Education on the Picket Line: Teach Outs at Kent

Kate Bradley, University of Kent



Why do a teach-out? A teach-out is a different way of engaging with students and anyone interested in what the industrial action is about. Picket lines are of course one way of doing this – with placards, leaflets, and talking to people. Yet, the picket engagements can be fleeting, as a leaflet is given to a student walking past, or someone honks their vehicle horn in support. Teach-outs offer the possibility of deeper exchange and engagement, of the speakers learning from the audience as much as the other way around. Whilst teach-outs are a form of the labour we have withdrawn, they do not follow the “normal” rules of teaching… the objective is to engage. It is teaching for interest’s sake, not for measuring or testing, or accrediting.

The teach-out I will be taking part in is organised by colleagues in my School, which is an interdisciplinary social sciences department.   My contribution is on the history of education and protest, standing alongside interventions on why we are striking, the crisis in public sector pensions, and the marketisation of HE.  Why – when my specialism is social policy as well as social history – am I talking about the past? Why does this matter to the dispute today?

It matters because we need to know how hard the struggle to have what we currently have as our education system was, for all its imperfections and failings. I have long been struck by Ross McKibbin’s statistic in Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951 that 98% of the population were excluded from higher education before the Second World War.  Of course, this was an exclusion that began much earlier with a statutory school leaving age of 14 by the interwar period, with the fees, uniform costs and loss of family earnings preventing many keen working-class students from attending secondary school – like my own grandmother.  The pain of not being able to continue your education could last a lifetime.  This pain was felt individually, but with a collective cost in terms of the waste of human potential.

Yet the kick-backs and challenges to this system have long been there, from the women who fought for entry to university in the later nineteenth century, to those school children who went on strike in 1911, to those who took themselves to evening classes after a long day at work.  It was also there in the work of those who challenged the status quo by offering their educational privileges up to working-class evening students by passing on what they had learned about the Classics, or art, or music, or history, or science – and learning something in return about other people’s lives. It was there in the working-class Jewish students who, in the interwar East End of London, demanded Workers’ Educational Association classes on economics and politics to understand the fomenting conditions around them.

The Education Act 1944 and other educational reforms of the postwar period opened up secondary and higher education to increasing numbers of people, but we still grapple with what education should be for – and who should be able to study what, to what level, and in what sort of conditions.  But we also need to think about who becomes a teacher or lecturer, and what happens to them when their working life is over.  It is not just about the content of what we teach, but about the institutional structures and the shape of the profession.

Incidentally, when we are back at work on Friday morning, my first year social policy lecture is on…. education policy.


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