This time last year, Pimlico Academy in central London made national headlines when students, staff and parents kicked off about a reactionary shift in school governance. In September 2020, the previous head, Sam Green, was replaced by a new intake, Daniel Smith, who proceeded to institute a zero-tolerance behaviour policy, ban colourful hijabs and afros, and start flying the union jack outside the front of the school. By the spring, students and staff had had enough. While staff mobilised for industrial action, a protest organised by students about rape culture at the school escalated into a more general challenge to the academy trust’s model of education. Two months later, Smith was gone. We interviewed a mate who worked at the school at the time to get an inside view on the highlights and contradictions of the Pimlico Spring.

What role did you have at the school when the protest started?

The protests started late on into my time there. I started at Pimlico as an intervention tutor for year 11, then I got a job in the communication and interaction department as an intervention tutor for children with speech and language difficulties.

And were you doing the second job when things kicked off?

Yeah, I was there for 2 and a half years.

And over what timeframe was that?

The first year and a half was with the previous head, the first covid lockdown happened in the March of my first full year there. Then the new head came in September, and I spent a year there with him.

In general, what did you think of it as a job? Before everything kicked off.

I was very frustrated with it. I came into it as a very idealistic, young person who had been living on a squatted site for 6 months, so it was a shock for me moving from one world into another. It felt regimented, but of course it got much worse. I also really enjoyed it. I loved the kids, I liked having the structure. It was a lot of fun working with the kids. 

My history is really bound up in the school, because my parents met there and taught there. I have a strong personal connection to the place. It kind of felt like I was coming home. I was born in Pimlico; I knew a lot of the staff there.

I think in hindsight the headmistress, Sam Green, was a buffer against a lot of the more violent things the academy wanted to do, but you couldn’t appreciate it at the time, and it still felt like a very repressive place. When she got taken away, it was a like a dam being broken through and everything became mad, neo-colonial. It was just a violent place to work, like a lot of schools in London.

What kind of violence?

Violence against the children. How they are getting educated, what they are getting taught. How they are spoken to, a lot of shouting. The emphasis on silence. A lot of control around how you look, how you present, how you speak, aspects of their identity getting demonised. Not being able to express themselves.

Do you know about the knowledge rich curriculum? It’s the idea written into education policy that children are, essentially, empty vessels that you have to pour knowledge into. It’s a complete denial of a child’s agency, denies the knowledges they already have.

It also positions the teacher as the ‘expert’, always superior. It tells the kids that the only things that matter are what we teach you. And that if you want to succeed, this is the cultural capital you need to do it. The mantra for the curriculum was, “the best of what has been thought and said”. When you are only teaching a tiny sliver of history, literature, science etc, that’s violent right? There is no space for the kids to articulate their experiences of the world, to express their reflections on their conditions, to build the skills together for a critical analysis.

Was all this stuff well established before Daniel Smith?

I was angry the whole time I worked there.  But with Daniel Smith, the goal post got shifted. The things we were arguing about in that first year seemed completely out of reach. The demands I could have imagined formulating… The conversations in the union meetings had been like, “how could we get rid of IR?” [internal exclusion]. You go from that, to where kids get put in IR for having the “wrong” pair of shoes or having the “wrong” haircut. It’s a completely different way of relating to the institution. I changed a lot in that process as well, lost a lot of idealism.

Can you say more about that?

What do you mean, about the fascist creep?

I mean more about how your attitudes changed.

I think, for everyone, what was shocking in the beginning stopped being shocking after a while. You build up a tolerance to certain things. Obviously, a breaking point was still reached with the protests that happened. But like in any workplace, they chip away at everything, so you don’t realise what you’ve lost. Schools are intensely authoritarian institutions, and they can blind you with their logic, they get under your skin.

For people on insecure contracts, it can feel difficult to question the authority of the school. It’s a tool of submission, right, and I think in hindsight I would not have worried so much about getting found out as something, to have been disciplined. I was still vocal, but I was in my early 20s, trying to push a radical politics with teachers who had been around for decades.  In hindsight I wish I had felt more secure in myself, pushed harder.

But I was always on the side of the kids. I always made an effort to be in solidarity with them. Obviously imperfectly. If they were yelled at, I would check in with them to make sure they were alright. I was a known member of staff that was nice. I retained that; I am not saying I started enacting the ideology of that place. I mean more from exposure you become desensitised to certain things, and that contains within it a level of complicity.

How was the broader workforce, in terms of their attitudes, and how they related to the kids before the protests started? Also, roughly how many people worked at the school? What was the relationship between teaching staff and non-teaching staff?

The majority of teaching staff were white, and I don’t want to assume class backgrounds, but they presented as middle class. The non-teaching staff were more diverse racially and in terms of class composition.

It was a strong point of contention for me, how to push a radical politics amongst a body of people that were angry at all the changes, but were still super liberal. They would still yell at the kids, still give out detentions, still believed fundamentally in the education system and in adult superiority.

Academy chains do this thing called SKIT, where they train their teaching staff in-house, so a fair amount of the teaching staff had been trained by Future Academies. This means their behaviour management and the curriculum they knew how to teach was all given to them by Future Academies. They are given a very limited perspective on education, even within the current model. That’s the context.

Also, as a SKIT trainee you basically have to agree with everything the Academy says. The promise of a job or succeeding in the hierarchy of the school is dependent on this. It’s a way for the Academy to reproduce themselves cheaply with people that won’t question, because they have never had an experience of another school.

What proportion of people were trained like this?

There were probably two or three in every department. I don’t want to make any big claims…

The staff body got on well together. Pimlico was a family school right. A lot of people had been there for a long time, some of the staff that were there were there when my parents were there over 20 years ago. It was a community.

Which is gone in a lot of London schools that run on a three-year cycle of teachers, more of a business model.

Was there a friction between teachers that had been there a long time and the newer management when it became an academy.

Pimlico was one of the first schools to be academised. It was a “failing” school in 2007, so got turned into an academy, new building, the works. This was a massive moment of friction, some staff said the Daniel Smith takeover had the same feel as when Future Academies initially took over.

But then Sam Green, who was a loved teacher from the “old” Pimlico, got made head, so there was 7 years of relative peace. Although to be fair, during this time it was not a utopia, and there was a still chronic lack of fun, and lack of funds. I find it so depressing that children aren’t allowed to have any fun.

What was the atmosphere like in the lead up to the protests?

Winter was depressing, then in the spring people got more energy. It was enjoyable, the feeling of tension. The day there was loads of graffiti outside the school was very exciting and caused a lot of upset in the school management.

At the start of the year the headmaster started flying a Union Jack outside of the school, then the kids burnt it. Some of the graffiti was, “there ain’t no black in the union jack”, and they wrote some stuff up on the estate as well, the kids liked that.

How did the teachers react?

People really liked the first round of it, then the second round of it they wrote something like Daniel Smith should die or something, and that was a bit far for some people.

But yeah, people loved it. It articulated our anger. There was an article that came out criticising the school, then the graffiti happened, so more articles came out. There ended up being loads of stuff in the press about Pimlico. It felt like every day you were reading something in the papers about a teacher giving a secret interview, or another exposé. That was really exciting.

Then the students organised the protest. That couple of weeks, and before, was really exciting, because we [unionised staff members] also voted to go on strike.

It was a powerful moment where everything felt up for grabs. Unfortunately, like a lot of things, where things fell in the end still went against the children’s favour, but it was amazing even so. By this I mean, the school is still a shit place. Daniel Smith with a face lift.

So, the rules are basically the same again?

Yeah, and loads of kids are getting excluded. Also, half the teaching staff resigned, I think this year they had around 70 SKIT, and loads of new staff, at least half of all teaching staff are new now. This makes you very vulnerable right, because there are less long-standing members of staff to defend against the changes.

And also, the people who participated in the strike, who have a connection to this experience…

Yeah. And no one wants to work there, so who are you hiring? They found it hard to fill all those positions, so it has gone into a bit of a tailspin.

Have you heard anything about kids organising stuff there now?

The way the relationships are structured in a school, I wouldn’t know.

I read something that I think came from one of the student organisers about how the Black Lives Matter protests and the protests against rape culture in other schools were really influential. What was the impact of the George Floyd rebellion in school?

Well, there was a co-option of some of it by the staff, like “oh we need to do anti-racist or unconscious bias training” and all of this, whilst not recognising the racism contained within their relations to the students. Right? Like what it means to shout at a kid who is backed into a corner, what it means to have a room full of black and brown kids who are in detention every night. The collective analysis was limited.  

There was definitely a moment of mass consciousness raising, especially in the student body. I think a lot of the kids got a political language from it that really helped them to articulate something about Daniel Smith. I remember him in the first staff meeting after the BLM protests happened, after all of the racist things he had done, talking about how supportive he is of Black Lives Matter. All of us were sitting there being like, “shut up!” I was furious.

But yeah, it [BLM] impacted everyone in that moment.

And what about the protests about sexual violence in schools?

I want to say here that the students that you are talking about were not the students I knew. The student organisers were mainly 6th formers. It is highly competitive to get into Pimlico’s 6th form, so who succeeds in getting into 6th form carries with them a lot of contradictions around race, class, and the neoliberal ideal of individualised success. A lot of the student body do not get the grades to get in.

The kids I worked with, of course, still had a political consciousness, but they did not participate in organising the protests.  I worked with a lot of the younger kids and some year 11 classes.

Also, the context I was working with them in, apart from my key children who I spent a lot of time with one-to-one where there was the space to have broader conversations about things like this, I was mainly working in classrooms with 30 kids in a class, doing some bullshit tightly controlled lesson. When we talk about things beyond the lesson, it would be to have a laugh or talk about their problems, because they were upset or something, needed support.

In the protests did the 6th formers come up with the demands and slogans, then the younger kids pick them up?

Yes, I would say so, though I was not a student, so I have a limited perspective on the dynamics that played out. The 6th formers were amazing the way they organised the protest, they organised water and food and were supportive of the younger students. They did a really good job.

It was a lot of the kids first experience of protest. I felt so proud, I couldn’t stop smiling. It was one of the times I have been most excited in my life. It felt real. It was as sunny day and it felt like anything was possible.

Then there was a whole staff meeting at the end of the day and Daniel Smith was like “I am really sorry about what happened today, it must have been really hard on you.” And we were all like… what the fuck…. And one of the staff just shouted, “LEAVE!” So he left!

Then there was an impromptu staff meeting in the playground, and we were all talking and strategising together. It was amazing to think, oh wow this could actually make a difference.

But the problem with the strikes was that the demands were limited, so things could be met halfway with nothing fundamentally changing.

What was that impromptu staff meeting like?

It was really exciting because everyone was like, the kids are right, we support them and we’re not going to let Daniel Smith get hold of the narrative about what happened that day. So, the union put out a message of solidarity for the kids, which was nice. We could have gone further though.

The staff was already organising before the protest, right?

Yeah, there was already going to be the strike. Well. I think so… it’s been a year or so, my memory of that time is jumbled. The protest created a momentum, everyone was excited. Also, groups outside of Pimlico were excited because they saw the students could organise themselves, it was a moment to bring the youth into changing the education system.

However, the way that the school reacted was, I think, to use the tactic of if you threaten the student organisers with exclusion and say we won’t write you a reference, all the energy of the fight will be sucked into trying to protect these students in the short term, and once it’s over no one, or maybe more the students, are so worn out and/or afraid they don’t have the energy to go back to the original demands.

So, the students were initially on the offensive then got pushed into being defensive?

The pressures that they [the management] put on them were overwhelming, and because of safeguarding it’s hard to support young people and their organising on the inside. Management was smart with their tactics, or rather they had access to tools that we did not because of how we were positioned within the institution.  

What kind of collaboration was there between students and the staff?

It wasn’t super active, but there were staff that students felt comfortable to talk about stuff with. It’s difficult to do that, because of safeguarding. It’s one of the ways safeguarding is weaponised. Don’t get me wrong, adults should 100% be conscious about the ways they are relating to children, but with stuff like PREVENT, even though everything that is taught at that school is intensely political in the right-wing sense, it is presented as neutral, so if you have an alternative ideology to the one that is getting presented to the kids you are dangerous. Or, at least, you have done so many trainings, you are always observing yourself, how you are acting. The cop is inside you. Especially if you are a member of staff that is not carrying out all the rules. I think people there just thought I was weak, because there would always be an element of chaos wherever I was… I was like, “no, I am just trying to do it different!”

I acted with intentionality, but it is difficult if you are one individual in a highly repressive structure. In that context, how do you not utilise systems of punishment whilst maintaining respect for each other, especially when the dominant system of the school models profound disrespect towards human beings? This is what I was constantly negotiating.  Not just for me, but in how I mediated difficulties between the kids. What is the role of anger in that? All these things I did imperfectly and fucked up on multiple occasions. It was hard. Although I was in the group No More Exclusion, which helped a lot, so I did have that structure behind me.

Can you say some more about No More Exclusions? How did you get involved?

I joined NME in my first year at Pimlico after going to a talk they led at a decolonising education conference organised by the NEU [National Education Union], this was pre-covid. If you don’t know about NME, it is an abolitionist movement fighting for a ban on exclusions and for the transformation of our education system into something that actually educates and nourishes children and young people. It’s a black-led organisation and centres the voices of young people most impacted by the racism and classism that is integral to how the education system, as it is now, works. Check it out and support it if you can. 

How did being in NME help you in your role at Pimlico.

Having the solidarity of a group of teachers and young people gave me strength in the face of a lot of the violent processes that were happening at that school, and countered the ways that schools try to convince you that there are no alternatives to the model that they are run on.

Also, being educated about things like the school-to-prison pipeline and transformative justice was important because I carried this analysis into the workplace and my interactions with the kids.

So yeah, I want to big up NME and the amazing work they do. They are backing up a lot of parents, carers, staff, and students and building links internationally to fight for abolition in education, really pushing back against this dominant narrative in the UK that exclusion is necessary.

Powerful people use exclusion as a massive form of social control, if you get excluded it raises your chances of going to prison exponentially, and black boys are 4 times as likely to be excluded as their white counterparts. It’s been naturalised into our system, and is especially evident in a place like Pimlico.

Were you aware of any other teachers also trying to take that approach? I’m gonna ask about the strike in a minute but I wondered if, outside of formal industrial action, teachers found other ways of…

Teachers mainly did whatever they did before. Daniel Smith wanted a zero-tolerance behaviour policy; his line was you are on duty at all times. So you always have a responsibility to give a detention if that person is chewing gum; you can’t ever let anything slide.

And that’s a really intense workload, right?

Yeah, everyone was like, fuck off. You always have a duty of care, but you can’t always be on duty, fucking pay us then.

He had this idea that you could walk into any classroom, and it be the same, whilst forgetting that all human beings are different. Unattainable visions.

The kids seemed much happier with Sam Green. Don’t get me wrong, the system was still punitive, but people treated each other better.

Also, with Covid, think about what that does to the psyche of 1,500 people? It’s like shaking up a coke can. There was a lot of chaotic energy they tried to control. They had a system that seemed watertight with no exceptions, but they struggled to follow through with things, so there was a distorted system where they were incapable of dealing with things like bullying but if a kid forgot their planner for a week, they’d be in detention every day that week.

I don’t think that kids should be treated punitively for anything, but you know what I mean, even judged by the metrics of what they understood as success, they failed. I also hate talking all the time about behaviour, schools are obsessed with it.

It sounds like with their new policies, some of them couldn’t be enforced because it was practically beyond them, and some the teachers intentionally didn’t implement them. How did the non-teaching staff react to protests, you said they were a lot less white?

Yeah, the TAs were more diverse.

Schools are such intensely hierarchical places. There is a lot of separation between the teaching staff and the non-teaching staff. The non-teaching staff took on a lot of the extra work. Because of covid all the students were divided into year-group bubbles which meant that new systems had to be put in place in break time etc. The TAs did a lot of the extra duties, and there was a huge grievance around that. For most of that year we were working long days, 8-5, which was totally unnecessary. One of the good things about the strike was that after that our workday finished at half 4.

Before Smith, we always worked 8:15-4:45, this is what we signed up for. Then one day they were like, you have always worked 8-5. We were like… really? Are we all having this collective amnesia? We were then essentially gaslighted into accepting these new hours. I know half an hour doesn’t sound like a lot…

They’re stealing the fucking hours of your lives away!

… Yeah! I worked out that by increasing our workday by half an hour they ended up not paying us a grand.

Did teaching staff have contact with people in the canteens or anything like that.

There was a lot of separation amongst everyone, even in departments. It was cliquey. It wasn’t a big moment of worker solidarity across class lines. A lot of the TAs were agency, so couldn’t go on strike, and other TAs felt under pressure not to go on strike because management were going to rely on them when there were no teachers. Pressure was put on the TAs not to strike. I had a lot of respect for my boss, she was really kind to me and an amazing woman, and the kids loved her. But it’s one of the dangerous things about having a boss you love; you end up accepting shitty conditions because you build more solidarity towards them than the kids or the other staff members. So, I was the only TA to go on strike, and I felt shame about doing it… I felt like I was letting everyone down, there was an absence of me whilst they were all working. Obviously, it was my right to do that, but I found it challenging. It wasn’t like being in a department where everyone was going on strike.

Where did the decision to strike first come from?

So, between September [when Daniel Smith started] and the protest there was a long cold winter where there was no hope. It was covid and lockdown and everything was strange. Ordinary time was suspended right? There was the keyworker school, and you can’t have detentions, so the system felt a moment of rupture with that as well.

In the spring we decided to strike. The management were in such a weak position by that point, it was funny. People were shouting at them, it was great. It came after all that graffiti and all the articles. There was a vote of no confidence, then all processes you have to go through before you can strike. It’s quite difficult. Your demands have to fulfil all these criteria, which dilutes them horribly. There was a lot of back and forth about that.

Was the school very unionised?

Yeah, loads staff were unionised.

Were there staff that didn’t want to be involved in the dispute?

No, pretty much all the staff were against the management, apart from the management… And even within that it was a bit shaky. There were obviously lots of contradictions within that, which I touched on earlier. He eventually employed mostly new people, but at the start there was the old guard and Smith plus his sidekick, and the old management hated his guts, and throughout the year they all left… I think by February they had all gone. Then after that there were new people, these ice kings and queens, and one guy who was nice but also evil.

What were the dynamics like in the union branch?

It’s a kind of organising I wasn’t really used to, so I didn’t find my voice in it to be honest. I tried to push the politics of NME but was the only person doing that.

Who did get their say?

There’re always the people who talk a lot in meetings. Certain people drove it forward, highly intelligent and well organised, who understand the politics of the NEU. I reckon a lot of them would have been in the Labour Party. The national union got involved. They helped write the demands and educated people about the legality of what they were planning to do. In the first year I was at Pimlico there would be like 10 people at union meetings, by the end of the second year there were 70 plus people in the meetings.

I realised I don’t actually really understand what happened with the Union dispute in the end, some of the demands got met?

Yeah, to be honest I also was a bit lost about what the demands were. It was a language I wasn’t used to. I was used to student politics, or anarchist politics, more focused on ideology than the law etc.

My mental health throughout the year was also bad, much of it related to the conditions we were in, so my psychic space was limited.

I was subversive though in the sense I was trusted and loved by the kids. I was the “nice teacher”, anti-authoritarian. That was good in a school where they didn’t get a lot of that. But it took a lot of energy for me, because you are constantly pushing against something. Not the kids, they were great. The system takes energy from you. So, in truth I wasn’t that involved in union organising.

If you are one of the only voices trying to push something in a more radical direction it’s hard. You need to work to build a collective, and I just didn’t have the capabilities to do that at the time. I would do things differently now. I am a lot more confidant and have a more developed analysis, partly because it’s easier in hindsight to have such a thing.

So, your impression basically though was that the strike was successful, the demands were met, and that’s where things got to with that?

I wouldn’t say the strike was successful in a transformational sense, more that the demands weren’t good enough. They were the kind of demands that could be met halfway with nothing really changing. So some of them were vaguely met, then the majority of staff didn’t want to continue with the strike… I’m not there now but I know morale is low. A lot of staff that didn’t already leave want to leave now.

How was it after Daniel Smith left?

Lord and Lady Nash [the owners of Future Academies] tried to position themselves as people who cared about us and wanted to make things better. They organised weekly drop-in meetings open to all staff, and were there performing being concerned and charming, apparently taking on board everything that was being said.

In one of those meetings there was a great moment when a member of non-teaching staff told the Nash’s that the school had no joy and was more like a prison.

They basically went on a mission to reassert their power. This guy Tony became the head, much slicker, but fundamentally the same. He wanted to give the impression that he was on our side, but this is a man who on the day of the protests I saw saying to a black girl that she did not understand what “Black Lives Matter” is.

I think that they [management] were trying to wait out until the end of the school year, let the resistance die down over the summer holiday, and in September, with all the new staff, try again.

And with this new intake of staff the struggle didn’t really pick up again?

I don’t have much of a connection with the place anymore, so can’t say for sure, but I think not.

Are you aware of any examples where Pimlico inspired students and staff at other schools to do something similar? I know that at Millbank primary school some of the kids had a protest, I think some of their older siblings went to Pimlico.

Oh really? That’s great. It would make sense; Millbank is a part of the Future Academies chain. I haven’t heard of any other examples where it has been stated explicitly that Pimlico influenced them, but I am sure there has been. Kids protested before Pimlico, and they have protested after, and Pimlico is now in that stream of history, right? People will be inspired by it like everything else.  

Find NME’s manifesto here.

Find the Institute of Race Relations report “How the Black Working Class Youth are Criminalised and Excluded in the English School System” here.