On Monday 1 June, the first day back after half-term, hundreds of students at Parkview School in Barrow-in-Furness walked out of their school hall to stage a protest on the school sports fields.
The head teacher, who had previously licensed students expressing opposition to the school being closed to make way for an Academy, told the Year 7 to 10 students in assembly that the protest must not go ahead. But, as year 10 student Megan Rose said, “They tried to talk us down to stop us from protesting. If we didn’t come out it would have shown we had lost, but we are going to win”. Phil Solloway, an anti-academies activist and father of a student at Parkview, told Solidarity: “The Year 10s had organised it all, and pulled the whole school together”. Year 11 students joined them after a GCSE exam.
The head teacher decided to close the school on Tuesday morning after students said they would strike. The local North-West Evening Mail reported: “On hearing the news that the school was closed in the morning some pupils said they were planning to arrive at school at about 1pm to protest again with banners. Laura Storey, 15, said: ‘We want to show we were not just doing it yesterday to get out of lessons’.”
Students at Thorncliffe School, which also faces closure to be replaced by the Academy, also protested on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Mike Stephenson, an activist in the anti-academies campaign “Our Schools Are Not For Sale” (OSANFS), and father of a student at Thorncliffe, told Solidarity: “I went to Parkview on Monday. The kids' behaviour was impeccable. I’m proud of them. The best thing from this campaign will be if the children come out of it learning that if you protest, then you can make a difference. The shame is that adults are trying to stamp them down”.
25 students at Thorncliffe were suspended for four days (though the head teacher says this is for “disruptive behaviour”, not for protesting).
Mike Stephenson explained some of the background: “We have been campaigning against the closure of the schools for 18 months now. But the action this week has come purely from the pupils themselves”.
According to the paper, “Pupils decided to organise [the] protest as they broke up for half-term on May 22 [after] they heard some of their teachers did not get jobs in the Academy”.
Mike Stephenson continued, “Unfortunately, on Monday, the teachers were told to stay by the school buildings, and I didn’t see any of them coming down to support the students. Our campaign had some backing from the teachers’ union reps a year ago, but since then they seem to have got cold feet.
“The county council is trying to justify the closures on grounds of falling rolls, but as far as we can see the rolls are not falling. Three schools are due to close to be replaced by an Academy to be run on two of the existing sites, Parkview and Thorncliffe, while the third site, Alfred Barrow, will be shut completely. New buildings are promised, but not until three years’ time.
“Why fewer teachers, if there are the same number of students?
“Despite the fact that the Academy is supposed to be about raising standards for the students who most need help, it looks as if many of the students from Alfred Barrow, which serves quite deprived areas and has 50% of its student with ‘special educational needs’, won’t necessarily get into the Academy.
“Our campaign ran candidates in several wards in the County Council elections on 4 June. I’m disappointed that I didn’t win in my ward [Mike Stephenson got 724 votes in Hawcoat, beaten by a Tory with 899], but after all, we're only a group of mums and dads, running against the big parties. Lisa Hammond won in Parkside, the ward covering Parkview School.
“Another independent has been elected, separately from our campaign, who is against the Academy, and the Socialist People's Party [a local left party] won Ormsgill, the ward covering Thorncliffe School.
“Labour and Conservatives are both for the Academy. [Up to 4 June, Labour was running a minority administration in Cumbria County Council, but for most of the last eight years there has been a Lib Dem-Tory coalition. After 4 June, the Tories are the biggest party, but without a majority].
“Four of us were elected to the borough council last year. There is a group of about a dozen of us, who meet weekly. We ran a petition, and collected six thousand signatures on the streets, up to Christmas 2007. We’ve lobbied councillors, and we’re supporting a legal challenge in the High Court.
“I’m not a big political person myself. But if anything good can come of the present crisis, I’d like to see Labour go back more to the grass roots, to working-class people, to what the unions stand for.
“Otherwise you can get people like the BNP.
“We realise that in the long term you have to have an opinion on the whole range of issues.
“The Socialist People's Party were upset because we voted with the Tories on the council budget, but then the Tories see us as allied to the Socialist People’s Party.
"Now we have a member in the County Council, we will work to lobby others in the council, and to unite all the strands of opposition to the Academy — students, teachers, parents".
Jim Hamezein is the leader of the Socialist People’s Party. He spoke to Solidarity about the background and perspectives of the SPP.
“I was a member of the Labour Party for many years. In 1993 I recruited a lot of people to my ward in Ormsgill, and we had been campaigning against the poll tax. I stood for the council and was elected, but soon the borough council [then Labour-controlled] dramatically cut many services. Four of us voted against the Labour whip on those cuts. The Labour Party suspended the four councillors from the party and then expelled us, and suspended the whole Ormsgill ward.
“That was in 1995, and we have been going ever since. We still have four councillors.
“Unfortunately we haven't been able to work together with the anti-Academy independents in the borough council. It seems to me they’ve become a middle-class type of campaign grouping.
“Our party operates only in Barrow-in-Furness. At the peak we had over 120 members. The active core now is about 20. We have monthly meetings, and we’re campaigning, for example, on local hospital services.
“We did have contact with the Socialist Alliance in 2001-4, but we really haven’t had enough time to take things further.
“We are for nationalisation of the public assets and we want NHS services to be expanded.
“The capitalist system is collapsing around us. It hasn’t worked.
“Because we were much more vocal in supporting working-class people, a lot of people in the Labour Party who were on career ladders turned against us. The Labour Party, whether locally or nationally, now just competes with the Tories to see which of them can run the rotten capitalist system. The Labour Party has lost its way. New Labour is completely divorced from its core constituency.
“There are no active Labour Party members here any more. They hardly meet. I can’t see much hope for them. Hopefully we’ll be the people to fill the gap. We feel there should be a big socialist alliance nationwide to combat the Tories.”
• A much longer version of these interviews and more pictures can be found at