On the morning of April 23rd 2009, parents of children at Lewisham Bridge Primary School, in Elmira Street, Lewisham, Southeast London, occupied the roof of the school buildings. They were protesting against Lewisham Council’s decision to demolish the school and replace it with a new school run by a City of London guild. The school had been closed down – pupils had to arrive an hour early to be bussed to a temporary school in New Cross, which meant a ridiculously long day for the children. Safety concerns have been raised concerning this busing of coach-loads of children every morning, including the fact that buses had been involved in two accidents.
The Council’s plan after demolishing Lewisham Bridge was to hand the school over to the Leathersellers Company, one of London’s medieval City guilds, to run a new school for ages 3 through to 16. The planned new school was to be a “foundation” school, which could set its own admissions policy. Staff would be employed by the governors, not by the local authority. It would probably have become part of a “Trust” federation, sponsored by the Leathersellers’ Company that backs the Prendergast federation of schools (although the section of Leathersellers that runs the educational charity is separate institutionally). The council had already handed two schools over to the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Academy federation and wanted three more to become a trust backed by Goldsmiths College. They really had a thing for unaccountable medieval guilds running schools in Lewisham! Lewisham Bridge was really being knocked down as part of a plan to break up the already limited comprehensive education in Lewisham; although, while Leathersellers is certainly interested in influencing local education and promoting ‘meritocracy’ it doesn’t profit financially from its sponsorship.
Leathersellers did have a long involvement in Lewisham eduction: having provided the site for the original site for Prendergast School in 1890, and funded its move to another location in 1995. The school became known as Lewisham Prendergast School in 1927, Prendergast School in 1951, and Prendergast Hilly Fields College in 2008. They then were given Crofton Park (Prendergast Ladywell Fields) – considered then to be a, ‘failing school’, and still is – before being offered the Lewisham Bridge site.
The proposed new school was to be squeezed into a site previously occupied by the primary school, and cramming a projected 835 pupils in (twice the number Lewisham Bridge had), so play areas and room sizes would fall below government recommendations. The new school was planned to only have one primary class per year, instead of the current school’s two. (which was itself down from a four class intake a few years before).
Frustratingly for the Lewisham administration, (led by New Labour ‘elected mayor’ Steve Bullock), the school buildings had been ‘listed’ by English Heritage, preventing it simply being knocked down. However, campaigners pointed out that the situation was in many ways entirely of Bullock’s making, coming as it did at the end of years of one bad decision leading to another where Lewisham’s schools were concerned.
One of the rooftop occupiers writes: “Lewisham council’s approach to pretty much all its duties and responsibilities including education was and still is, is summed up in the phrase ‘being enablers not providers’. They certainly put a lot of energy into the promotion of soft and hard federations at this time. Think of it in terms of more of the arms length management style crap they had done in housing… I think it’s important to situate it the context of Lewisham Council plans for the overall area. The demolishing of an local estate which was well regarded if not particularly pretty. It was in fact meeting most of the council criteria for what makes a good area, including mix tenure. The removal of the travellers from nearby and continually redevelopment of the nearby area into a mini Croydon of flats in and around the two railway lines.
The plans to demolish the school and replace it with a private institution came against a shortage of primary school places across London and a local shortage of secondary places in the north part of the Borough of Lewisham. The shortage of secondary places dates back to Labour’s decision to demolish the Telegraph Hill Boys School in the 90s, due to poor results, and replace it with the Crossways Academy 6th form centre; Telegraph Hill had itself been an attempt to rebrand and remake the ‘failing’ Hatcham Wood’s boys school by appointing a superhead. “But what made Lewisham Bridge the target was it own ‘poor preforming’ status which was largely day to an intake of large numbers of kids from deprived families, English as second language and the children from the the then existing traveller site. It was never going to do well in the fucking league tables. But had fantastic pastoral care.” Most of the other schools in the north of the borough operated some sort of selection, meaning that many local children could not get into them. After losing a council seat to a local education campaign, Bullock recognised that a new secondary school was needed. He then prevaricated about a site before settling on Ladywell Swimming Pool, which at the time was the borough’s only open full size swimming pool. A vigorous local campaign by pool users, combined with crucial losses for Labour in wards local to it, meant that Bullock relented on using the pool site. Lewisham Bridge was identified as an alternative because it was next to another development site, and, having a high proportion of parents whose first language isn’t English, was seen as a soft target that could be bulldozed through without much opposition – or not by anyone who mattered.
This turned out to be a miscalculation…
Firstly, although the idea had first been mooted in 2006, the council hadn’t got a any planning permission and with the buildings listed, the council’s appeal was always likely to take many months. And ever since the proposal was first announced parents had expressed their concerns and objections in the form of petitions, letters and lobbies. This campaign had exhausted most other avenues when the roof was occupied (though it was the long campaign to save the school that would lead to its being listed – see below)
On April 23rd three parents climbed on the roof of the school to protest about the way parents children and staff have been treated in the entire process to attempt to privatise our school which culminated in the decant to the Mornington Centre against the wishes of the majority of parents and the local community. Support for the protest grew quickly and by 9am that morning 4 more parents had joined us on the roof and a number of supporters stayed on the ground gathering signatures for our petition.
The occupiers demanded that the school be re-opened, and that it should remain a local community primary school open to all, not be handed over to a private unaccountable body.
As the protest went on, more parents and local supporters joined the occupation and solidarity links were built with workers then occupying the Visteon plants in Belfast, Basildon and Enfield, the Vestas wind turbine factory occupation in the Isle Of Wight and the Tower Hamlets college campaign. Links were also forged with parents occupying four primary schools in Glasgow in April that were being closed; and parents at another school in Southeast London, Charlotte Turner primary school in nearby Deptford, also occupied.
The Lewisham Bridge protest was not confined to the school roof. Hands Off Lewisham Bridge organised a 300 strong march through Lewisham, lobbied the council and disrupted then PM Gordon Brown’s visit to Prendergast School, run by the Leathersellers, brandishing placards and shouting and leaping out in front of Brown’s motorcade.
The roof top occupied by the parents was transformed into a lively campsite with running water and kitchen area and used for meetings and even for a re-hearsal by local socialist choir, The Strawberry Thieves. The South London local of Solidarity Federation and Autonomy & Solidarity, the Goldsmiths student group, were heavily involved in the campaign, doing regular shifts and building infrastructure. On Monday 8th June the garden area behind the occupied buildings was seized, opened up as it was a lot less daunting than climbing a ladder. A compost toilet was built, flowers planted, a mural painted, and coffee, tea and cake shared, amongst other activities.
The occupation of the garden seems to have prompted the council to start eviction proceedings
But in June, 100 people gathered at the School on June 24th to resist a scheduled eviction attempt: “A youthful and lively contingent joined local parents on the roof whilst local supporters gathered outside the front of the school. The mood remained positive, despite a strong police presence including a helicopter earlier in the day. Bailiffs entered the school but made no attempt to gain access to the roof where the tents stayed up and the occupation continued. Police left at around 12:30 with most of the bailiffs leaving shortly after. The occupation continued.
In August the Department of Culture Media and Sport) secretary announced that the English Heritage Grade II listing awarded to Lewisham Bridge Primary School remained in place, which as greeted by some campaigners as a sign of victory. After the plans to demolish were put on hold, the occupation was ended, after five months.
But in the end, while it put a spoke in the Council’s plans, the protection for the listed building didn’t prevent Leathersellers taking over and creating pretty much the school it had envisioned. The following year, a Lewisham Council planning board approved revised plans to replace Lewisham Bridge School. The Leathersellers-sponsored Prendergast Vale School opened on the site of Lewisham Bridge, in 2011, after pupils spent some time in temporary buildings on two other sites. The listing in the end didn’t prevent the building of the new premises (as with other listed buildings redeveloped, some large leeway can be taken to fit in with new buildings…)
More recently, in 2015, the three schools run by the Leathersellers Federation in Lewisham, including Prendergast Vale, undertook a ‘consultation’ on whether to apply for academy status, a further step into private control. Pupils and teachers at several of the schools demonstrated against the plan… Prendergast Vale saw students refusing to work in class and demanding to talk about the threat of academisation. Also playground demonstration and corridor sit ins…Teachers went on strike a couple of times in 2015 to protest against the idea. A staff governor at one of the other ‘Prendergast’ three schools did manage to veto the entire move, under a technical loophole, and the ‘Academy orders’ were rescinded in June 2015; inspiring the many similar struggles against academisation from parents, kids and teachers around the country.
Doubtless further attempts will be made by a government ideologically bent on splitting up education and turning it into a profit-making concern as much as they can get away with…
Check out the campaigns opposing academisation of the Lewisham schools:
Watch a video interview with some of the Lewisham Bridge roof top activists:
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.