Nurseries: Pipedream or reality? (Women’s Voice, 1975)

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CAN YOU get your kid into a nursery? Chances are you can’t. According to a London social worker, ‘You have to virtually batter your kid before you can get a nursery place’. With the cutbacks in public spending the nurseries aren’t likely to be expanded. So as well as fighting the cuts, we’ll have to be thinking of alternative ways of providing for the kids.

One way is to fight for a nursery at the workplace. There have been few examples of this except in the colleges. Although these have been organised mainly by students they’re important as pointers to the way we can win. And to some of the mistakes that nursery campaigns can easily fall into.

Enfield College in North London now has a nursery. They had been negotiating for years, and they’d got nowhere. So some of the students in the college decided they’d had enough talking. So they occupied the director’s office, with kids, who scrawled over papers and generally made a complete nuisance of themselves.

They only occupied it for one day. But that did the trick. The next academic year the college opened a nursery for students, teachers and workers. It’s not perfect but it’s better than anything the students could have hoped for by negotiating with the college authorities.

But other campaigns haven’t always run so smooth. There are lots of traps along the path. Some of these came out after a similar occupation at the London School of Economics. That college has a terrible record for facilities. No student common room and not even a separate students union building. It also suffers all the problems of being in central London. Lack of space, and students having to live miles from the college.

Like Enfield, LSE students had been campaigning for years to try and get a nursery. All they’d got from the school was a big blank. So the Director’s plush office was occupied for a couple of days. A few children were in the occupation at least part of the time.

Campaigners came out feeling confident and hopeful. But then the trouble started. Firstly because the college authorities tried to make a compromise. The students had demanded a ground floor lecture-room near washing and toilet facilities.

The college offered a dingy, rat-infested basement, exposed to the noise and fumes of traffic. Of course the nursery campaigners rejected this but only after long arguments about whether it should be accepted as a temporary measure. There was also the suggestion that students should set up an alternative nursery, run by student volunteers.

Several real problems come out of these experiences. The first is that students involved in the campaign naturally enough want to get a nursery established, for their kinds and for the kids of parents who aren’t even at the college yet, and who may not be able to go to college for lack of a nursery. So the temptation is to settle for any nursery no matter how inadequate. The means settling for rotten buildings, smaller numbers in the nurseries and fees which are so high that the only people who can afford it are senior lecturers. Or even the ideas of students themselves financing the nursery. Sometimes the idea is argued that students’ unions should pay out of the welfare fund. Or else that students should run the nursery on voluntary labour and collections.

Socialists in the colleges have always argued against this type of approach. We argue that the nursery is a basic right in any college. Like the National Union of Students nursery campaign poster says: ‘Every college needs a canteen, every college needs a library… every college needs a nursery’. It is not a luxury but a necessity.

And the responsibility for providing a necessity lies with the college authorities. It is not up to students to provide alternative services. Students’ unions should be fighting bodies which force the authorities to take up their responsibilities – not charity organisations.

Campaigns can be won. They can be won by fighting for demands and by taking direct action which will really hit the college authorities. But only if we have clear ideas about what we’re fighting for – and refuse to give up till we win.

Women’s Voice (paper edition) 23, November 1975

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