The UK school students' strike, 1985 - Steven Johns

Striking schoolchildren march in Liverpool, 1985. Photo by Dave Sinclair

A short history of a successful national walkout of up to a quarter of a million school students against the Conservative government's workfare Youth Training Scheme.

Introduction

The Youth Training Scheme (YTS) was set up by the government in 1983 claiming to offer workplace training for 16-17-year-olds on a voluntary basis.

However, as with apprenticeships today many employers took advantage of the scheme to use young people as full-time workers paying less than £30 per week, with no guarantee of a job at the end.

In 1985 the government threatened to make the scheme compulsory, and take unemployment benefits away from any young people refusing to participate: similar to today's workfare schemes. At that time a majority of children left school at 16.

In protest, school students organised against the proposals. Schoolchildren in Scotland walked out in April, and around two weeks later on Thursday, April 25, 1985 there was a national strike.

The strike

Across the country

Here are brief summaries of the protests which I could find for different areas of the UK:

Cardiff

Despite police harassment, over 3000 demonstrated. Three pupils were suspended from the Glan Ely High School, and 100 of their fellow pupils walked out in protest the next day.

Liverpool

Perhaps the biggest walkout took place in Liverpool. This was aided by the fact that Liverpool Council, run by the Trotskyist Militant group within the Labour Party, which played a key role in organising the protests. 30,000 children skipped class and 10,000 took to the streets.

London

Thousands of pupils from different schools across the city walked out of class and took to the streets.

Northern Ireland

Over 2000 kids, Catholic and Protestant, marched through the city centre.

Plymouth

Over 100 children walked out.

Reading

Schoolkids held a rowdy demonstration and faced off against police who arrested 41.

Scotland

As a walkout had already taken place in Scotland, a demonstration of 2000 people was held on the Saturday.

Stafford

Significant numbers from multiple schools walked out, despite being a small town.

Personal accounts

A few participants shared their recollections of the walkout in the School Students' Strike 1985 Facebook group here.
One pupil from London recalled:

It was 1985 and I was 15. I was in a north London school; the teachers had been on strike I seem to remember a fair bit. We had been on half day school timetable for weeks in previous terms. The heroic miners struggle was still in the mines of many and we were Thatcher’s children set for a life of dole or YTS slave labour scheme. It seemed like everything was under attack. I was also heavily inspired by the black working class youth in South Africa who seemed scared of nobody. I knew I was a socialist as I was from a strong Labour party family but thought the Labour party was shit. I had been flirting with a nutty left group I used to meet on tube on way home. I knew more or less who were the other radical people in my year at school but that was it. I remember posters appearing flyposted on the school wall, certainly I knew of nobody within the school who had put the posters but everybody was alive with the fact that we were going to strike. Some of the more pushy kids were bigging it up how they were going to walk out. I was quieter, less brave I would say. I asked a few teachers, one which I thought was very left wing. They told me and others not to strike. Seemed odd to me as they had been striking why I couldn’t.
On the day of the strike it was mad. At the given hour we walk out. Hundreds marched out of the school. We were met by a few police vans. Some boys who were often in trouble were having a go at them and one got arrested for head butting a policeman.
Then it all seemed a bit all over the place and people headed towards where the demo was in various groups of friends. It was a good size demo and kids from everywhere including neighbouring schools. Nobody signed me up although I kept looking at all the left groups. I came to understand the LPYS [Labour Party Young Socialists] had organised it but was bit confused who was what on the demo.
It took till the following year and a Paul Weller concert to join up with the LPYS. Before I knew two Militants came round invited me to a meeting. Where I found Ruth Willams and other comrades. The next school year I was climbing into a school with a load of flyposters calling for the strike of 86-87. I didn’t do so well as I was chased out by a caretaker and dog, which bit a hole in arse of my trousers, luckerly my diary was in my back pocket, still have it today. I jumped over the fence and ran like hell - Great first solo political activity. Been active ever since….

Another former student from south London wrote that:

There was a huge rally in the middle of Greenwich with over 1000 school students in attendance - many more walked out across the borough.

Another participant recalled:

I can't believe next year will be the 30th Anniversary of the strike.
It was the perfect storm, I think. Looking at David Sinclair photos of the strike in Liverpool brings back a lot of memories. It's easy to forget what an incredible movement that was - it's also easy to forget that we actually made the Tories back down over YTS.
Kinnock et al must have been devastated to see a spontaneous mass movement, such as the School Student Strike, have the success that it did. He was too busy referring to us all as 'silly Billy's' I believe. libcom note: it was actually "dafties" Traitor.
I think that strike had an impact on the consciousness of young people at that time. It's a pity that my kids are now so willing to accept low pay and poor working conditions as the norm now without challenging or fighting for something better.

Other strikers at the time also recounted their memories:

I was 16 and at FE college, and my brother was 14 and at school. We stood outside schools with the rest of the LPYS with the leaflets and megaphones and got about 100 kids out on strike in Plymouth. Good times!

I was 14 years old and I remember a woman coming leafleting our school about the school students strike. 1985 against YTS conscription. My friends were a bit rowdy and disinterested but said ask [name redacted]..she'll do it. And I did! Got most of my school out and we marched outside the town hall. Well when I say marched we tore up the square with banners and chants and just screaming. I remember the school had called a special assembly telling us not to go, didn't stop us! Made me more determined to get people out! The wretches that stayed in school got to watch videos all afternoon as a reward..but I think we had much more fun! My first political act.

Aftermath

Following the strike, the government withdrew plans to take away non-participants' benefits: a rare victory for the working class during the Thatcher years.

Unfortunately it wasn't to last: three years later the scheme was made compulsory. And despite the role of Labour party activists in organising these protests, the next Labour government which took power in 1997 introduced new workfare programmes for the unemployed, which were built on by the later Conservative-LibDem coalition.

As in many cases where people take direct action, the protest had a transformative effect. As one participant recalled:

we held off the end of dole for 16 yr old by a couple of years, as it was introduced in the Fowler Review anyway in 1988, but that 1/2 day strike affected the rest of my life!

And schoolkids in the UK were to strike again, not least in 2003 against the Iraq war and in 2010 against education cuts.

Sources