Secondary school students in England and Wales have been protesting against restrictive rules covering uniforms and toilet access. As with almost anything involving young people, the protests immediately became a culture war talking point. Some of the hostility was of a familiar kind: the kids need to learn some respect, stop bleating about their ‘human rights’ and get back to class – and striking teachers need to get back to work, too, and stop setting a bad example.
For other commentators, it was a saving grace that some of the protests were over gender-neutral toilets. ‘I’m not one to condone disruptive behaviour,’ the former Brexit Party MEP Martin Daubney tweeted, ‘but it warms the cockles to see British kids rising up & protesting against unisex toilets in schools … #HopeNotWoke’. Another Twitter user, calling themselves ‘Anti Woke Patriot’, said: ‘Go tell em kids. Well done.’
But single-sex spaces do not seem to have been an issue at most of the schools that have seen protests in recent weeks. Where concerns over ‘unisex’ toilets did figure – as at Weston School in Southampton – they were not the sole complaint. Above all, protesters cited restrictions to toilet access. At many schools, rules limiting the use of toilets during lessons have been introduced or tightened. At some, locked gates have been installed. Girls on their period have been asked to show evidence (such as sanitary products) before being allowed to leave class. At Penrice Academy in Cornwall, menstruating students can request a ‘red card’ granting them toilet access for the day.
The other main issue, the enforcement of strict dress codes, has a similarly gendered dimension. Girls complain of being made to line up to have the length of their skirts measured, sometimes by male staff. Some boys have taken to wearing skirts over their trousers in solidarity.
The complaints have elicited little sympathy from pundits. The historian and broadcaster Tessa Dunlop told GB News that ‘it’s part of becoming an adult, isn’t it, learning to control your bladder – and as a girl, managing your periods?’ Exactly how teenage girls are supposed to ‘manage’ their periods without access to school toilets, Dunlop did not say.
Commentators and school leaders may have treated the students’ complaints as trivial or unreasonable gripes, but they are in fact ‘human rights’ issues, and recognised as such in the case of adults. Beyond the dehumanising humiliation involved in the policing of intimate functions, denying toilet access is dangerous to physical health. One of the consequences of the moral panic over trans women’s use of public toilets is that many feel so unwelcome or unsafe there that they avoid using them, leading to urinary and kidney infections. A parent of a child at a Leeds school where protests had taken place reported that her son was complaining of stomach ache as a result of ‘holding his bladder’.
A survey of around two hundred parents by Charlotte Haines Lyon found more than half reporting that their child had avoided drinking so they would not need the toilet at school. Haines Lyon also points out that one reason for the problems around school toilets is there aren’t enough of them, as schools have grown but their infrastructure hasn’t, one of the many consequences of chronic underfunding.
The current protests, and the response to them, are reflective of a moment of heightened authoritarianism in schools and elsewhere. But protest by school children has a long history. In 1911, thousands of mostly working-class children went on strike in industrial towns across Britain, in protest against corporal punishment and poor conditions. In 1914, pupils at Burston School, Norfolk, walked out in support of their teachers after they were sacked, beginning technically the longest strike in British history (it lasted until 1939).
In the early 1970s, the Schools Action Union and National Union of School Students – organisations set up by school children – staged a series of actions, focusing on the abolition of corporal punishment but also levelling other criticisms at the school system. In 2003, students walked out of school in protest against the Iraq War. Since 2018, the School Strike for Climate movement has seen walkouts by school children around the world. In 2021, police were called to British schools after students staged protests: against ‘discriminatory’ uniform policies, against the hoisting of the Union Jack, in support of Palestine.
The generally dismissive tenor of reactions to such protests isn’t anything new either. In 1911, the Llanelly Mercury reported that ‘the strike epidemic now prevalent has infected the rising generation at Llanelly, and, in order to be in the “fashion”, the schoolboys decided upon a “down tool” policy.’ Meanwhile, according to the Northern Daily Mail, ‘a number of boys met and in addition to asking for the abolition of the cane and the establishment of a weekly half-holiday, requested that a penny should be given, out of the rates, to each boy every Friday. Socialists have apparently been at work amongst these young jokers.’ In a similar vein, Tom Bennett, a government adviser and the author of a ‘teacher’s guide to behaviour’, described the latest action by school students as ‘copycat behaviour … with more in common with fashions and fads than a more complex cultural phenomenon or expression of protest.’
The characterisation of children’s resistance as fundamentally inauthentic or unserious (a ‘fashion’ or ‘fad’) belongs to a broader tendency that is especially pronounced in the case of action by young people: to cast protest as something other than ‘real’ protest – as thuggery, for instance, or collective madness. In this way, action is stripped of critical meaning or content. Coverage of the ‘TikTok protests’ (as the latest school protests are widely known) also exemplifies a more general tendency for disruptive action to be analysed in terms of a logic of contagion. A focus on the platforms by which protests ‘spread’ from one school to another allows the grievances motivating them to drop out of the picture.
Is there anything that young people could do that would register as genuine dissent against their social circumstances? Bennett and other critics of the school protests suggest that those with ‘legitimate’ concerns should raise them with their teachers or with school council reps. Applied to a population as powerless as school children, this familiar counsel to civility and official channels is even more transparently laughable than usual. All the more reason to take the protests seriously.