Our Big Society
On Tuesday, the TUC will launch a report on the nature of current and future community engagement by trades unions in the UK. Ahead of this, Christine Gibbons, an Oral Historian at Liverpool Museums tells the story of a remarkable example of community engagement and empowerment that took place in Croxteth, Liverpool in the early 1980’s – the occupation of Croxteth Comprehensive School.
Almost 30 years ago an incredible story of community activism began to unfold on the outskirts of Liverpool, the effects of which still continue to shape the lives of the local community there today.
The area was Croxteth, a large council estate built in the 1950’s as part of the post war slum clearance programme in Liverpool. A mixture of bad planning, manufacturing decline and lack of local amenities meant that by the early 1980’s the area had a number of severe social and economic problems. A shocking report in the early 1980’s stated that 81% of Croxteth residents survived on state benefits and youth unemployment was 95%. Nervous breakdowns, family break ups and attempted suicides were common. Housing conditions were unsanitary and the estate had a growing heroin problem.
When the Liberal controlled local authority declared in 1980 that the local school – Croxteth Comprehensive was to close the local community decided enough was enough. The school and the youth club attached to it were the only amenities the community had and they weren’t going to let it go without a fight. Within days of the shock announcement 650 parents met at the school and formed an action committee to campaign against the closure. A year and half of lobbying, letter writing, public meetings and media stunts ensued but all to no avail. By the summer of 1982 the school was due to close. After one final unsuccessful push when members of the committee met with the then Secretary of Education, Keith Joseph, the action committee members were returning home deflated when a monumental collective decision was taken to occupy the school.
Volunteers throughout the community rallied round. People slept in the school, drew up picket lines and refused the local authority access to the building. During the summer the volunteers set up a summer scheme and come September a decision was taken to run the school just as before. Up to 40 volunteer teachers were involved in the education of the children alongside dozens of local people who also took classes, raised funds, provided lunches for the children, worked in the office, slept in the school, cleaned the building daily, provided caretaking duties and continued to run the campaign and lobby local councillors. All in all the achievements of local people was immense and the school continued to run right throughout the academic year of 1982/83. By the time the local election came round in May the committee had secured a deal that the school would go back under the control of the local authority if Labour won the election. Labour won with a landslide victory and the local community were victorious in saving their school.
The story however doesn’t end there. It wasn’t simply a case of taking back the school as it had been officially closed by central government and so there were all sorts of legal issues. The school thus ran as an independent until 1985 and the local volunteers continued in the running of the new Croxteth Community Comprehensive. The original action committee also became involved in all sorts of other community initiatives and today are known as the Alt Valley Community Trust who run a number of facilities in the area from training companies through to the local farm, a skills centre, a catering company and much more besides. For more info see www.communiversity.co.uk/
In collaboration with National Museums Liverpool, the Trust has recently held an exhibition on the project including many photographs taken at the time. If you would like any more information on this incredible story please get in touch.
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