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Why the Burston Strike School still inspires

An idealistic couple of committed socialists turned a strike into a school and their working-class pupils' futures into things of value, not to be drudged out as mere serfs and wage slaves. We need their vision again today, writes GARY SMITH

THERE had been school strikes before in 1889 and 1911 — but none quite like this. Whereas the earlier disputes had collapsed within days and left few ripples in the collective consciousness of the inhabitants of Roxburgh, London, or Llanelli, the pupils’ strike at Burston ran from 1914 to 1939 and captured — both then and now — the collective imagination of the British labour movement.  

It was the longest and perhaps the most idiosyncratic dispute in our history, bringing to the fore the agency of young people, challenges to deference and rural hierarchies, questions of land ownership and the clash between visions of education as a force for social control or for self-realisation.  

On a human level, it pitched Kitty Higdon and her husband Tom — conscientious teachers and Christian socialists living in a harsh, functionalist and conservative age — against the established order.

The result was something akin to a new “land war” in 1900s Norfolk, that saw not only the eviction of the Higdons from their home but also that of many of their supporters, as the church and a cabal of large landowners seized glebe lands and revoked the tenancies of Burston’s small farmers and producers; this was both a class war and a culture war.  

Emily Wilby, one of the young strikers, summed up the cause at the time: “We came on strike because our [teachers] were dismissed from the council school unjustly.” Sixty-six out of the 72 children enrolled in the village school went out on strike in support of the Higdons’ cause.  

A strike school was set up above a carpenter’s shop in the village and as support flooded in from the labour movement — and in particular from the rail and teachers’ unions — a new school was purpose-built on the village green in 1917, in order to employ the teachers and to educate the children who had been effectively locked out by the rector and the school board managers.  

Instead of testing, the drilling of the “three Rs” and inculcating the values of empire and competition, there were nature rambles, nights spent stargazing, practical experiments in photography and lessons in French, Russian and Esperanto.  

Kitty was “determined to educate her children not as fodder for the farm or as slaves for domestic service” but to develop within them a sense of their own worth and dignity, encouraging the girls to take secretarial work — the closest many working-class women could get to professional status at the time — and the boys into jobs on the railways, where engineering skills were honed and valued.  

Hers was a feminist and strikingly modern marriage that was a million miles away from our views of the abusive patriarchy of the Victorian and Edwardian mainstream.  

Older, better educated and from a more comfortable background than her husband, Kitty was a qualified teacher, whereas Tom was an autodidact, the child of a rural labourer and what we might today class as being a “teaching assistant.”  

Yet, theirs was a loving and mutually supportive relationship, rooted in common socialist values and a view of pedagogy as being a force for personal and collective liberation.  

Moreover, they made the connection between economic and educational disadvantage. Tom was a union activist who saw the movement delivering, clearly and practically, for those it served. Wherever a branch of the Agricultural Workers’ Union sprang up, the wages, conditions and opportunities of farm labourers improved dramatically.  

This belief in the fundamentally transformative role of the trade unions, reforging material conditions and lifting the intellectual horizons of our people, is something that we seem to have lost in recent years, as our self-confidence haemorrhaged in the face of industrial and political defeats, ideologically-driven de-industrialisation and the watering down of our own core beliefs.  

British engineering once made us the “workshop of the world” and transformed the countryside, providing opportunity to the children of Burston. But financialisation and a rentier economy that owes more to the luck of the gambler at the casino tables than reasoned economic planning is tearing us apart.  

The current fracturing of supply chains, skyrocketing energy bills and spiralling wage and living conditions should be the wake-up call for the labour movement.  

We need to understand that neoliberalism, the new imperialism cloaked as “globalisation” and the language of our own deference through industrial partnership, are not the answer. Just like the Higdons — who risked their all — we should once again “dare to be a Daniel” in the fight between the forces of labour and capital.  

This will necessitate hard choices and will be predicated upon the ability to speak and fight for our individual and collective, union memberships in the days ahead.  

It means matching our compassion with a clarity of vision — just as the Higdons did — and not being afraid to engage with challenging ideas and new intellectual currents.  

The days of bluff “workerism” are over: dead, gone and buried before they can bury us. Instead, the left needs to be at the cutting edge on every front: in engineering, the sciences, in the arts, while the unions deliver — day-in and day-out — for their members and their families.  

We are there to raise folk up, not to limit them or pull them down. In this manner, there are few more fitting tributes to the power and the capacity of the labour movement than Burston.  

Whereas so many village maypoles were replaced, after the cataclysm of WWI, with memorials to the fallen — acknowledging the destruction of a rural way of life — in Burston there was new hope, fired by socialism, pure and simple, and symbolised by the building, instead, of a new school upon the village green. This is socialism, vested in a future, not in the past.

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