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Fifty Years Since The Stepney School Strike

May 28, 2021
by Alan Dein

Alan Dein recalls the Stepney School Strike of 1971, fifty years ago this week


When I found a copy of Stepney Words in a school jumble sale, I had no idea what a remarkable discovery I had made. I can still remember reading the poems while walking home through the very same East London streets depicted in many of the poems. With titles like ‘The Chance,’ ‘Death in a Churchyard,’ ‘The World is Dim and Dull,’ ‘Let it Flow Joe,’ and writing that was vivid and raw and utterly captivating, I had stumbled upon the inner thoughts and observations of young people aged eleven to fifteen years from another time.

The beautifully atmospheric cover photograph confirmed that their Stepney was a world when the dockyard cranes and heavy industry depicted in a brown haze were still a part of the working life of the River Thames. I knew I had found a precious document and I felt compelled to find out more. A visit to Tower Hamlets Local History Library helped me discover the remarkable story and I made a BBC Radio documentary in 1997 about the astonishing impact this thirty-two-page booklet had on so many people’s lives, and upon the meaning of classroom education .

In May 1971, Chris Searle, a young English teacher was sacked by the governors of Sir John Cass Foundation School in Stepney for publishing Stepney Words, a collection of his students’ poems. Searle had encouraged his pupils to write about their lives and their neighbourhood. These were same streets where his own literary hero, the great poet Isaac Rosenberg, had once lived.

In response to Searle’s dismissal, on the 27th May 1971, eight hundred pupils, including those from neighbouring schools, went on strike. With banners aloft and chanting ‘We Shall Overcome’ in the pouring rain, they refused to return to school until Chris Searle was reinstated.

Following a spate of industrial disputes that had seen dustcarts and the postal system out of action, many of the youngsters had seen their parents on picket lines, so they followed their pattern. Several strikers marched into the offices of the local paper, who then called the national papers. The children’s strike was front page news, and the next day the strikers took to the streets of London, marching from Stepney to Trafalgar Sq, making sure that their route took them right through Fleet St which generated even more coverage.

The publication of Stepney Words extended beyond the strike. There was a second volume later in the year, readings by the young writers at poetry festivals, and some of the Stepney poets set up a pioneering arts project in Cable St, the Basement Writers, a multi-disciplinary platform for working class writers and performers.

Behind the scenes, controversy raged surrounding of the reinstatement of Searle. In 1973, with support from the National Union of Teachers and the Inner London Education Authority, Chris Searle did get his job back. The student strikers were vindicated. But by then the older ones had already left school and, on his return, Searle was ostracised by other staff and denied a class of his own.

He moved to Langdon Park School in Poplar where he helped to publish The People Marching On, a ground-breaking anthology of key events in East End history written by the English students.
Stepney Words remained in print throughout the seventies and into the eighties, selling tens of thousands of copies.

In 1973 Hackney’s Centerprise compiled the two volumes of Stepney Words into a single edition and hailed “the great upsurge in community and working class publishing … where the movement to write and publish was taken up in a small area of East London, today it is being continued in many other towns and cities throughout the country.”

Over the years since my documentary, I have been invited to a number of reunions of the Stepney Poets and strikers, along with Chris Searle, who went on to head a secondary school in Sheffield after working in East Africa and the Caribbean. In the course of these gatherings, the events of 1971 have been described as extraordinary and life-changing by those who were there. They are all in agreement that it is their former English teacher whose creativity and vision was their inspiration. For Searle, it was the energy and actions of those young people who set the course of his life’s work in education.

Later this year, we are planning to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary with a symposium held at Queen Mary University in Mile End exploring the events of 1971 and their legacy, with teachers, students, young poets and community groups discussing both the immediate impact and the longer-term influence, encouraging new generations of young people to find their own voices.

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The Stepney School Strike of 1971

18 Responses leave one →
  1. Margaret Shea permalink
    May 28, 2021

    It’s hard to believe that they would sack a Teacher for encouraging his students to write and express their raw innocence. But the response from the young hearts/minds to refuse to attend School until he was reinstated was an admirable show of principle and comradeship highlighting the injustice of a bad decision.

  2. Herry Lawford permalink
    May 28, 2021

    Fascinating and powerful.

  3. @writerlytone permalink
    May 28, 2021

    Great stuff from Alan Dein.

  4. Yvonne Dollinger permalink
    May 28, 2021

    like so many mornings before I read the entry and am moved and crying.
    The stories are so precious.
    Life seems precious.
    I am not a native speaker and only visited London as guest in the 70s – still
    THANK YOU! THANKYOU! THANK YOU! Gentle Author !
    Yvonne

  5. Annie Green permalink
    May 28, 2021

    That takes me back. What a peculiar situation and what honest writing. I remember being at school then, occasional protests and sit-ins and singing Give Peace A Chance in the lunch hour. I am so pleased that Mr Searle carried on his work. Teaching literature is important because it gives people a voice and it helps them to hear the voices of others.

  6. David Gooding permalink
    May 28, 2021

    I don’t get it.
    Why was Chris Searle sacked for publishing his pupils poems, and upon his reinstatement why was he ostracised by his fellow teachers and not given a class?

  7. Greg T permalink
    May 28, 2021

    Echoing David Gooding
    WHY?

    Secondary question … what happened to Chris Searle & is he still alive?

  8. May 28, 2021

    Powerful, moving… I wish there were more teachers like Chris Searle.

  9. May 28, 2021

    And following both of those, I hope that at least some of Christopher Seale’s former colleagues are now ashamed.

  10. @writerlytone permalink
    May 28, 2021

    Chris Searle is not only alive and well but he is still writing, editing and encouraging others. He recently helped re-publish a booklet of Sylvia Pankhurst’s prison poems, 100 years on from the original.
    Why was he sacked? The school governors didn’t like the tone of the poems – too gloomy, apparently – and they felt he had disobeyed an instruction. When he came back, some of the teachers who had sided with the powers-that-be during the strike (either through fear or because they thought Chris was a long-haired do-gooder who didn’t believe in caning the kids), were embarrassed at his return. But others were supportive, as were many of the pupils who were still there – including me.

  11. May 28, 2021

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a wonderful piece by Alan Dein about the Stepney School Strike some fifty years ago. I am glad to learn that Dein was reinstated and eventually had a successful career beyond East London. But what a remarkable thing he did with those children. They must have been so proud to see their words in print.

    I taught English for many years in an inner city school. Years later I attended a 20th year reunion. As I was standing chatting with some former students, I became aware of a voice behind me quoting from JULIUS CAESAR – “There is a tide in the affairs of men/ Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…”

    Now that was a thrill. We never know what students remember.

    Just saw David’s question above “why was he ostracized by fellow teachers?” Jealousy and resentment, my friend. They knew that he had a gift that they lacked.

  12. May 28, 2021

    Thank you for this stirring, provocative post. My mind is tumbling with cross currents.
    Most of all, I think of the students who were encouraged to put their daily realities into words.
    Was this a one-time endeavor for some? — or did it unleash a lifelong “writing habit” for others, who went on to keep journals, write more poetry, get published, etc? And how did the students feel when they saw their words on a page for the first time? I suspect it must have been empowering and life-affirming to see those unfiltered thoughts, collected in a book.
    I salute Chris Searle’s efforts, and all teachers who boldly advocate for their students.

  13. Jill Wilson permalink
    May 28, 2021

    I agree with David Gooding and Greg T – what was the school thinking?

    Hopefully things have moved on since then, and if anything as powerful and creative was done by schoolchildren today it would be celebrated and encouraged.

  14. May 28, 2021

    What a fabulous story, very heartening to read about the response of the pupils and also that Chris Searle prevailed (albeit elsewhere) and continues to do great things. I can see a book and a film!

  15. May 28, 2021

    I only vaguely recall this episode, but loved the verses shared above. Straight to the point! Well done Chris Searle and the inspiration you inspired in others.

  16. Cherub permalink
    May 29, 2021

    I grew up in the 70s, started high school in 1973. I often think back on it as a modern era, then I read a piece like this and realise it was actually still quite backward looking. Terrible that these young people were to be denied freedom of expression.
    I remember having a school strike in 1975 as girls were campaigning to be allowed to wear trousers during the bitterly cold winter months. Of course back then we were told no, now all I see are girls going to school in dark uniform trousers – but in my day we were seen as rebels who had to be silenced!
    ,
    About 10 years ago I did voluntary work with a local housing and homeless charity in Scotland. They had access to emergency hostels for people, the longer term accommodation ran classes. One was about encouraging homeless people to write poetry or creative writing about their situation. I still have the pamphlet produced, it has some very powerful and poignant stuff in it; also a lot of untapped writing talent.

  17. Paul Lunn permalink
    May 30, 2021

    Forsaken Lover was a set text on an Open University course I studied in 1975: Making Sense of Society (D101). A powerful book on the power of words.

  18. Laurent Beaulieu permalink
    May 30, 2021

    It is wonderful to see this piece, hope Chris Searle can be part of your celebrations.

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