The Bricks of Burston

The Bricks of Burston is currently touring East Anglia, marking one hundred years since the beginning of the Burston School Strike.

Written by Anthony Cule and Emma MacLusky and directed by Cordelia Spence it is a three hander, with Georgia Robson playing Annie (Kitty) Higdon, Tom Grace as Tom Higdon and Alex Helm as Rev Charles Tucker Eland.  The play is presented by the Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company, a relatively new East Anglian based theatre company which draws on the stories and heritage from that region.

 

Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company – The Bricks of Burston

This is no stage reproduction of The Burston Rebellion, instead it chooses to focus on teachers Annie and Tom Higdon, their relationship with each other, as well their fraught relationship with the Rev Charles Tucker Eland.  It is an emotional exploration of the events leading up to the strike, and beyond, as recollected by the three characters.  It is, at times, challenging, examining the frailties of the heroes as well as the humanity within the anti-hero, the Rev Charles Tucker Eland.  It would have been easy to present a hagiography of the Higdons to please a sympathetic audience.   However, Georgia Robson and Tom Grace’s performance tackles Tom Higdon’s temper as well as the tensions between the couple as one expresses exhaustion with challenging authority while the other urges that strength be found to continue. There are some comic moments, such as the Higdon’s  joint bewilderment at the support the strike school received from people they had never met (…a real life communist, I wonder if he knew Marx).   Alex Helm as the Rev Charles Tucker Eland was convincingly aged beyond his youthful looks with a ghostly appearance and a commanding presence throughout.  It is a story about who controls education, the purpose and relevance of education for working class communities and is as relevant today as it was in 1914.

Prior knowledge of the story of the Burston Strike School may well be helpful to appreciating the play, though it may be the case that this prior knowledge of the story is what attracts a potential audience.    The play continues to run until May 15th at various venues across East Anglia (information from The Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company).

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Burston Inspires

Over the years I have encountered a number of teachers, ex-teachers, and educationalists (some of whom would describe themselves as ‘radical’) who have never heard of the Burston Strke School, let alone the annual rally, where, their colleagues, representatives of their union march their banners along the route where children marched in defense of their profession.

A typical conversation about my visit to Burston, might go something like this:

“I went to the Burston Strike School Rally”

“Oh really, whats that?”

“Well, its where the longest strike in history took place, the pupils of Burston, near Diss went on strike in protest over the unjust sacking of their teachers by the village squirearchy, a strike school was built on the village green, the school continued for 25 years”

“Thats interesting, I’ve never heard of it”

Marching the Candlestick at Burston

I wonder what sense of the history, (and thus, what sense of the present) of their own professional identity these individuals have.

How much do they know about who controls teaching and education, continues to do so, and the consequences of this?

Knowledge about the history of the struggles of the teaching profession may help today’s educators understand that contemporary debates and struggles over who controls education, what ideologies those in control invoke, the purposes for which children are schooled, and professional autonomy are not radically different from the battles fought in Burston by Tom and Kitty Higdon a century ago.

What awareness do they have of teachers’ collective power?

Tom and Kitty Higdon appeared powerless in the face of spurious allegations which led to them being sacked. However, when supported by children, parents and the labour movement, the fragile powers of those who had the Higdons sacked was exposed and thus diminished. They were able to continue teaching the children whom the Burston squirearchy had sought to control.

Apart from the events of Burston, perhaps if today’s teachers were aware of the Lowestoft school strikes in 1923 they might believe in the strength and possibilities of collective unionised power. They may also be more able to make sense of contemporary threats to their profession, particularly Free Schools and Academies schools which have no requirement to follow the School Teachers Pay and Conditions Document.

What must they think about the curriculum, and pedagogy?

Without a sense of history, teachers are at risk of believing that being a radical teacher involves adopting more progressive practices than their predecessors or colleagues. If they desire to adopt more child centred, libertarian approaches, teachers can turn to, for example, Montessori, Steiner, or Froebel. However, they could turn to their own history of teacher radicalism in order to find alternative approaches (Teddy O’Neill for example).  What is taught, how it is taught, and the extent to which pupils are encouraged to exercise their agency is shaped by the social, political, and economic context of the time.  In other words, there is an alternative, but we don’t have to wait for, or rely upon an expert to develop a new education system.  We could look to our own history to find that an alternative is already there.

If you are visiting the Diss area, you will find no heritage signs pointing visitors to the Burston Strike School, which is strange, given that it is a part of our heritage.

Burston Strike School Rally 2011

I’m a Potter fan.

Who can fail to admire a school child who, in the face of injustice, stands up to people, older, and more powerful than herself, for what she believes in?  In the face of opposition, bullying, and threats, Potter and her peers got what they demanded, bringing about change for fellow pupils, and the children of Burston.

Violet Potter – a Burston Striker

Violet Potter was a pupil at Burston, in Norfolk when, in 1914 she helped organise a strike in protest over the sacking of teachers, Tom and Kitty Higdon.  A previous post from last year gives a little more detail of the story.

It was the 1st April 1914 when Tom and Kitty Higdon were handing over the keys to the village school that a group of school pupils began marching around the village chanting “We want our teachers back”.

This was no April Fool’s Joke. The children got their teachers back in what became the ‘Burston Stike School’.  It was a strike which continued for 25 years, and remains the longest strike in history.

The strike was not an easy thing for the children or their families to support.  The Higdon’s were in conflict with the Church, local landowners and employers. The very livelihoods of families could be at stake for supporting the strike school.  So, when you are facing injustice, or intransigent stupidity from those who seemingly have more power than you, and you are scared, or being bullied, just remember those school children.

This coming weekend, on Sunday 4th September, an annual rally will take place in Burston, Norfolk.  The rally will kick of at 11.00 on Church Green.  This year, the union Unite organises the rally, which will feature speeches by Diana Holland from Unite, Kelvin Hopkins MP, NHS worker Dave Carr, and student activist Mary Robinson. Entertainment will be provided by poet John Hegley, with music from Red Flags, as well as Robb Johnson & The Irregulars.

Unite the Union’s website has more information on the rally, including directions.

Burston Strike School Rally 2010

This year’s Burston Strike School Rally will take place on Sunday 5th September.

It will feature the following speakers:

  • Tony Benn
  • Chris Keates, NASUWT general secretary
  • Len McCluskey, UNITE assistant general secretary

And music from:

  • RED FLAGS
  • Diss School Brass Band

And

Session chairs will include: Teresa Mackay, UNITE regional organiser for women, race and equalities and  Peter Medhurst (retired TGWU regional industrial organiser)

An annual rally is held each September in the Norfolk village of Burston to remember the Strike School.  This school represented the ‘longest strike in history’ when pupils from Burston school went on strike to protest at the sacking of their teachers; Tom and Kitty Higdon.

Tom and Kitty had arrived at the school, finding it unfit for purpose.  The school building was cold and damp,and Higdons set about putting this right.  Kitty lit the schoolroom’s fire to dry the childrens’ wet clothes.  This was, apparently an act of defiance, resulting in criticism from the school management – she had not asked permission first!

Tom and Kitty were also socialists, committed, through education, to encouraging children to imagine possibilities they never imagined they might have.  They were popular with children and local parents, and they saw attendance at the school increase.  This, in turn meant that Tom and Kitty were less popular with local landowners – they saw the importance of child labour more than education.

And so, in short, they were sacked.  The pupils though, were not having this, and went on strike, effectively creating a new school.

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