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Hope for change? Young people and political action

Beth Bhargava (King’s, 2016)

Big Bad Wolf no2

Last summer, I left Cambridge for the long vacation, excited to immerse myself in the research necessary for my Part II dissertation. This project explores the ‘Pupil Power’ movement, and the campaigns for educational reform fought under the banner of two school-students’ unions (the Schools Action Union and the National Union of School Students) between 1968 and 1983. At a time when youth voices are once again making themselves heard on the political stage, it seems important to contextualise this movement, and to attempt to situate it in a longer history of school-students’ political activism in the United Kingdom. The scale and intensity of youth organising in the 1968-1983 period continues to astound me; at its height, the National Union of School Students boasted 15,000 members, who campaigned regularly on issues as diverse as gendered discrimination in the classroom, the Young National Front’s construction of the school as a key front in a coming ‘race war’, and the abolition of corporal punishment. This history allows us to revaluate contemporary events such as the ‘Fridays for Future’ movement. Far from representing an aberration or historical exception, the present wave of school-student led protest should be understood as merely the latest instance of political self-expression on the part of a group systematically marginalised by ‘representative’ democracy. What is unusual about the present moment is not that school-students have suddenly found a political voice, rather it is that they have once more succeeded in forcing those classed as ‘adults’ to listen to them.

Nevertheless, the forms taken by youth political self-expression today differ markedly from those on show in the closing decades of the 20th century. Political literature authored by school-students and published in the earlier period carry clearly and confidently articulated visions of potential futures. Some young people, writing in student-produced papers such as Blot and Vanguard, viewed with trepidation their eventual role as workers within a capitalist economy, depicting ‘education’ as the process of producing ‘automatons’ suited only to the tasks of production, competition, and acquisition. Others wrote of themselves as revolutionary agents, working to deliver a future in which these forms of work would no longer exist.

Nothing could present a starker contrast to the words of current ‘youth strikers’ I interviewed for a separate project last year. Several interviewees stressed that they are unable to clearly visualise their futures in light of escalating environmental degradation; they conceptualised their adulthoods as marked by ‘uncertainty’, and absolute rupture with the experiences of their parents. For some, political struggle had become oriented towards delivering a (any) future, the content of which is left unspecified. Their justified desperation in fighting for this single possibility – survival – forecloses the imagination of multiple, alternative futures in which survival is secured. In this context, it seems to me that action in dialogue with today’s school-students, in order to restore a sense of multiple possibilities and potential futures, is urgently required.

Big Bad Wolf