Australia’s radical history of school strikes

September 19, 2019
Secondary students protest in Sydney in August. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

What could 15-year-old School Strike 4 Climate activist Harriet O’Shea Carre possibly teach 20-year corporate public relations executive Jennifer Waldner? Perhaps executives at the giant insurance corporation AIG pondered that before responding to her request for a meeting, writing: “While we appreciate the opportunity to meet, we must regrettably decline.”

AIG had created Waldner’s Chief Sustainability Officer role less than 8 weeks earlier. One might have expected AIG would therefore be eager to learn about sustainability from an expert, particularly given it has blundered into a PR disaster by providing services for Adani’s coalmine project in Central Queensland.

But recognising a secondary student as an expert is a difficult task for a giant corporation.

Yet for nearly half a century, Australian secondary students have been providing wise advice on important social issues. It’s just that their voices are usually ignored until they take to the streets.

Secondary students often see the world a little differently to others, for several reasons:

• They know enough about the world to have an informed view if they wish, but they have not yet learned to ignore the evidence they can see for themselves;

• They want to make a difference in the world and they have not yet become cynical;

• Secondary students include all races, religions and genders; the economic sorting of education privilege has yet to happen;

• They have little commitment to institutions such as parliament because they lack the right to participate. For younger students, they know it will be years before they gain “citizenship”; and

• Young people are the ones who will have to live in the world being made (or destroyed) today.

Australia’s first national secondary student strike took place on September 20, 1972, involving an estimated 80,000 students. At the time the Vietnam War was a daily reality. Conscientious objectors to conscription were in jail. Concern about the environment was widespread. The women's liberation movement was changing stereotypes. Racism in sport was a major issue. Oppression based on sexuality was being challenged.

The strikes were led by students, some as young as 13, who were concerned about all these issues. The striking students challenged a view that secondary students were children who could not or should not think for themselves.

Demands of the strike included: improved conditions in schools, an end to arbitrary punishment, an end to gender discrimination in subject availability, and an end to the enforced conformity of school uniforms.

These conditions bore most heavily on younger students, who understood they had to cope with these issues for many years. A survey of students at the Sydney protest in 1972 recorded 7% in Year 8, 25% Year 9, 19% Year 10, 16% Year 11, and 10% Year 12.

Since then, secondary students have played a major part in Australian protests around censorship, against war, in favor of an egalitarian society and, today, for action to confront the climate emergency.

Those involved in the 1972 strike were strongly attacked by conservative commentators and accused of being subjects of manipulation. The students responded by saying that, as they had less invested in property, jobs or social status, they had a less prejudiced view of the world. This is echoed in the point made by young people today when they say it is they who will face the future burden of environmental catastrophe.

Outrageous statements questioning the intellectual capacity of secondary students to understand a social problem, such as climate change, tend to inflame dissent.

A greater challenge for young radicals are attempts by political and other institutions to co-opt them. These can take many forms, but what they share is an encouragement for young people to forego their legitimate goals. In this case it means to ignore looming climate disaster.

The pressure may be subtle: a prominent speaker might agree to address a rally if it drops its most important demands; suggestions that students should channel energies into processes (run for school council) and stop focusing on issues (stopping coalmining); or encouragement to join a political party that supports coalmining on the hope they can change its policy.

So how can the movement identify its friends? Some useful rules of thumb are: Widely accept offers of assistance, including technical assistance, but not instructions on how to behave; welcome support from organisations that have a record of concern for the issue students are campaigning on; and work with organisations that respect the rights of students to make their own decisions about their campaigns.

One other aspect of secondary student activism, both a strength and a weakness, is its fragmented character. Students are not at school long enough to develop their own structures, like trade unions or professional societies. Most students graduate within two or three years of starting to pay attention to the world.

So there are some special issues to consider:

First, don’t depend on positional power: Encourage students to follow people because of the strength of their argument, not their title.

Secondly, remember students have a choice of thinking about the world or ignoring it while they are at school, so engage with fellow students to help them think about it.

Thirdly, acknowledge that students want to make a difference and have enormous creativity, so don’t set rules on how people can get involved.

Finally, make sure to build a diverse leadership, especially across ages, to ensure that as one cohort graduates, many other leaders remain in schools.

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