Since 23rd April parents of pupils at Lewisham Bridge Primary School in Lewisham, south east London, and their supporters have been occupying a school roof. They are protesting against Lewisham Council’s plans to demolish the school building and replace it with a school for children aged 3 to16. The proposed new school will be squeezed into a site presently occupied by the primary school, which has less than half of the 835 pupils projected for the “all age” school, so play areas and room sizes would fall below government recommendations.
The new school would only have one primary class per year, instead of the current school’s two. Eleanor Davies, whose six year old son, attends the school, said:
It’s a really good school and my son is very happy. My concern is for my children’s safety and happiness but also for the secondary school children because there isn’t the space. Everybody is a loser.
The council’s own figures predict an imminent shortage of hundreds of primary school places. But planned developments in the immediate vicinity of Lewisham Bridge will make matters even worse. Indeed, just metres away, there is barren land awaiting developers’ plans (and credit) to turn this part of Lewisham into a mini Croydon.
The need for more secondary places was identified some time ago after the council closed and demolished a failing secondary in New Cross. After losing a local election to an education campaigner and the Socialist Party, the council eventually recognised they had to provide more places. They next targeted the only full size working swimming pool, despite it being too small a site and not in the right area of the borough. After a long campaign, they finally gave up on that one and targeted Lewisham Bridge.
The school has been decanted a mile and a half away to New Cross and the children are taken by bus from the school site thus losing an hour a day of school time. This started just as year 6 were on the verge of their SATs. Worse still, the council hasn’t even got planning permission because the building was listed earlier this year, with the council’s appeal likely to take many months. Ever since the proposal was first announced in 2006 parents have expressed their concerns and objections in the form of petitions, letters and lobbies.
Steve Bullock, Mayor of Lewisham, said of the listing: “The future prospects of our children and young people cannot be sacrificed for the sake of somebody’s fancy for Edwardian sinks, butterfly designs and tiling.” But it can be sacrificed for his incompetence, it seems.
The planned new school would be a “foundation” school that can set its own admissions policy. Staff would be employed by the governors, not by the local authority. It would probably become part of a “Trust” federation, sponsored by the Leathersellers’ Company that backs the Prendergast federation of schools. The council have already handed two schools over to the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Academy federation and want three more to become a trust backed by Gold-smiths College. This would mean that three unaccountable medieval guilds would be running schools in Lewisham, so Lewisham Bridge is really being knocked down as part of a plan to break up the already limited comprehensive education in Lewisham.
The occupation was inspired by a similar campaign by Glasgow Save Our Schools and by the Visteon workers’ action. Both groups gave almost immediate support and Visteon workers from both Enfield and Belfast visited and donated their (very warm) “hi-vis” yellow jackets to the occupiers while two of the Lewisham parents joined the Visteon workers leading the May Day march in Belfast. There has been widespread local support from parents, residents and many union branches, including Lewisham and Greenwich NUT.
And just as the Lewisham Bridge occupation was inspired by others, so it too inspired parents at a primary school in Deptford in neighbouring Greenwich borough to occupy. Parents at Charlotte Turner primary school have been told the school will close next year, despite a consultation in which 296 out of 297 respondents disagreed that it should be closed. The parents demanded a meeting with the management and got one that day. The council want to close the school as it is “failing”, but the alternative offered to those parents who live in Greenwich is bottom of the borough’s league tables, as well as being a 30 minute bus ride away.
The roof top has been transformed into a lively campsite with running water and kitchen area and has been 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, have been heavily involved in the campaign, doing regular shifts and building infrastructure. On Monday 8th June the garden area behind the occupied buildings was seized. This seems to have prompted the council to start eviction proceedings which, as we go to press, have been successfully resisted. The protesters have forged ahead with plans to open it up as it’s a lot less daunting than climbing a ladder. They’ve built a compost toilet and are planting flowers, painting a mural and sharing coffee, tea and cake amongst other activities.
The protest has not just been confin-ed to the roof. Hands Off Lewisham Bridge organised a 300 strong march through Lewisham on 9th May. It has also lobbied the council and disrupted Gordon Brown’s visit to Prendergast School, run by the Leathersellers, brandishing placards and shouting and leaping out in front of Brown’s motorcade.
Whatever happens with the occupation, this has been an inspiring and empowering experience. Those in-volved will not just give up, but will continue fighting and building links.