Genuine Dissent

Lorna Finlayson

Secondary school students in England and Wales have been protesting against restrictive rules covering uniforms and toilet access. As with almost anything involving young people, the protests immediately became a culture war talking point. Some of the hostility was of a familiar kind: the kids need to learn some respect, stop bleating about their ‘human rights’ and get back to class – and striking teachers need to get back to work, too, and stop setting a bad example.

For other commentators, it was a saving grace that some of the protests were over gender-neutral toilets. ‘I’m not one to condone disruptive behaviour,’ the former Brexit Party MEP Martin Daubney tweeted, ‘but it warms the cockles to see British kids rising up & protesting against unisex toilets in schools … #HopeNotWoke’. Another Twitter user, calling themselves ‘Anti Woke Patriot’, said: ‘Go tell em kids. Well done.’

But single-sex spaces do not seem to have been an issue at most of the schools that have seen protests in recent weeks. Where concerns over ‘unisex’ toilets did figure – as at Weston School in Southampton – they were not the sole complaint. Above all, protesters cited restrictions to toilet access. At many schools, rules limiting the use of toilets during lessons have been introduced or tightened. At some, locked gates have been installed. Girls on their period have been asked to show evidence (such as sanitary products) before being allowed to leave class. At Penrice Academy in Cornwall, menstruating students can request a ‘red card’ granting them toilet access for the day.

The other main issue, the enforcement of strict dress codes, has a similarly gendered dimension. Girls complain of being made to line up to have the length of their skirts measured, sometimes by male staff. Some boys have taken to wearing skirts over their trousers in solidarity.

The complaints have elicited little sympathy from pundits. The historian and broadcaster Tessa Dunlop told GB News that ‘it’s part of becoming an adult, isn’t it, learning to control your bladder – and as a girl, managing your periods?’ Exactly how teenage girls are supposed to ‘manage’ their periods without access to school toilets, Dunlop did not say.

Commentators and school leaders may have treated the students’ complaints as trivial or unreasonable gripes, but they are in fact ‘human rights’ issues, and recognised as such in the case of adults. Beyond the dehumanising humiliation involved in the policing of intimate functions, denying toilet access is dangerous to physical health. One of the consequences of the moral panic over trans women’s use of public toilets is that many feel so unwelcome or unsafe there that they avoid using them, leading to urinary and kidney infections. A parent of a child at a Leeds school where protests had taken place reported that her son was complaining of stomach ache as a result of ‘holding his bladder’.

A survey of around two hundred parents by Charlotte Haines Lyon found more than half reporting that their child had avoided drinking so they would not need the toilet at school. Haines Lyon also points out that one reason for the problems around school toilets is there aren’t enough of them, as schools have grown but their infrastructure hasn’t, one of the many consequences of chronic underfunding.

The current protests, and the response to them, are reflective of a moment of heightened authoritarianism in schools and elsewhere. But protest by school children has a long history. In 1911, thousands of mostly working-class children went on strike in industrial towns across Britain, in protest against corporal punishment and poor conditions. In 1914, pupils at Burston School, Norfolk, walked out in support of their teachers after they were sacked, beginning technically the longest strike in British history (it lasted until 1939).

In the early 1970s, the Schools Action Union and National Union of School Students – organisations set up by school children – staged a series of actions, focusing on the abolition of corporal punishment but also levelling other criticisms at the school system. In 2003, students walked out of school in protest against the Iraq War. Since 2018, the School Strike for Climate movement has seen walkouts by school children around the world. In 2021, police were called to British schools after students staged protests: against ‘discriminatory’ uniform policies, against the hoisting of the Union Jack, in support of Palestine.

The generally dismissive tenor of reactions to such protests isn’t anything new either. In 1911, the Llanelly Mercury reported that ‘the strike epidemic now prevalent has infected the rising generation at Llanelly, and, in order to be in the “fashion”, the schoolboys decided upon a “down tool” policy.’ Meanwhile, according to the Northern Daily Mail, ‘a number of boys met and in addition to asking for the abolition of the cane and the establishment of a weekly half-holiday, requested that a penny should be given, out of the rates, to each boy every Friday. Socialists have apparently been at work amongst these young jokers.’ In a similar vein, Tom Bennett, a government adviser and the author of a ‘teacher’s guide to behaviour’, described the latest action by school students as ‘copycat behaviour … with more in common with fashions and fads than a more complex cultural phenomenon or expression of protest.’

The characterisation of children’s resistance as fundamentally inauthentic or unserious (a ‘fashion’ or ‘fad’) belongs to a broader tendency that is especially pronounced in the case of action by young people: to cast protest as something other than ‘real’ protest – as thuggery, for instance, or collective madness. In this way, action is stripped of critical meaning or content. Coverage of the ‘TikTok protests’ (as the latest school protests are widely known) also exemplifies a more general tendency for disruptive action to be analysed in terms of a logic of contagion. A focus on the platforms by which protests ‘spread’ from one school to another allows the grievances motivating them to drop out of the picture.

Is there anything that young people could do that would register as genuine dissent against their social circumstances? Bennett and other critics of the school protests suggest that those with ‘legitimate’ concerns should raise them with their teachers or with school council reps. Applied to a population as powerless as school children, this familiar counsel to civility and official channels is even more transparently laughable than usual. All the more reason to take the protests seriously.


  • 15 March 2023 at 10:22am
    Phil Edwards says:
    Protests, and protest tactics, do spread from place to place by imitation/emulation - ask any sociologist of social movements. Dismissing them on that basis is fatuous.

    The "contagion" that interests me is the appearance of the draconian and sexist policies the kids are protesting against in multiple locations around the country - how (and why) is that happening?

    • 15 March 2023 at 4:33pm
      avogadro2 says: @ Phil Edwards
      In the same way, perhaps, as the word ‘multiple’ now appears wherever (say five years ago) ‘many’ would have appeared. Good ideas and bad ideas alike can spread by simple repetition without conscious thought or motive. Especially among politicians. Multiple politicians.

  • 15 March 2023 at 1:05pm
    J p Trigg says:
    Many secondary schools offer their students opportunities to study British democracy in practice.These opportunities are called school .councils
    Student representatives on these councils often propose the abolition of school uniform.They may put forward the argument that there would seem no obvious connection between dress and academic achievement.
    On the face of it this might not appear to be an argument easy to refute. But the powers that be will posit all sorts of,at best,partial and, at worst,obfuscatory opposition to it .A”clincher “will often be that a majority of students’parents favour uniforms.This may not be seen by the students as a rigorously logical demolition of their case.Still,power trumps logic.The argument is won but the cause is lost and cynicism is nurtured

  • 15 March 2023 at 8:35pm
    R v Buckland says:
    Richard Buckland suggests that perhaps the most significant point is that most of the adult commentators immediately dismiss in a wide range of ways, the seriousness or validity, or the rights of the children to protest. I think that is rather curious. It seems to indicate that there continues to be quite a powerful wish to simply dominate children. And to maintain power over them., by whatever structure they are in. Undoubtedly, we are less explicitly cruel in that we no longer beat children but it does seem that in most aspects of the education system, we find it very difficult to accept the idea that if the children gather together enough cohesion and energy to object to something that generally their objection will be very solidly based.
    In my experience as a Child Psychotherapist, I was very privileged to have the time and permission to listen in detail and at length to what children felt about their lives. My experience was that once the child felt that they were with an adult, who was genuinely interested in hearing what they had to say, that they were remarkably clear, and totally honest about their experiences, and things about which they were very unhappy. Indeed, I would go further. and say that I learned much more about the family or school or other institutional experiences from the children themselves, than I did from the adults in charge.
    In what seems like 100 years ago, but actually about 50, I worked in a therapeutic community for some very naughty teenagers who undoubtedly could behave appallingly. we did not run a democracy, the place had very tight boundaries in it’s overall structure, but nevertheless, it had very open boundaries in terms of getting everyone together to listen to what they were thinking about, what they were unhappy about, and to encourage them by taking them seriously to tell us the way they saw things. This of course, took time and courage, and we were staffed at one staff member to two teenagers, Which of course a normal school is not. Nevertheless, in whatever situation I was working, the children or adolescents never made up nonsense or mindlessly or dishonestly attacked the institution.
    So it seems to me that the quick and cynical belittlement of school children and students’ unrest, is actually driven by the inadequacy of the adults, precisely because if they did listen then they would find that the children and students were making interesting significant and valid comments about the structures they find themselves in. The adults then might find themselves unable to justify not taking them seriously. And this would threaten the often very inadequate structures which the adults themselves were too frightened and powerless to criticise and change. I realise this is a very big subject, but I hope some of the ideas I’ve suggested will be of interest.

    • 16 March 2023 at 1:50am
      Delaide says: @ R v Buckland
      Thank you for that informed and informative post.

  • 16 March 2023 at 7:26am
    Lesley Jordison says:
    Well, yes, but ………. as somebody who has taught for 35 years in fairly average to “good” schools, what do you do about a child who raises their hand every lesson of the day to go to the toilet? Many of the students will go through their entire school careers and never once leave a lesson to go to the toilet - is it a coincidence that they will often also be the ones with the good marks? Even at its most innocent: children get bored, they fancy a change of scenery (who wouldn’t?), they wander out, if they’re lucky they might even coincide with someone to chat to or something exciting will be happening, they wander back in. Unfortunately they’ve missed 5 minutes, they don’t understand something, so the lesson makes less sense and is consequently more “boring” , or maybe, a little later, they’re asked a question that they struggle to answer having missed key information and so their confidence in themselves and liking for that subject plummets. And, of course, it’s an interruption and momentarily breaks the concentration of everybody else.
    It’s an issue we grapple with as teachers, nobody wants to be unreasonable on a potentially embarrassing subject, but to assume that all requests to “go to the toilet” are genuine, is naive in the extreme!
    Having said that, I think there is much in some of these new strict discipline schools that is both intoxicating and repellent.

    • 16 March 2023 at 8:25pm
      R v Buckland says: @ Lesley Jordison
      RV Buckland chimes in again. Lesley makes a heartfelt point , probably ringing a bell with most teachers in state schools in the current era. (Whenever I say era, in the current state of our country, I often pronounce it “error”, which seems to fit rather well). You will remember that I acknowledged that I was in a privileged position both in the therapeutic community and in the health service as a child psychotherapist.
      However, how one needs to approach Lesley’s problem is, of course the same.
      The irritating child, who endlessly wants to use the lavatory will be doing so for a reason. The question is what is the reason? And the problem with that is, who has time to listen and to find out what the reason might be? The more upset, and possibly clinically disturbed, the child is, the more time will be required to enable the child to talk about it.
      Lesley shows her awareness of this when she talks about her concerns regarding the new breed of disciplinarian state schools set up in the academy system. Before the neoliberal right gained control of the levers of power, in the twilight of old-fashioned “liberal policies” , state schools, under the control of local authorities, began to realise that if they provided more time for children who were not profoundly disturbed,of whom there were quite a lot in the system, they might solve some of the problems which Lesley is concerned about. This led to the development of a quite well resourced provision of school counsellors, who could get supervision either in house, or from people like me working in CAMHS, (Child and adolescent mental health services). This led to the counsellors being able to directly help many of the children, and refer children who were too disturbed for their help, directly into CAMHS, where they could receive psychotherapy, and also where the families would be involved, to work out in a deeper way the source of the problems.
      This all sounds a little bit ideal, and indeed this kind of provision of well resourced CAMHS services in the background was very patchy.
      In my service in Devon for complex historical reasons we had a team of about 50 Full-time multidisciplinary staff. (I secretly thought of us as a little Tavistock Clinic in the west) But some neighbouring services had as little as five or six with the same total population size. The Health Advisory Service in the very late 90s, came up with a plan for providing this sort of complex CAMHS service uniformly at a national level. One could now justifiably weep at such an optimistic and marvellous conception. Suffer the little children indeed.
      We now have an extraordinary situation in education, where the government doesn’t understand that the quality of children’s emotional well-being, and therefore capacity to function cooperatively in school actually depends on quality of very early parenting experience.
      This leads to the rather insane approach of OFSTED, where schools are expected to attain the same academic levels, regardless of the degree of deprivation of the children in their catchment area. Of course, there was a revolutionary idea towards the end of the labour government period called “Sure Start”. Completely extraordinary in the current context, where children and their families who were not functioning well could be provided with quite a good level of therapeutic support which could really make a difference to the quality of parenting. This is because the parents were not stigmatised for being upset, rather depressed by their economic circumstances, and knew that sometimes they were neglectful of their children.
      And in this setting, the parents and the children could begin to feel that life could be improved, and they were beginning to feel rather better.
      I’ve probably gone on too long. How we look after our children is probably one of the most complex problems facing all countries. Our country throughout the 20th century was the home of a wide range of thinkers developing wonderful new understandings about children, the factors leading to good development and how to provide services in health and education for those who had difficulties. Think of DW Winnicott, (The good enough mother), Bowlby and attachment theory. Anna Freud and Melanie Klein in the application of psychoanalytic ideas for children.
      And a whole raft of progressive education and social science thinkers. How could it all have been washed away is my plaintive cry.

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