The Radical History Network(RaHN)is a blog that operates as a forum for radical history groups to publish reviews, reports and articles on various aspects of radical history, and advertise meetings and act as a discussion forum for those interested in radical history. It is broadly libertarian socialist in outlook.
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There were 11 adults and two infants in attendance. We
started with a brief discussion at the beginning about the suitability of the
venue (the meeting room had a notice on the door saying that children were not
allowed!) and time of the meeting (perhaps a Sunday afternoon would be better
for people with kids?).
After a brief introduction to RaHN, the first speaker was
Chester – “The struggle for council and community nurseries
in Hackney from the 1970s onwards”
The focus of Gail's talk was on institutional struggles
(defending childcare provision by the state, workplaces etc.) but she noted
that there also exists a parallel history of alternative childcare provision –
for example non-traditional crèches.
Hackney has a long tradition of radicalism and feminism
stretching back [at least?] to the 18th Century. It has been an
ethnically diverse borough for a long time with various ups and downs with the
local council. Central government always saw Hackney as a laboratory to try out
new ideas, including a disastrous attempt to outsource housing benefit via a
company called IT-net [which resulted in huge backlogs – see http://www.hackneyindependent.org/category/it-net/.
Provision for children under five years old has always been subject to local
and national political whims.
Gail's son started at nursery in 1992. Shortly after this
the council's right wing and male dominated Labour leadership threatened to
close a number of nurseries across the borough. A campaign to resist the
closures began, which resulted in nursery staff being told off by the council
bigwigs because they didn't believe that parents were capable of
self-organisation! The campaign was lots of people's first experience of direct
action, including invading the council chamber with kids.
Gail also noticed that community nurseries were addressing
council meetings with their grievances – indicating that there is a need for
Council nurseries were funded by Hackney Council, under
social services. Community nurseries were set up activists (some as part of
radical squatting movements in the 1970s). Some of these became registered
charities and more official in the 1980s – the illusion of independence
remained, but ultimately they also relied on the council for funding.
In the eighties the Greater London Council had a policy of
funding childcare, which lead to Turkish and Orthodox Jewish nurseries being
founded. Hackney also had a policy on private nurseries. In the 1990s the
borough had one of the best ratios of childcare in the country (still not
Hackney Under Fives started in the 1970s, demanding 1,000
more nursery places.
Hackney Community Nurseries Association – campaigned to get
the same pay and conditions as council nursery workers.
Both of these got submerged by bureaucracy/funding issues
and did not survive the 1980s.
Hackney Flashers (an 80s feminist photography collective –
) campaigned around childcare and documented the women and children at the
Market Nursery near Broadway Market, which was originally set up in a derelict
house. Broadway Market was a very deprived area in the early 80s! (The first
women's refuges were also set up in squatted houses). The group's “Who's
Holding The Baby” exhibition included quotes from Market Nursery users and
highlighted the general lack of childcare provision.
The Market Nursery eventually received a short term licence
from Hackney, but was run by the community, under parents' control. The nursery
still exists today but is funded by the Learning Trust and the wealthy parents
who have moved to the area recently. Despite the huge increase in wealth in the
area, the nursery staff have had no pay rise for 11 years.
Other community nurseries:
The 136 Nursery started in Centerprise, a radical bookshop/centre.
Beatty Nursery, Beatty Road N16
Rainbow nursery still exists, as does a Turkish nursery.
Hackney Council's direct childcare provision
The council ran its own nursery and various nurseries were
available to school staff.
1992-2002 was the heyday of Friends of Hackney Nurseries
There were demos on the town hall steps. Orthodox Jewish
nursery staff got dispensations from Rabbis to join in a picket of Whitehall.
In 2001 Atherden Nursery was threatened with closure by the
council, so local parents occupied it for several months until the decision was
reversed. The council lied to get the occupiers out and then closed the
nursery. The building was then reoccupied for 3 months as a community centre
before being evicted and sold off.
Fountayne Nursery was also occupied and remained open.
But ultimately many of the victories were short lived –
only surviving until the next round of funding cuts.
The early noughties saw the closure of a few community
nurseries and new council structures (including the Learning Trust – another
Hackney pilot experiment in outsourcing) meaning that there was less scope for
In mainstream politics the noughties has seen a shift away
from universal childcare towards a “safety net” for the worse off, or emphasis
on getting parents back to work. The focus for kids is now on learning rather
The 2012 cuts put many of the gains achieved by Friends of
Hackney Nurseries in jeopardy, but also saw a brief resurgence of the group. An
election hustings was invaded at the North London Muslim Centre and protestors
were assured that there would be no cuts to nurseries before the election. And
indeed many of the nurseries who challenged the cuts did manage to retain their
grants. A successful campaign but with less community involvement – it was
quite middle class.
Kallin – “When Islington nursery workers shared a platform with the miners”
Ivor has been a nursery worker since
1979 – based in Islington from the eighties and most of the nineties. He was
involved with a four month strike in 1984 and still has his “Islington Workers
Bite Back” t-shirt from that era.
The strike was interesting as it
wasn't about pay, but the ratio of staff to children. The workers were fighting
for better protection for children and their families. In the pre-internet era,
one of the strikers would cycle down to Fleet Street with hand-typed press
releases about the campaign.
Nursery workers were some of the
poorest paid workers in Islington. They were mainly women (from diverse ethnic
backgrounds). The workers were up against Margaret Hodge (who went on to become
Minister for Children for the New Labour government in 2003 – she allegedly
employed a nanny for her own children at the time of the strike) and the
champagne socialist Labour council. The workers also had to lobby NALGO (National Association of Local Government Officers)
to get strike pay. On the plus side they had good support from council workers
including sympathetic strike action.
The strikers were demanding a minimum
ratio of 1 staff member to 4 kids. They were initially offered 1:5. After a series
of strikes, pickets, occupations and good coverage in the local press they
achieved a ratio of 1 staff member to 4.3 kids.
The nursery workers strike took place
at the same time as the Miners' Strike. Nursery workers marched through
Islington with striking miners and representatives of both groups spoke at the
town hall. Joint collections were organised to raise funds and a delegation
from Islington was sent to a pit village in South Wales.
This was a long strike against a
supposedly “radical” council. (Islington Town Hall had a bust of Lenin on
display at the time!). For most participants this was their first experience of
industrial action. Another strike followed on a similar theme in 1989.
Subsequent legislation has made the
issue of staff/child ratios less subject to negotiation at a local level. In
2015 you can see ratios of as low as 1:8!
Ivor's focus has always been on
working with families as well as individual children.
Andrea Francke who was due to talk on “the
History of nursery campaigns at the Royal College of Art and London College of
Communication” but wasn't able to attend. She sent
a message to the meeting stressing how quickly knowledge of past struggles
disappears – and how important it is to remember successes.
·One participant noted that we still do
not have 24 hour free childcare.
·A question was asked about current
alternatives to state run childcare. An example was given of parent run crèches, where parents each worked one
day a week alongside a paid worker. The example of radical community nurseries
was also raised (such as 123 Dartmouth Park Hill and one in Greenwood Road in
Dalston). These were originally set up on women's lib principles. “We had it
relatively easy then – there were empty properties to squat and it was possible
to live on low wages or the dole.” - Gail.
·One attendee had tried to set up a
free/collective feminist nursery six years ago, but found it hard to get people
to commit to involvement. Perhaps childcare is not seen as a community
responsibility – rather as a private/personal one? The various
legal/bureaucratic difficulties in setting up alternative childcare in the
current climate were noted – CRB checks, insurance, not being able to use the facility
for your own kids, etc.
·General agreement that being a parent
can radicalise you. Even taking a child to a meeting can make people feel
excluded from feminist events (at which crèches
are still the exception rather than the rule). This creates problems of who can
actually attend political meetings – issues of class privilege?
·A couple of years ago the London
Radical Childcare Collective was active – setting up family friendly blocs on
demos and other events. But it eventually wound up as there was a feeling that
the collective was just being called in to do kids’ spaces – parents consuming
their services rather than working collectively.
·The development of the kids’ space at
the London Anarchist Bookfair was also discussed. One participant felt that the
old system of stallholders volunteering to do slots looking after children was
extremely problematic (he had ended up doing this without any experience of
skills in childcare and found it mildly terrifying). The professionalisation of
the kids’ spaces at the bookfair should now mean that they are safer and more
fun for the children – which means that parents can be more confident about
attending the event.
·The example of Hackney Independent's
Kids' Cinema was given as an example of a small way that community politics can
help with childcare issues. Hackney Independent were active in the noughties in
Haggerston and Hoxton. During most half term holidays they would organise a
cinema show for kids in estate community centres. These were usually well
attended. “For me it was a crucial way of demonstrating that we were serious
about community empowerment in working class areas. For a couple of hours
parents could have a bit of breathing space, whilst their kids got to hang
around with people their own age and maybe make new friends. To do this over a
few years showed that we were about more than sticking a newsletter through
people's doors and saying the right things. I think people were more likely to
listen to what we had to say because of it.” - John
·Christine Pratt's book on the history
of midwives in Haringey was recommended.
·It was suggested that mutual aid does
still take place in families (and to some extent in communities) but we need to
build up strong communities to make this happen on a wider scale. Dave noted
the huge support he had had during the McLibel case. A group from Nottingham
set up a rota for 18 months to help him out, including childcare.
·Claimants’ Unions in the 1970s
organised camps for kids in the countryside. The Big Green Gathering and Earth
First camps are quite good for kids too.
·When a lot of park playground
equipment fell into disrepair in the 1980s, community organised Friends Groups
worked to get it repaired or replaced.
·A brief discussion of blue/pink gender
stereotypes for kids – counteracted by the “Let Toys Be Toys” and “Pink Stinks”
campaigns. And the Barbie Liberation Organisation who exchanged the voice boxes
in Barbie and GI Joe dolls to amusing subversive effect.
This stereotyping is all seen in
recent media coverage of neuroscience that argues there is a “male brain” and a
“female brain” - debunked by the book “Delusions of Gender” by Cordelia Fine.
·Childcare workers are still underpaid
and undervalued. 24 hour free childcare sounds like a crazy demand, but we have
already won 24 hour healthcare funded by the tax payer (although this needs
·Perhaps 24 hour free childcare isn't
possible whilst the idea of the sanctity of motherhood is still prevalent.
Mothers are supposed to be self-sacrificing.
·Tax credits – are they an example of
the state atomising people? Individual families given rebates to spend as
consumers in the market of childcare... The focus now is on “getting women back
·“In And Against The State”
recommended. (A book from 1979 discussing the experience of working class
people, mostly socialists, in working within the public sector in the late
1970s, or relying upon it as service provider; and the contradictions that
·Lordship Rec regeneration – now includes
Polish Mums' group, drop-ins for parents.
·Where can you fit 10 mothers with
prams? Corporate spaces unwelcoming.
·Does internet culture mean that we are
closer to people around the world but less likely to interact with people
across the street? Is it harder these days to feel safe when meeting strangers?
A split between activist groups and community groups was noted. The latter are
much more likely to publicise members' home addresses. It wasn't always like
this – radical newsletters and bookshops in the 70s/80s often included home
addresses for groups, contacts.
Children of the 1970s:
not in a nursery and not in London.
(These three were all right really.)
Radical History Network (RaHN)