Occupy squatters set up a 'school of ideas'

17th February 2012 at 00:00
Protesters deliver workshops in an abandoned London primary

The Occupy movement - best known for the furore caused by its protest camp outside St Paul's Cathedral - made yet more headlines last month when TES revealed its plans to take its anti-capitalist message into schools. This week it emerged that the campaign has escalated, with Occupy taking over a former school building in London in "an act of public repossession".

Occupy has claimed squatters' rights in the former Moorfields Primary School site in Islington, with the aim of "putting disused buildings back into service for the community". The group has created what it is calling the "Occupy London School of Ideas", dedicated to the "free sharing of ideas and solutions to help solve the pressing economic, social and environmental challenges globally and locally" by holding classes and workshops for young people and adults during half-term.

The campaigners claim that their actions have been broadly welcomed by residents. But the site's owner, a developer called Southern Housing Group (SHG), has been less than welcoming to the "unauthorised trespassers" and last Friday started legal proceedings to have them evicted.

SHG had already applied for planning permission to build flats on the site and obtained approval to demolish the buildings last year. A spokeswoman for the firm says that it had started carrying out "invasive asbestos surveys" when the Occupy group moved in and told TES that the buildings are "not safe".

"We have been categorically clear with their representatives that they are not authorised to be there and we have in no way agreed for them to either enter the site or to occupy it," she said. "The site is not safe or suitable to be occupied ... And it is additionally concerning that members of the public have been invited in to the site by the occupants."

While classes on everything from shiatsu to nuclear power have continued to be held at the school, and community groups, artists and performers invited in to make use of the facilities, Jamie Kelsey-Fry, head of Occupy's outreach programme, told TES that, as a precaution, he had moved citizenship classes for some younger students to other locations until health and safety checks have been carried out.

Moorfields primary vacated the premises after it merged with another school in 2004. The buildings were last used as a temporary home for Prior Weston Primary School in 2008. The property was bought by SHG for redevelopment in 2009.

Islington resident Fiona Brennan, who teaches in a local secondary school, said that the school of ideas could bring a "much-needed, accessible and inspirational injection of positivity". "The area, which was once such a vibrant local community, has been slowly deteriorating over the past few years ... Apathy over community issues and a lack of understanding of the language of politics and empowerment has isolated and fragmented many social projects in this area," she added.

Occupy spokeswoman Naomi Colvin said that a "skeleton crew" of Occupy campaigners has been staying in the school building overnight. "We would like to come to an agreement with the owners," she added. "We are hoping to put (the school) to some use in the interim period. We hope to do something useful, in consultation with the local community. We hope we can reach an agreement that will allow us to stay there."

But unless SHG changes its mind, that is an unlikely prospect.

NATIONAL AMBITIONS

After hailing Occupy's first school visit last month - to Bishop's Stortford High School in Hertfordshire - as a success, the movement's head of outreach, Jamie Kelsey-Fry, is planning more.

He is working with Occupy groups in Liverpool and Edinburgh to extend the reach of the programme. "There's no reason why this can't go out across the country," he said.

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