Thoughts on the Burston School Strike centenary (as a former Norfolk schoolgirl) – Britain’s first free school

Today marks the centenary celebrations of the Burston School Strike in rural Norfolk, the longest strike in British history. The trade union movement, rightly, supported the two teachers, Tom and Annie Higdon, who were sacked after a dispute with the area’s school management committee, supported by the local rector, who demanded deference and a comfortable lifestyle – unlike that endured by the farm labourers who were trying to send their children to school to get an education.
The teachers were sacked on put-up charges in April 1914. Almost all the children (66 out of 72) went on strike to support their much loved teachers, and an impromptu free school sprang up on the village green, where the teachers were supported to continue to offer a full timetable. But the education authority intimidated the parents of the children, fining them for taking their children out of school – fines that were paid by collection. The trade unions and other supporters helped too. But the rector evicted striking families from the land they rented from him and destroyed their crops.

Undeterred, in 1917 a new school was built and opened, with Violet Potter, the 13 year old school-girl who had led her class-mates out on strike declaring:

“With joy and thankfulness I declare this school open to be forever a School of Freedom”.

The strike school continued till 1939, and the education authority has since apologised to those involved.

Tom Potter, Violet’s brother, became a Communist councillor, and was always elected unopposed, because of the great loyalty towards him and his family.

So what did the strike mean – what does it mean today?

Of course it is a rallying call for the trade union movement, and understandably so.

But, for me, having worked as an education correspondent, and having grown up in Norfolk, it has two other meanings as well. Firstly, it was a free school – where pupils, because of their bond to their teachers, wanted out from the dead hand of the education authority. What they learned in opposing church and state would have taught them as much as any school-book. Isn’t this the real definition of a free – school – that it should promote free thinking? If free schools are to survive, their heads should study the Burston School Strike, its teachers and its pupils. And that first free school’s first lesson? Don’t replace the dead hand of the education authority (if that’s how you term it, I would disagree) with dogmatic faith doctrines, as so many free schools have, instead. Having faith groups running free schools is just creating another form of institution: it does not free minds, teachers or pupils.

Secondly, it was about that bond to those Christian Socialist teachers, a bond that so many of us still have with particular educators in our own past. My father was a secondary head-teacher in Norfolk, and my mother a primary school teacher. They, like other teachers, go on the march because they honour that bond between pupil and teacher. As a former pupil, I also remember, with affection, those teachers who set my mind free in Diss High School, just a few miles away from Burston: my first English teacher who read Rogue Male aloud to us, in a hot mobile classroom, one day, and revealed the power of the adventure story, my second English teacher who taught me and my sixth-form friends how to read poetry.

Then there was my brilliant French teacher, who taught me the importance of precision – and my German teacher, whose reading of The Lost Reputation of Katharine Blum, by Heinrich Boll, opened my eyes to how women’s reputations are dragged through the mud by unscrupulous men – still grimly relevant today. There was, of course, our long-suffering history teacher, who my brothers often locked in his cupboard. And until recently my parents never knew that my French teacher had found me, on a cross channel ferry, with my friends, trying to hammer a cork into a red wine bottle with the heel of one of my shoes.

At their best teachers are inspiring, but they can also be our conspirators – against the powers that be. I think this is a good thing – a little bit of subversion, asking awkward questions, shaking things up, freeing minds, has to be part of the job of a teacher, right? So today, on the day we remember Tom and Kitty Higdon, those troublesome teachers, paid up members of the awkward squad. But I also remember all my Norfolk teachers who gave me poetry, feminism, thriller-writing – and confiscated some terrible red wine (but didn’t tell my parents).

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