During 2018 and 2019 Australian student strikes and rallies, numbering up to 150 000 participants nationally, have joined international efforts demanding immediate action to prevent catastrophic climate change. Although these have been portrayed by politicians and media outlets addicted to mining company profits as an aberration, Australia has a long history, or our story, of students walking out of the classroom to demand change be made.
At a school level issues have included resistance to corporal punishment and gender segregation as well as campaigns to increase student control over what they can wear, say, learn and do. Confronted by racism, transphobia, homophobia, and age and gender discrimination, students have often had to stand up for their rights both within and beyond school boundaries. Despite facing suspension, expulsion and beatings school students have often participated, if not led the way, in campaigns opposing war, environmental destruction and nuclear weapons. Sometimes they have done so with the support of parents, teachers and other allies, often they have had to go it alone.
Action by school students has taken many forms, both individual and collective. Outside of events too big or controversial for the mainstream media to ignore, or smaller ones captured by alternative and student media, the majority of them have gone undocumented. The following chronology, put together by Iain McIntyre, focuses on strikes and other forms of direct action. As such it is only a partial dip into the past. Nevertheless these glimpses demonstrate that rather than being illogical or a waste of time, student activism has played an important role in advancing progress and resisting injustice.
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As part of protests against harsh discipline, beatings and poor food students at the Roseworthy Agricultural College hooted teachers and refused to do any work.
Children from Pacific-Islander-Australian families went on strike to demand they be allowed to continue to attend the school they have gone to for years rather than be forced to go to a new, racially segregated, one.
Glenn Innes, 1938
Complaining of freezing transport students from Glenn Innes Highschool refused to board school buses.
70 students walked out of Altona Primary School during winter due to shivering conditions exacerbated by broken windows and the need to leave doors open to compensate for a lack of lighting.
Having long ignored complaints about overcrowding at Newcastle Central Junior Technical School the Education Department hired seven extra teachers after families elected to boycott classes.
Following a seven-day school strike the Education Department began providing buses for children at South Coogee Primary School.
Disgusted at Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War future playwright Louis Nowra tore “bullet” holes in the Australian flag, smeared it with tomato sauce to simulate blood and hung it from his school’s flag pole.
A 15 year old student was expelled from Sydney Grammar after refusing to take part in mock “search and destroy” military exercises based on operations carried out in Vietnam.
Bearing placards with slogans reading things such as “Scholarships Not Battleships”, “Love Thy Asian Neighbour” and “Dead Soldiers Don’t Rise Again on the Third Day” 50 male students at the Methodist private school Kingswood College staged a sit-in on the school’s oval against conscription.
Melbourne and Sydney, 1968
Infuriating school authorities and delighting students, more than 20 radical highschool newspapers emerged in both cities during 1968 and 1969. With students regularly attending anti-war rallies Vietnam and conscription were key topics alongside denunciations of the use of violence to punish students and other oppressive school conditions. In response the police were called in and students expelled for producing and distributing Ubique Underground at Melbourne’s University High, but activists still managed to produce nine editions in one year as well as regularly paste up posters on school walls. At Highett Highschool students responded to a call by underground newspaper Treason to campaign for the abolition of the prefect system by initially boycotting school elections before voting in four ‘anti-prefects’. In Sydney many activities and publications were coordinated by High School Students Against the War in Vietnam (HSSAWV) who drew 400 students to an anti-war teach-in and around 1000 to a peace rally.
A member of activist group Students In Dissent was suspended from Inala State Highschool in 1969 for advising others about their rights regarding uniforms. Having been harassed by four political police officers from the state’s Special Branch Police for handing out leaflets outside the school she was subsequently banned from attending any school in the state. In response the Queensland Trade and Labour council passed a motion of protest and a high profile teach-in regarding the issue of student rights was held by the Queensland Education Reform Committee. A subsequent protest outside the entrance to the Education Department headquarters saw police push and drag away more than 100 students and teachers. Despite the heavy police presence a small group snuck into the building to leave a list of demands on the department Director’s desk. Following her continued expulsion the student later chained herself to the state government’s Treasury Building for 10 hours before police removed her.
300 students at Mordiallac High School went on strike against rules banning males from having long hair.
Fifth and sixth form students at Cleveland Boy’s High School cancelled a planned one-day strike after the Education Department acceded to their demand that construction work around the school be cleaned up and blocked toilets fixed.
Marking the point at which Australian society began to majorly move against the Vietnam War, Moratorium rallies involving hundreds of thousands of people were held around the country in May and September 1970 as well as in June 1971. Given that they and their friends were facing being forced into the military students unsurprisingly heeded the call to “Stop Work to Stop the War.” Defying widespread threats of expulsion, including those given by Victorian Premier Henry Bolte, tens of thousands took part in Moratorium marches nationally. Many also attended related events such as a Sydney forum and march in early May 1970 which brought together 1000 striking school students and teachers.
Prior to each major event many students and some staff were disciplined for wearing Moratorium badges. Ibrox Park Boy’s School in Sydney attracted much media attention after dozens of students, six of whom were caned, wore the badges to protest the suspension of one of their peers for doing the same. A campaign was subsequently held to write in the names of suspended students on ballot papers electing prefects. Discord spread amongst teachers after the school principal removed current affairs publications and other materials discussing the war from the library and banned staff members from holding a meeting about the issue. Following ructions over the distribution of leaflets outside the school one anti-war teacher had to take out an injunction against a pro-war member of staff who continually harassed him and cut his forehead by slamming a gate in his face.
70 students and four teachers at Sydney’s Fort Street Girls Highschool wore black armbands and held a rally on school grounds days before the first Moratorium whilst five teachers at Sydney Grammar wore badges in solidarity with a student who was caned for wearing one. In Canberra 19 students at Telopea Park Highschool walked out of school when ordered to remove their badges. Some schools, such as Seven Hills in Sydney, also threatened to suspend teachers for wearing anti-war badges and a Catholic school in Goulburn fired a teacher for refusing to remove his. Responding to the persecution of students and staff teachers held a rally outside the offices of the NSW State Education Department. Whilst some schools refused to engage in the matter at all a minority, such as Sydney’s Hunters Hill and Pittwater highschools, openly allowed students and staff to express their opinions.
Repeated class walk outs and strikes were held at Blacktown High to protest overcrowding.
200 students at Angle Park Girls Technical School went on strike and marched on parliament to protest the forced transfer of a teacher after she was raided and arrested for involvement in anti-racist and anti-war activities.
Following a strike and rally in April by 500 students, mainly from University High, 3000 defied threats to prevent them from sitting exams by attending a city rally during school hours on May 31. Hundreds of others also went on strike around the rest of the state in protests organized by the Victorian Secondary Students Union over issues including corporal punishment and racist and sexist discrimination.
A Belmont Highschool student’s suspension for having sideburns was cancelled after 150 of his peers walked out of class to hold a meeting on the footpath.
Students at Randwick Boys Highschool went on strike over substandard facilities.
As part of ructions over compulsory uniforms that lasted for years the principal at Hollywood Highschool locked students out of a P&C meeting discussing the issue.
Following a strike and protest at a western suburbs highschool over French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, a rally involving hundreds of students from 22 different schools was held during school hours in Martin Plaza.
100 students at Kalamunda highschool went on strike demanding improved canteen facilities and an end to compulsory sport and corporal punishment.
A series of protests at Fort Street highschool won the reinstatement of 6 students suspended for their part in a two day strike over the issue of male hair length. In addition to overturning the punishment school authorities agreed to waive hair length rules and end harassment of student activists.
Following months of organizing, tens of thousands students from hundreds of schools joined Australia’s first national school strike on September 20 1972. The strike received support from tertiary student unions, including the Australian Union of Students, Young Labor organisations, socialist groups such as Resistance and the Communist Party of Australia, and some trade unions. Common demands included the democratization of education, transparency around school rules, increases in education funding and an end to corporal punishment and gender segregation.
In Canberra strikers rallied outside Parliament House and in Perth they gathered at the Supreme Court Gardens. In Melbourne they marched from Treasury Gardens to the City Square and in Brisbane from the Botanic Gardens to Roma Street Forum. School ties were burnt during a rally of thousands in Hyde Park, Sydney. Demanding a school gymnasium be built 200 students from Kingsmeadow Highschool in Launceston went on strike and marched to Prospect Highschool. Having gathered hundreds more strikers from there and the city’s other highschool they wound up at the Launceston Town Hall.
Many rallies also took place within school grounds or on the footpaths outside them. At Penshurst Girls Highschool in Sydney 400 protested and at Nowra 500 held a sit-in. In the wake of the strike students at MacRobertson Girls High in Melbourne decided to unilaterally abolish school uniforms, leading to 40 of them being suspended.
Students, parents and teachers across Melbourne took action against Education Department plans to further increase class numbers through the removal of portable rooms. At Watsonia High locals blockaded entrances to the school by parking cars across them. When contractors cut holes in fences and tried to get the portables out people prevented them by lying down in front of trucks. At Eltham High students saved their portable by barricading the front gate to the school, welding up bolts to hold gates together, entangling fences in barbed wire and flooding the surrounding area to bog trucks down. In Kew students staged a sit-in and refused to exit portables until the department agreed to leave them in place.
Students involved with socialist group Resistance picketed highschool beauty contests.
200 secondary students went on strike and marched down Rundle Mall to the Education Department where school ties were burnt in a protest against mandatory uniforms.
Having already defeated school regulations governing hair length and uniforms via a campaign of concerted noncompliance, 400 out of 900 students at Upwey High School went on strike in support of teacher stoppages against staffing cuts. When the teachers finished their industrial action around 150 students elected to stay out, marching down to the Ferntree Gully National Park to hold a daylong festival.
Parents and students occupied portable classrooms at Melton West Primary to prevent their removal.
More than 100 students from Canberra Highschool occupied the roadway of Bindubi Street on two occasions as part of a campaign to gain a pedestrian crossing.
Students at Richmond Highschool went on strike over the forced transferral of a teacher.
Chronic overcrowding at Brunswick Girls Highschool led to a mass march of the school population down Sydney road and into the city during school hours.
Demanding urgently needed repairs children skipped class at Forest Lodge Primary School to join their parents at a rally outside the Education Department.
A decision to introduce bus fares for school students saw 150 of them march on Parliament House, where a flustered Minister for the Capital Territory, Tony Staley, joked that the impost would be good for the students’ health as it would encourage them to walk more. A 13-year-old’s retort that the same could be said for the removal of Commonwealth cars for politicians and bureaucrats drew no reply.
Students at Sydney’s Auburn Girls Highschool staged a sit-down strike over the principal’s refusal to let them wear pants during winter.
Over 700 students staged a walk out at Newlands High School over the lack of a library, gym, assembly hall, cafeteria and other basic facilities. The students marched around the school blocking traffic and holding banners reading, “Make Newlands A School, Not A Slum.”
A student strike at Marion High School forced its headmaster to stop punishing students by hitting them with a cane.
Due to overcrowding families removed their support for Footscray Technical School with the result that many students stopped attending. Having defied threats from the Education Department to take them to court, the families ended the boycott with a funeral procession from the school to the Education Department’s headquarters in the city.
250 students from Watson Highschool occupied the ACT Schools Authority’s foyer during a protest against the closure of their school.
Opposing cuts to education funding 150 secondary school students went on strike and marched on the office of Mr Cathie, the Australian Labor Party minister for Education, chanting, “1,2,3 and a bit, Mr Cathie’s full of shit!” After he refused to meet their representatives the students blockaded the building whilst others rode up and down the elevators. When two representatives were finally allowed in they discovered the Minister had run away, prompting the chant, “When the going gets tough, Cathie goes on holiday!”
Complaining of racial discrimination students went on strike at Girrawheen Highschool for two days. On the second day of action they marched to Balga Highschool where students from that school joined them for a rally on the school oval.
Highschool students joined with the local chapter of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) to protest the Western Australian state government’s ‘It’s OK to Say No’ abstinence program. Fliers and condoms were handed out at school gates.
In 1992 the newly elected Kennett Liberal-National state government instituted massive education cutbacks that shut down dozens of schools across the state eventually leading to the loss of more than 250 as well as thousands of teaching and cleaning staff. Students and their families joined workers and others in rallies and strikes that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Amidst various smaller rallies and protests, that included holding classes outside politicians’ offices, a group from Coburg North Highschool held a vigil outside state parliament for 30 days.
Most significantly students, parents and supporters occupied five schools to prevent them being vandalised, bulldozed and sold off. Alongside occupations of a Bendigo primary school, Joseph Banks Senior College in Doveton and Fitzroy Senior College (which was saved and reopened in 2004), two of the community takeovers went further in also reopening their schools for education. Despite being threatened with having to repeat a year of school, students continued to attend classes at them.
Richmond Senior High School was taken over and run by a collective of parents, unemployed teachers and activists for almost a year before being evicted. Large pickets followed with the result that male students, who with the closure lacked a school in the area, were given an annex at Collingwood Secondary Highschool. Plans to demolish the school were withdrawn and it was subsequently reopened in 1994 as Melbourne Girls College.
Northlands Senior High School, which had been running a unique program involving Koori community participation, was also occupied and run by a collective of parents, students and supporters. During their campaign they additionally held a “mobile” school which took over the lawns at private schools and universities as well as the stairs of State Parliament. Eventually the combination of these actions and successful court action saw Northlands reopen with its original programs intact.
Students from Narrabundah College and other schools went on strike in support of teachers who were undertaking industrial action against cuts to education funding.
3000 secondary school students took part in a strike on October 27 against education cuts with hundreds more striking at three schools a few days later. At Canberra High all 150 strikers were given detention, but this failed to deter further protest with the result that 80 teaching positions across the ACT were saved.
As part of national protests against the French government resuming nuclear testing at Moruroa atoll, 4000 secondary students from 45 schools went on strike and rallied at King George Square.
Students at Nambour Highschool walked out after one of their friends was suspended for wearing a nose-ring.
250 students went on strike at Corpus Christi College for two days demanding that the school withdraw the suspension of four of their number over unproven allegations of selling marijuana.
Classes at Lurnea Highschool were disrupted after students went on strike the day before teachers took industrial action against cuts to teaching staff.
Families withdrew hundreds of children from NSW’s Gloucester Primary School in a protest over substandard facilities and overcrowding.
Students across Australia took part in a series of high school walk outs against Pauline Hanson and One Nation. The party’s racist policies were the main target of protest, but strikers also opposed its support for reintroducing corporal punishment and police-enforced curfews for young people. One rally in June saw more than 1000 demonstrate in Melbourne, another in August involved 300 in Ballarat and a September rally in Sydney drew more than 500. Other strikes and protests were regularly held in cities such as Brisbane, Newcastle, Perth, Sydney, Wollongong and Darwin.
Echoing events in the real world students on the ABC’s Heartbreak High TV program went on strike after their headmaster banned after-school sport and shut down the school newspaper.
250 students at Rutherford Technology High School went on strike demanding an overhaul of school rules to give students more rights.
Students went on strike and rallied in the Hunter Street Mall against racist mandatory sentencing laws.
In the build up to a May 1 anti-corporate blockade of the Perth stock exchange members of socialist youth group Resistance distributed 500 copies of their newspaper Student Underground to schools around the city.
A group of Year 5 students at Bert Oldfield Public School went on strike for a week over the replacement of their teacher.
During 2003 tens of thousands of students defied threats of suspension to join Books Not Bombs strikes against the bombing of Iraq. In NSW ALP Premier Bob Carr tried and failed to ban the protests so police arrested and assaulted students instead. On the day Iraq was bombed some schools, such as Paralowie High School in South Australia and Salisbury College in NSW, closed after many students responded to the message “when the bombs drop, school stops.” Some students faced with lock-ins escaped school via windows. Whilst thousands gathered in town and city centres around the country some protested on school grounds, such as at Smiths Hill High School in Wollongong.
Lake Macquarie, 2003
Students at Nords Wharf Public School went on strike after teaching numbers were cut.
After a high school student was ordered by the principal of Strathmore Secondary College to change out of a T-shirt reading “Nobody Knows I’m A Lesbian”, her fellow students turned up to school with shirts bearing messages such as “Nobody Knows I’m Bulimic”, “Nobody Knows I’m Pregnant”, and “Nobody Knows I’m On Steroids”.
A week after 100 students and teachers were overcome by heat and signed out of classes at Parkes Highschool in Western NSW, 200 stayed home and hundreds more walked out when classroom temperatures reached 40 degrees celsius.
Hundreds of students defied instructions from Prime Minister Rudd telling them to “stick to their books as this is not a time for kids to get mixed up in protest activity” and rallied at Flinders Street Station as part of the Walk Out Against George Bush school strike against a visit by the US President for the Asia Pacific Economic Conference (APEC).
600 students went on strike to protest against the proposed, and eventually cancelled, Gunns pulp mill as well as the continuing destruction of old growth forest it threatened to accelerate.
Around 1000 students went on strike at Sunbury Downs Secondary College against plans to merge it with another school.
After one of their peers was threatened with suspension for wearing a “Free Tibet” t-shirt others responded by hanging signs reading the same slogan around their neck before holding a spontaneous protest outside Collingwood College.
Around 100 school students went on strike and joined a rally calling for the abolition of university fees.
Conservative politicians and media outlets, who never tire of claiming that their “free speech” rights are being stamped on when they are called out on their racism and inaccurate reporting, went apoplectic after a nine-year old student refused to stand for the national anthem. Her protest was held on the basis that the song “completely disregards the Indigenous Australians who were here before us.” Despite being punished with a lunch-time detention and threatened with suspension the school backed off after her action drew support from around the globe.
Inspired by Swedish student Greta Thunberg Australian students joined her Friday school strikes to demand climate action. Australian participants in global strike events have numbered up to 150 000 nationally, as part of an estimated 1.4 million around the world.