Tuesday, February 25, 2014
It was the longest running strike Britain has seen and, this week, the centenary of the decision which sparked the Burston School Strike will be ‘reflected upon’ at one of the locations which played a key part in the story.
Trade unionists will be celebrating the centenary of the start of the strike itself with an event outside the Strike School Museum on Burston’s village green.
Children from Burston and Tivetshall schools will recreate the circular route taken by the striking pupils in 1914, returning to The Green for refreshments, music and surprise guests.
Anne May, niece of the 13-year-old strike leader Violet Potter, said: “Villagers were fined up to half a week’s wages and evicted from their glebe land for their commitment to their children’s teachers.
“Support came from as far and wide as suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst and Leo Tolstoy, the son of the author.
“Our parents refused to be intimidated and we are enormously proud of them and the people of Burston.”
Mike Ward, chairman of the Burston Strike School trustees, said: “These children, and their parents, knew that if they lost this battle their livelihoods were gone and they were back to being enslaved. And the same is true today – if we are not united we will return to the conditions of 1914, or worse.”
The event will take place from 2pm on Tuesday, April 1.
There are annual rallies at the strike school. Previous years have seen appearances from musician Billy Bragg and veteran MP Tony Benn, pictured.
The strike, which was sparked when two teachers at Burston’s Church of England school were sacked by Norfolk County Council, ran between 1914 and 1939.
It saw parents refuse to send children to the official county school, in preference to sending them to the Burston Strike School which was set up as an alternative.
And, on Friday, members of Norfolk County Council’s current cabinet will meet in Norwich at the Shirehall – the very building where the fate of the teachers was decided – to reflect at a time when the county is facing its own problems in children’s services.
George Nobbs, leader of Norfolk County Council said he believed it was important to hold a “symbolic” meeting 100 years to the day that the authority had told Tom and Annie (Kitty) Higdon to seek alternative employment.
Mr Nobbs said: “What we are meeting for is to reflect on the decisions which were made 100 years ago. In light of the shortcomings which have recently been exposed in the education of children in Norfolk, it shows that there is a long-term problem with education in this county.
“The Burston Strike School case shows what low aspirations some had for education, with the Higdons fighting to stop boys being taken out of lessons to work as farm labourers.
“Those low aspirations have bedevilled Norwich education ever since. This county council is determined to raise those aspirations and achievements.
“The fault was not with the teachers, but with those in authority. We’ve organised a meeting of members of the cabinet to reflect upon that and what lessons can be learned from it, even all these years later.”
Before their move to Burston, near Diss, the Higdons had worked at Wood Dalling School. But they clashed with the authorities, particularly over their encouragement of farm labourers to join trade unions and their concern that children’s education was being disrupted because they were having to work on the fields.
The Norfolk Education Committee eventually gave them the ultimatum to move schools or be dismissed, so in 1911 they took up posts at Burston and Shimpling Council School. But they soon clashed with local farmers again, and with the school managers – particularly chairman Revd Charles Tucker Eland – because of their repeated requests to improve conditions at the school.
In 1914, allegations of pupil abuse were made against Tom and Annie Higdon, which triggered a high profile dispute between Norfolk County Council, as the local education authority, school managers, local community leaders and labour, social and political organizations.
On February 28 1914, the committee meet at the Shirehall and, although they found no evidence of abuse, they said the Higdons had been discourteous to the school’s managers and gave three months’ notice.
But parents and pupils objected and, on April 1 1914, pupil Violet Potter led the children out on strike. Many parents refused to send their children to the council school and the Strike School was set up instead, initially on the village green.
Eventually, money was raised to build a permanent schoolhouse, which opened in 1917.
The strike continued until 1939, when Mr Higdon died and the last 11 pupils transferred to the county school.
The school building remains in Burston and is run as a museum.
Martin George continues his investigation into the state of education in Norfolk today, with a look at why it is so vital for our economic future, click here