by Caron and Jain, Glasgow Anarcha-feminists
“If you take these schools out of our community that leaves a big black hole in Maryhill. If you do that you would be as well taking the rest of us and putting us in the hole too."- Donna McKenzie
A group of angry parents, mostly mothers and grandmothers, occupied two primary schools in Maryhill, north Glasgow, earlier this year. This was a reaction against Glasgow City Council's plans to close 25 primary schools and nurseries across the city. In response to these proposals, parents and residents started a ‘Save Our Schools’ campaign that saw Wyndford and St Gregory’s primaries being occupied during the Easter holidays and Wyndford primary again in June by outraged parents determined not to let the closures go ahead. The occupations received a huge amount of support from local anarchists and activists and from people involved in other occupations across the UK, Europe and the rest of the world.
Wyndford and St Gregory’s schools are on the Wyndford estate in Maryhill, Glasgow. Years of underinvestment by local government have resulted in a high level of social deprivation in the area, with the catchment area for the schools suffering from high unemployment, drug and health problems and poor quality housing. Despite this, there is a strong community on the estate made up of residents who are proud to call it their home and who are determined to make it a better place to live. At the heart of the community are its schools - Wyndford Primary, a protestant school, and St Gregory’s, a catholic school. The schools adjoin one another and have been working together for years against the sectarianism still prevalent in north Glasgow. As well as winning numerous awards for high achievement, the schools are used extensively by local community groups and provide valuable after-school clubs for the pupils, many of whom come from single-parent families. In April, both schools were occupied for two weeks by parents and supporters. The occupations only ended when the council refused to allow children back to the school once the Easter break had finished if the occupiers didn’t leave. Wyndford primary was re-occupied at the start of the summer holidays in June for 18 days in further protest and to prevent the council from stripping and demolishing the buildings.
The council claim that the closures are motivated by the dilapidated state of buildings and low pupil numbers. But the real reason is clear – it will save them around £3.7 million per year, a huge saving for a council with large budget deficit. The children affected will be moved to other schools resulting in longer and less safe journeys to and from school and larger class sizes. Parents on low incomes face being forced to pay for after-school care if they can’t reach the new schools in time to pick their children up at the end of the school day. The council maintain that they have used criteria such as educational benefit, building capacity and occupancy, transport arrangements and the wider community impact to determine which schools to close. In reality they have picked on schools in poorer areas already ground down by years of underinvestment, social problems and lack of services where they think residents won’t fight back. Their plan backfired, as they underestimated the strength and determination of the local community, the anger of the parents and the massive amount of support they have locally, nationally and internationally.
The Glasgow schools occupations come during a wave of occupations and strikes across the UK and Ireland. The occupations have mainly been in workplaces, like the Waterford Glass plant, the Prisme factory in Dundee, the Visteon car plants in Enfield and Belfast and the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight. One other school in the UK has been occupied - Lewisham Bridge School in south London – after Lewisham council announced it was planning to demolish it and replace it with a new school run by a private company. Across the UK and Ireland people are fighting back, defying the consequences of global capitalism and the recession with direct action and community and workplace solidarity.
We spoke to three women involved in the Wyndford school occupation, Nikki, Donna and Allison, to find out how they came to take part in the occupation and what effect it had on them and their community.
How did you get involved in the initial occupation?
Donna: Initially we swithered about doing anything as only a handful of people were involved, but it all worked out. We arranged childcare, raised a bit of money between ourselves and phoned round lots of people. Although we had been planning it for a wee while, the final decision to occupy the school was pretty much made at the last minute. Once we were in the school though everything came together and everyone clubbed together to get a really strong campaign going.
Allison: We were in contact with people planning occupations at other schools in Glasgow, who wanted to wait until the council had made its final decision to act. But we knew we couldn't let the Easter holiday go by without doing anything.
Had you ever done anything similar before?
Nikki: No, never. It's the sort of thing though where you can't just sit back and do nothing.
Allison: Aye, when it's your kids' lives you feel like you've got to do something.
Donna: I've never known much about politics, but now I know who to trust and who not to trust.
How did the occupation affect the community?
Donna: It's really brought the community together. Now nobody walks past each other without saying hello. We've started a community council and you see a lot of the same faces there that were involved in the occupation. We're not going to let anything like this happen again here.
Nikki: Now you stop and talk to people you wouldn't have spoken to before. Older people are a lot less isolated, you know more of the local kids. It's brought everyone closer together really.
Allison: Yeah, now when you walk down the street people say “Oh that's them from the schools!” It gets people talking to each other, not just those who were involved in the occupation but everyone.
Nikki: I think everyone knows the score with politicians now, knows what they're like. They make all these promises, get their picture in the paper, then behind our backs they do things like this.
Allison: Labour will never get voted in here again, that's for sure. But we don't trust any of the parties – Labour, Lib Dem, whatever, they're all the same.
Donna: We've always had a distrust for the police but now we know the politicians are worse.
Nikki: They're all liars and cheats.
How did taking part in the occupation affect you personally?
Donna: I think we've realized how strong we are, and how strong a mother's love really is. When it comes to your kids, you'll fight tooth and nail for them and we're living proof of that. You get an enormous sense of pride knowing that you've stood up for your kids. We learnt a lot about ourselves and what we're capable of.
Nikki: Although it was quite scary at first, we've learnt how to stand up for ourselves. It's something to teach the kids as well, that they don't have to put up with this kind of thing, that they can do something about it.
Donna: We experienced every emotion imaginable really.
Would you do it again?
Nikki: Absolutely. And again. And again!
Allison: It's good to know we've had an impact. Even if we didn't win this fight, we're well prepared for the next one.
Donna: We also want to help out people in the same situation, we've got a lot of solidarity with parents doing occupations elsewhere. Here in the Wyndford we've got another fight coming up with the council's 'regeneration' plans that are going to impact the area even further. They know how well we can fight though.
Allison: It'll be us calling the shots next time, not the other way round!
Occupations are not a new form of struggle, but the wave this year follows decades of this form of resistance fading into the background. If they are successful, they can prevent the closure of schools or workplaces. However, even if they don’t win they have a wider social impact that is just as, if not more, important. They bring communities together, empowering the people involved and giving them the opportunity to fight back against those in power. The campaign against school closures in Glasgow will continue, with the resolve of those involved strengthened by the knowledge that they have the ability to stand up to the council, for themselves and for their children.
BBC/STV news report