‘We need a revolution in society’: inside Glasgow’s socialist Red Sunday School
Socialist Sunday schools first emerged as a secular alternative to mainstream education. A century later, the Red Sunday School is back teaching anti-capitalist, anti-racist solidarity to kids in the Southside.
05 Dec 2022
Walking up to the gates of the Red Sunday School in the Southside of Glasgow, there’s a buzz in the air as people begin to gather. The group are getting ready for Halloween celebrations – the theme is socialist heroes vs capitalist villains – and the array of costumes, from Frida Kahlo (hero) to EasyJet (villain) are impressively executed.
Having run their first in-person event exactly one year ago after Red Sunday School was founded in January 2020, today is a full-circle moment for the group.
“We started during the pandemic as an idea – it was a group of parents, youth workers, local historians and teachers,” Hussein Mitha, a facilitator, artist, and one of the group’s founding members, tells gal-dem. “We wanted to really reconnect with the history of the Socialist Sunday school movement in a meaningful way, while also rising to some of the challenges around education today.”
Socialist Sunday schools first emerged in the late 19th century as a secular, socialist alternative to teachings from Christian Sunday schools and state schooling. One of the first was founded in 1892 by Mary Gray, a London-based member of the Social Democratic Foundation – Britain’s first organised socialist party. For many working-class children in early Victorian Britain, Christian Sunday schools provided the only schooling available, and many would have very little, or no, education.
Invigorated by the political context of Britain’s burgeoning early labour movement, the idea picked up pace, and by 1912 there were 120 of these schools across the UK. Glasgow was one of the heartlands of the Socialist Sunday school movement, where the National Council of British Socialist Sunday Schools Union was formed in 1909.
More than a century later, the socialist Sunday school has come back to Glasgow, providing an “antidote to current mainstream education focused on producing workers ready to compete in the marketplace,” Mitha says.
“We’re secular, non-sectarian and not party political,” they tell gal-dem. “We want to create an open space, one that’s capable of uniting different people. Given that the Southside is so multi-ethnic, we really want to provide a microcosm of that within what we do.”
Glasgow itself is a city rich with working-class history. From the various anti-war movements to the rent strikes of 1915, this history of activism has been kept alive in the Southside. This area was the site of the Kenmure Street protests that successfully stopped an immigration raid in 2021, which was marked by the community this year with a Festival of Resistance.
The southside is also one of Scotland’s most ethnically diverse constituencies – around 88 languages are spoken in just the district of Govanhill alone. Yet economic disparities run deep: in some areas, child poverty rates reach 69% – the highest in the UK. Red Sunday School hopes to provide a free, inclusive space where children and families of all backgrounds can come together.
“The working class is multi-racial and we want to bring that to the fore through exploring local histories and the amazing power of diversity in the Southside, and developing anti-racist solidarities. We’re trying to show the kids that this history is their history,” says Mitha.
Internationalist solidarity is deeply rooted in Glasgow, and at the Sunday school, there’s emphasis on exploring what this means in the present context. For older children, a year on from the Kenmure Street action, a session on ‘no borders’ was held, where participants reflected on the concept and imagined a world without borders and what that might look like. Today, the school sees families from various communities coming together.
However, Mitha says, more work is needed to be done to increase outreach in the Southside communities. “We hope to do that by getting more people of colour on our committee itself, and expand our efforts to foreground the experience of racialised working-class communities.”
“We’re trying to show the kids that this history is their history”
Held monthly in Kinning Park Complex, a former school and now community venue, the volunteer-led group run activities and games for children, from infants up to 12, centring alternative histories and reimagining futures. The sessions are free of charge thanks to community donations, and have reached around 60 children so far.
Younger children play ‘rent rent strike’ (an alternative to ‘duck duck goose’) or colour in posters of ‘Red Sunday School heroes’, like the hundreds of schoolchildren across the UK who staged a strike in 2003 against Britain’s invasion of Iraq.
Today’s Red Sunday School is inspired by a broader range of educators and movements across the world – from late Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, encouraging critical thought and creativity, to the Landless Kids’ manifesto, showing examples of how younger generations can have a political voice and vision.
“It’s not to criticise teachers or practitioners [in mainstream education] themselves,” Mitha explains. “Rather, we aim to draw attention to the way in which they are coerced into having to sign up and enforce things like the Prevent legislation, which gives them de facto policing functions or institutes the border into the classroom in many respects.”
Speaking about a recent session focused on Islamic contributions to the field of science, they say: “There was a family of Muslim kids who came along and really loved it. They were teaching us how to write our names in Arabic. It’s not like a typical pedagogical relationship, but one where we can all learn from each other.”
“We need a revolution in society and education. That kind of liberation is worth fighting for”
Today’s Halloween party leans more towards games, and there’s a jovial atmosphere in the air as children partake in mask-making, pumpkin carving and a mini-parade. “It’s great that there’s a non-commercialised, community-focused space for holidays like these,” one parent tells gal-dem.
At the end of each monthly session, the group holds a free community lunch, inspired by traditions of community and care fostered by groups such as the Black Panthers, who ran breakfast clubs in schools for children in the 1960s and 70s in the US. They’ve also paired other groups in the area, such as tenant’s union Living Rent and the No Evictions Network – a group of campaigners organising to support people in asylum accommodation against evictions – providing free childcare for their meetings.
Speaking with other parents and carers of attendees, many praise the group’s ability to bring together families from different communities. While some are regular attendees, many others have come for the first time.
Elliot and Ala, who have just moved to the area, tell gal-dem: “We came along to meet other parents, and to get to know the community. It’s been a really welcoming space.”
“Generally on the left, you convene because there’s a crisis, or whatever Tory horror is coming next,” Mitha explains. “You’re kind of on the backfoot, trying to defend what you’ve got. Whereas these moments of togetherness and celebration feel slightly different in that you’re coming together to affirm – to hold your own kind of space.”
Moving forward, they hope their model can be replicated in cities across the UK. Having already received interest from people in Manchester, London, Liverpool and Edinburgh, the group have put together a zine on ‘How to start a Red Sunday School’.
Indeed, there’s a sense of possibility, hope and community connection that has brought people together today on this rainy Sunday. “We need a revolution in society and education itself,” reflects Mitha. “That kind of liberation is worth fighting for.”
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