1970s ACTIVISM & AUTONOMY: stories from East London Big Flame


Education and young people

Sorry Susan cartoonWhy we did it

We saw education as playing a crucial role in socialising and indoctrinating the citizens and workers of the future, as well as – contradictorily – being the route through which some working-class kids could get the chance to access opportunities generally limited to middle-class kids.

Big Flame generally was also aware of the importance of working with young people in light of the explosion of youth rebellions of 50s and 60s including the student activism where some of us came from. (See Struggles of Youth, from a draft of What is Big Flame?)

What we did

Some of the group got involved in a campaign to stop the closure of a local school, Bow School: see The Bow School Campaign (excerpt from In the Beginning pp 5-6). This piece highlights the contradictions of working in single-issue campaigns, and also of fighting to keep a school open when we had many criticisms of mainstream schooling.

Two members of ELBF working in further education were involved in a local group with others outside ELBF who did similar work. Members of ELBF also met with members of other BF groups and sympathisers nationally to develop an analysis of what was happening in education and work out how to make good interventions (see Notes on Education Commission Meeting Feb 1 1975).

Later, in the 1980s, two of us were involved in the successful Campaign for Choice in Special Education, a grass-roots group of parents, teachers and schoolkids  lobbying the then Inner London Education Authority not to close special schools in favour of (cost-saving but inappropriate) mainstream schooling for pupils with special needs.

Looking back…

Capitalism in the post-war years created a ‘youth market’ to extend their profits by encouraging young people to buy goods in their own right separately from their parents.  This youth ‘independence’ affected family life and parental control and the knock-on effect has caused the authorities headaches in dealing with youth involved in hard drugs, gang culture etc. – but one side effect was the freedom we had at that time to develop alternative ways of living and relating. Our writings of the time show we were aware of the way consumerism was used to appropriate the youth’s aspirations and buying power (see Struggles of Youth article).

Many people happily took the freedom to consume as genuine autonomy, and the political militancy of youth declined in the 80s and 90s. One of us who was still teaching then found that students saw capitalism as enabling them to make their own lives – a result of Thatcher taking over the libertarian agenda and using the fruits of North Sea oil to promote an artificial boom in which all futures seemed possible.

Post-2010, however, there is less money to buy ‘freedom’, and at the same time inequalities in provision of schooling have increased sharply, and the introduction of  university tuition fees contrasted with post-war attempts to make higher education more accessible. With the curriculum over-prescribed and testing intensified, simultaneous with the cutting of funds, there is again the dilemma of trying to protect a system full of contradictions.

 In Another World is Possible: Making politics across time, one of the group discusses the changes in attitude towards politics that he found while teaching in higher education across the decades.