental ill health in the first place”. Their report also revealed that the connection between social disadvantage and youth mental health was not part of the brief that the researchers, providing the evidence to underpin the proposals, were given. In short, it wasn’t part of the conversation from the get-go.

This needs to change. It is time to start a more sophisticated conversation around mental health that leads to more sophisticated action.

Note on the authors:

Annabel Head is a clinical psychologist and Jessica Bond is a writer. Both are members of Psychologists for Social Change, a group established to highlight the social determinants of psychological distress

What future in mind? Critical Perspectives on Youth Wellbeing and Mental Health

I’m not sure if any of our London folk are going to this conference, which is being held today, but it would be excellent to get feedback. The questions being raised need answering by all those wedded seemingly uncritically to notions of wellbeing and the rise of a mentally unhealthy younger generation. Somewhere, gathering dust, I’ve got the notes of contribution I made to a conference on wellbeing. I should blow off the cobwebs and post it sometime.

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What future in mind? Critical Perspectives on Youth Wellbeing and Mental Health.

DATE AND TIME: Fri 18 May 2018 from 10:00 to 16:00 

LOCATION: 152-153 – Cayley Room, University of Westminster, 309 Regent Street, London, W1B 2HW
Amidst mounting concern over wellbeing and mental health, improving the state of mind of the young has become a preoccupation of Western economies. In the UK politicians, celebrities and even key members of the British monarchy have campaigned on the issue, demanding earlier intervention to support wellbeing, resilience and positive mental health in schools. More critical voices have drawn attention to the social and structural conditions shaping wellbeing, arguing that the problematization of personal development deflects from the politics of distress in a context of brutal austerity and rising levels of poverty and inequality.

Yet enthusiasm for classroom-based social and emotional training and mental health education is evident in many other national contexts, spanning a range of political and economic frameworks.

This day seminar will examine how concepts of wellbeing and mental health are being applied to children and young people, and will critically explore how positive minds and futures are being envisaged by policymakers. Questions to be discussed include:

Why is state intervention in the social and emotional lives of children and young people increasing in these regions? Can it improve lives and increase happiness or does it instead seek to foreclose the future for the next generation, securing a problematic (unhappy) status quo?

 
As late capitalism is buffeted by global economic crises are the minds of the young increasingly coveted as key sites to anchor and stabilize market based rationality?

 
Can the concept of wellbeing be reclaimed as a socially located experience or is it necessarily a personalised, psychological variable?

 
What alternative ways are there to understand and support the best interests and wellbeing of young people?

 

 

 

Youth Violence and Brexit – A Detached Youth Work Response – June 8

fdyw brexit

Youth Violence and Brexit – A Detached Youth Work Response will provide an opportunity for practitioners and policymakers to consider the normalisation of youth violence and the impact of Brexit on young people? We will also consider how to maintain relationships with young people in London and the south-east in this climate? Detached and outreach workers will have opportunities to reflect, to get support and to voice their views on these issues.

Friday 8 June 2018 from 09:30 to 16:00 BST
Samuel Coleridge Taylor Centre, 194 Selhurst Rd, South Norwood, London, SE25 6XX

The cost of £20 includes lunch and refreshments throughout the day.

50 places available. Please contact us through Eventbrite if you need to discuss payment or you have any questions.

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For further information about the Federation, please visit www.fdyw.org.uk

Arguing and organising for a Statutory Youth Service continued

Article: Winning a Statutory Youth Service

Doug-Nicholls

Doug Nicholls reflects on the momentous Roundtable event which took place at the Palace of Westminster on 23rd April 2018. He posits that there are shifts towards a new Youth Service with support from key politicians, youth organisations and young people. Setting the political and economic context, Nicholls suggests how a new youth service if both needed and affordable.

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CHOOSEYOUTH EVENT:

CREATING A STATUTORY YOUTH SERVICE – TEN MINUTE BILL

6 June at 10:00–14:00 at Portcullis House (The MacMillan Room), SW1A 2JR London

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June 6th is an important day for the future of youth work and youth services.

On that day Lloyd Russell Moyle will speak to a Bill in Parliament seeking to introduce a statutory youth service to enhance open access provision and secure resourcing for our essential work.

It is vital that young people and youth workers are in Parliament on that day to meet their MPs.

We, therefore, ask you to consider coming to Parliament where we have booked a large room in Portcullis House (The MacMillan Room).

The idea is to invite your MP to meet you there at a specific time between 10.00-14.00pm.

If you are not able to meet your MP for any reason please consider coming along yourself and supporting the day and keep the great momentum going and meet people from all over the country.

Because of Parliamentary security and access arrangements, you will need to sign up for this event. Once you have done this then we will be in touch to find out the times of your arrival and departure on the day.

This could be a day that really changes things just before the All Party Parliamentary Group enquiry into the youth service over the summer so please get in touch with your MPs as soon as possible.

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200 years on has Karl Marx anything to say about Youth Work?

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This week it’s the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, a much honoured, much-reviled giant of history. As someone deeply influenced by his legacy I’ve been messing about with writing something about the extent to which Marx has influenced youth work thinking and practice over the last 50 years.  I hope to post something of interest on my blog in the next few weeks. In the interim, I think it’s appropriate to draw your attention to a number of contemporary interventions, which seek to weigh up more generally whether Marx has anything fruitful to say about the present crisis of meaning in society, the present uncertainty about the future, at the centre of which are young people.

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K is for Karl – Series of 5 Films by Paul Mason about the meaning of Marx today

“Why does Marx matter today?” is the question posed by British journalist and filmmaker Paul Mason in five short films produced by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung to commemorate Karl Marx’s 200th birthday. Through Marx, Mason explores the topics of “Alienation”, “Communism”, “Revolution”, “Exploitation” and “The Future of Machines” in order to demonstrate how Marx, who Mason describes as the most influential thinker of the modern world, remains deeply relevant to understanding our contemporary world.

In the first of a series of five short films, British journalist and filmmaker Paul Mason searches for the roots of Marx’s thinking in Berlin, where he began his university studies in 1836. “For Marx, alienation doesn’t just mean we get depressed, we hate our jobs, or that we feel bad about the world. It means we’re constantly using our creative powers in the wrong way. We make things, but the things we make – machines, states, religions, rules – end up controlling us.”


 

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Paul Mason again, after all, he hails from the same Lancashire town, Leigh, as me and we stood together on picket lines during the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike.  Friendship aside, disagreements aside, he’s always challenging.

On the bicentenary of his birth, Marx continues to be a key thinker thanks to his surprising faith in the individual.

Why Marx is more relevant than ever in the age of automation

If I could speak across time to the people frozen in the above photograph [the blurry snapshot catches Leon Trotsky in mid-sentence, in Frida Kahlo’s house sometime in 1937. To the left of the frame is Natalia Sedova, Trotsky’s wife. To the right is Kahlo and, half hidden behind her, a young woman listening intently: Trotsky’s secretary Raya Dunayevskaya],  I would say, after congratulating them for their magnificent lives of resistance and suffering: “That inner desire you are suppressing, for Marxism to be humanistic? That impulse towards individual liberation? It’s already there in Marx, just waiting to be discovered. So paint what you want, love whom you want. Fuck the vanguard party. The revolutionary subject is the self.”

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Yanis Varoufakis has composed a new introduction to the Communist Manifesto of 1848.

Marx predicted our present crisis – and points the way out

For a manifesto to succeed, it must speak to our hearts like a poem while infecting the mind with images and ideas that are dazzlingly new. It needs to open our eyes to the true causes of the bewildering, disturbing, exciting changes occurring around us, exposing the possibilities with which our current reality is pregnant. It should make us feel hopelessly inadequate for not having recognised these truths ourselves, and it must lift the curtain on the unsettling realisation that we have been acting as petty accomplices, reproducing a dead-end past. Lastly, it needs to have the power of a Beethoven symphony, urging us to become agents of a future that ends unnecessary mass suffering and to inspire humanity to realise its potential for authentic freedom.

 
No manifesto has better succeeded in doing all this than the one published in February 1848 at 46 Liverpool Street, London. Commissioned by English revolutionaries, The Communist Manifesto (or the Manifesto of the Communist Party, as it was first published) was authored by two young Germans – Karl Marx, a 29-year-old philosopher with a taste for epicurean hedonism and Hegelian rationality, and Friedrich Engels, a 28-year-old heir to a Manchester mill.

 

As a work of political literature, the manifesto remains unsurpassed. Its most infamous lines, including the opening one (“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism”), have a Shakespearean quality. Like Hamlet confronted by the ghost of his slain father, the reader is compelled to wonder: “Should I conform to the prevailing order, suffering the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune bestowed upon me by history’s irresistible forces? Or should I join these forces, taking up arms against the status quo and, by opposing it, usher in a brave new world?”

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