Radical education in Liverpool

Radical education in Liverpool

A very brief look at some examples of radical schooling in Liverpool during the 20th century. A version of this article appeared in The Blast, a non-regular publication of Liverpool Class Action.

The Liverpool Anarchist-Communist Free School

Liverpool is a city with a long history of radicalism. In the years before World War One, a number of anarchists were active in the city, with a group regularly speaking and distributing popular literature in town.

It was against this background that Jimmy Dick and Lorenzo Portet set up the Anarchist-Communist Sunday School in 1908 at the Toxteth Co-operative Hall on Smithdown Road. Dick and Portet had been influenced by Portet’s fellow Spanish revolutionary Francesc Ferrer. Ferrer had ideas about education that were radical for their time. In 1901 he set up the Escuela Moderna (The Modern School) in Barcelona. The idea behind the school was to educate the city’s working class population on radical ideas, without influence from the church or the state, in a “non-coercive setting”.

Portet taught at Liverpool University and during these days acted as a link between Spain’s revolutionary movement and the syndicalist movement in Liverpool and it seems that Portet’s political influence on Ferrer had driven the latter closer to anarchism. In early 1908 the pair were instrumental in setting up the International League for the Rational Education of Children with other radicals from across Europe, including Sebastian Faure and Charles Malato.

Formed in late 1908, The Liverpool Anarchist-Communist Sunday School was run along similar lines and proved to be very popular. It moved soon after this to rooms belonging to the Independent Labour Party on Tagus Street off Lodge Lane. In 1909, Francesc Ferrer was arrested in Spain for sedition. Students from the Liverpool school campaigned on his behalf. Ferrer was executed later the same year. The Liverpool school was then renamed The International Modern School in Ferrer’s honour.

The school educated primarily through lectures and discussions rather than a structured curriculum and structured lessons with the aim of opening the minds of the students to radical political ideas which would help them to begin to take control of their lives and to help improve the condition of the working class in the city.

The leading anarchist in Liverpool at the time was Irish-born Mat Kavanagh, who gave regular lectures at the school, including talks about the Paris Commune. Kavanagh was renowned for his public speaking ability and he had worked with leading figures in the anarchist movement, including Peter Kropotkin, Errico Malatesta and Rudolf Rocker. Rocker had visited Liverpool in the late 19th century and was enthusiastic about the vibrant anarchist movement he encountered there, particularly among the city’s Jewish community. Kavanagh would return to Ireland in 1916, moving to Dublin to help the workers’ movement there.

Alongside the International Free School, there was also the provision of lectures for adults. Known as the International Club, lectures were given in English, French and Spanish to local workers and visiting seamen from all over the world. Portet and Frank Pearce were intimately involved in the International Club. Pearce would be the secretary of the strike committee during the 1911 transport strike in the city, which enjoyed widespread support from workers all over the country and suffered a vicious crackdown at the hands of the Liverpool City Police Force and the army under the auspices of then Home Secretary Winston Churchill.

The school moved up Lodge Lane to the ILP rooms on Beaumont Street in the summer of 1909 and remained there until 1911 when the anarchist scare following the Battle of Stepney led to the Labour party kicking it out. The school moved on to Islington Square and other premises but closed for good in 1916.

The Scotland Road Free School

The Scotland Road Free School was set up in 1970 by two local teachers, John Ord and Bill Murphy. It was based on Major Street near Scotland Road and the idea behind it was to create an environment for education with no centralised authority. The school issued a prospectus which stated it would be "a school run by children, parents and teachers together, without a headmaster, centralised authority or the usual hierarchies. It would be open when it was needed and lessons would be optional". There would be no set rules, no uniform, no homework and no compulsory attendance.

The school became a source of interest and debate for professionals and academics. Teachers from the school would give guest lectures at educational institutions around the country. But the school also suffered from a lack of resources and funding. The city council was dissatisfied with the school’s lack of a structured curriculum and refused to help it continue its existence even though attendance at the school remained more-or-less consistent throughout its short lifetime. Bill Murphy also helped to start Liverpool Community Transport which helped to bus the students at the Free School to trips outside the city, as well as helping poor local families and pensioners to take regular breaks and trips. The school eventually closed in 1972.

The founders of the school had hoped to inspire similar projects across the country. A similar free school did exist inside Liverpool University at the same time as the Scotland Road Free School and there were a number of free schools already in existence around the country. But there seems to be no thread of continuity running through them, no contact, collaboration or sharing of ideas and experiences and many of the schools went by the wayside.

Croxteth Comp and Harrington School

Another experiment took place in Croxteth in the early 1980s. Following the issue of a closure notice for Croxteth Comprehensive, the Liberal party attempted to push through the closure plans with the help of the Tories, and the local community began a campaign of pressure and direct action to get the closure notice reversed. Roads were blocked. The city’s education offices and the offices of the Liverpool Echo were occupied. When this failed to reverse the closure notice, the school was occupied by the community.

Fundraising events took place and appeals were made for teachers to come from across the country to teach at the school. Money was pledged by the unions and other sympathetic groups and individuals and when the new term started, around 200 students were in attendance.

Corporal punishment was abolished, as were uniforms. A school council was set up by the students. Parents carried out cleaning, cooking and some teaching duties at the school. Money was always tight and the press and local politicians pulled out their usual bag of dirty tricks. Councillor Richard Kemp, who is now the leader of the Lib Dem group on Liverpool City Council, suggested that “what is needed is more parental responsibility and a few clips round the ear”. The Daily Mail also waded in with the bizarre claim that an Indian cult was active in the school. But the occupation remained strong and lasted for three years. The incoming Labour administration under Militant pledged to keep the school open but in reality only provided half the funds the school needed. Croxteth Comp was finally closed in 2010 and demolished.

At the same time the battle over Croxteth Comp was raging, another school across the city in the Dingle was threatened with closure. The Harrington School, along with two other schools in the area, had been issued with closure notices, with parents and teachers at Harrington given 8 hours to find an alternative school. The parents occupied the school and lessons started with around 100 students attending.

A plan to replace the three schools with a single new school near Liverpool Cathedral mysteriously fell apart after the council spent £40,000 on architects fees, with the land put aside for the new school sold off to developers. Harrington eventually closed in July 1984. The students were transferred to other schools.