by Joe Thorne
Parents of pupils at Lewisham Bridge Primary School, together with supporters, have been in occupation of the school roof since 23rd April, in opposition to Lewisham Council’s plans to demolish the school building, and replace it with a school run by a shadowy guild of wealthy businessmen known as the Worshipful Company of Leather Sellers, which dates back to the beginning of mercantile capitalism in the 14th Century.
It is necessary to explain a little more of the Council’s plans, and something of the context to them. The council proposes to demolish the school, currently for ages 3-11, and replace it with a 3-16 school, with one class per primary year rather than the two at present. There is a chronic shortage of primary and secondary school places in Lewisham.
The council’s justification for their proposals is that there is no other site available. The absurdity of this is plain when standing on the roof. Just a few yards away on the other side of the road is a giant plot of barren land, waiting to be the site of one of several tower blocks which the council has given land for across the borough. It seems the council is able to find land for those projects which are expected to be profitable, either in terms of future tax revenue or immediate income for the land – but it is not able to find land when it is education which is at stake. Furthermore, the new developments can only increase pressure on the already creaking school system (not to mention on health provision and local transport).
The story is futher complicated by the fact that over the Easter holidays, the school building was designated a Grade 2 listed building by English Heritage. The demolition plans cannot go ahead unless the Council successfully appeals to have the listing overturned. Council officer Chris Threlfall says he believes that the decision will be overturned, though apparently such reversals are rare – and in any case, the parents will also use their right to appeal if necessary. If this development turns out to significant in this case, it may be one that other education campaigners around the country should look at: many primary school buildings were built at a certain time, such that they may be eligible for similar status.
Since 23rd April, the day the occupation began, pupils have been bussed to another site, the Mornington Centre, essentially a conference centre. One parent told me that his daughter, in Year 1 is sharing a classroom with children in Reception; and the children are losing 45 minutes out of their days in the commute. (Outside the Lewisham Bridge building at around 3pm on school days, the absurd spectacle can be seen of children waiting for parents inside a ‘kettle’ like ring of fluorescent jacketed teachers, which is apparently referred to by council bureaucrats as ‘the circle of safety’. )
A few parents have taken to boycotting the new school, and are educating their children outside the state system. All parents are against the council’s plans, and angered by the patronising, high handed attitude of the council. At a meeting on Thursday (30.4.09), parents who wanted to discuss the decision to demolish the school buildings and place a new school under private control were dismissed by Threlfall, who was only prepared to discuss features of the Mornington Centre site.
As a leaflet produced by the occupiers describes the real agenda behind the scheme. “Lewisham Bridge School is also being knocked down as part of the Council’s plan to break up democratic education in Lewisham into Trusts and Academies. The planned new school would have a significantly different legal status to the existing ‘comunity’ primay school. It would become a ‘foundation’ school that can set its own admissions policy.” I was told that the admissions policy in question would involve being able to take a certain percentage of children with ‘musical aptitude’. It’s fairly clear that children who have had an opportunity for music lessons will be more likely to come from backgrounds of relative advantage. There are other means by which foundation schools are able to engage in covert selection.
The Worshipful Company of Leather Sellers is the descendent organisation of one of the original mercantile guilds – companies set up to regulate trade in a certain good in a certain town, in this case leather in London. These guilds were the basic form of organisation of the early bourgeoisie, used to organise cartel monopolies against small artisans and consumers. It was partly through these guilds that the bourgeoisie organised their political struggle against feudalism, a struggle which was eventually victorious, replacing feudal with capitalist social relations. Now, as well as a sort of coordination body for the leather industry, the organisation appears to be a sort of private club for some extremely wealthy people, not only in the leather industry. They undertake some ‘philanthropic’ activity, but their organisation is essntially opaque.
One woman I met on the occupied roof attended a school run by the Leather Sellers. Apparently, succession into full membership of the organisation follows the male line. She described her school as socially conservative in atmosphere, though she was not sure whether this was as a result of the Leather Sellers’ influence, or some other factor.
In place of the current elected parent governors – one of whom is a leader in the occupation – there would be a single parent chosen by the appointed governors. This is therefore also an attack on an element of local democracy, deeply insufficient though it is. The council therefore proposes to hand control of children’s’ education to an institutionally sexist, ideologically conservative, democratically unaccountable organisation. Apparently no one in the council’s Labour administration believes this to be problematic.
Supporting the occupation
The occupation is the organising centre of the community movement for better education in Lewisham. It needs to be strengthened and defended. Supporters are needed to join those on the roof; spirits are high, but numbers are sometimes a little thin. There is running water, food, cooking facilities, and a few tents with airbeds in – even some spare sleeping bags. Access is by ladder.
The school can best be reached by going to Lewisham DLR or Railway station, and a 3 or 4 minute walk to the school site on Elmira Street, visible on maps at the station. There is a site phone – 07806 54527 – though it is not answered consistently. Occupiers are always glad of visitors to spend time, find out more, or show solidarity. Information about the occupation and other ways to give support can be seen on the website http://defendeducationlewisham.wordpress.com/, or through the facebook group. In particular, there is a demonstration on Saturday 9 May, starting at noon by the school. Marchers will hold a rally at the clock tower, Lewisham High Street, from 12.30pm. The occupiers are taking steps to reach out to teachers in the school. The local NUT is already very supportive.
Communities in resistance
I could not help but think that as the children look toward the school every morning and afternoon, decked out in banners and tents, and with people waving from the roof, that their conception of how society works, and how change happens must be a little different than it otherwise would have been. There have been a spate of school occupations in Glasgow. There are rumours that the Visteon workers’ occupation and pickets have been successful. (Belfast Visteon workers have visited the school, and parents are due to return the visit shortly.) The Prisme workers were successful in their occupation too. Let’s make it a hot summer.