Students & School Leavers
major prolonged campaign by the South Shields Trades Union Council
was its fight for the right of claimants of social security and
unemployment benefits to attend college. Or put in the reverse,
more controversial manner, the right of students to social security
and unemployment benefit. This campaign was in line with the mission
the council set itself to engage in direct action and to challenge
establishment tradition. The campaign had a permanent effect on
the national school and further education system and on the national
social security system. The rationale for the campaign was argued
The conventional manner by which the working
class have fought unemployment has been under the banner 'The Right
To Work'. The 1936 Jarrow March is archetypal. The Trades Union
Council sought to identify genuine constructive alternatives to
unemployment and campaigned under the slogan 'The Right Not To
It was this inversion of the argument, striking
directly at the traditional work ethic, which caught national attention
and brought the most bitter response from the establishment. The
Trades Union Council had identified a central problem which dogged
free-market economics. It still does.
A capitalist economy has never been able to
answer the question 'why should a person who chooses to be unemployed
be forced to work - if this means that someone who wants to work
loses the chance of a job?'
The Trades Union Council posed another question,
'why should benefits ('hand-outs' if you like) be paid to the unemployed
if they choose to live in idleness but are refused to them if they
attend college and, ironically, improve their employment prospects?'
Until this time attending college had never
been seen as an option for the unemployed. The Trades Union Council
discovered that, surprisingly, the then current legislation did
not prohibit such attendance. (Based on the 1966 Social Security
Act which allowed for the payment of benefit to any person 'over
16 who registered, and was available for work').
'Availability for work' was the crux of the
argument; but in times of high unemployment availability cannot
be tested by the offer of a job. Initially the 'availability' of
students was disputed by the Department of Health and Social Security
(DHSS). However, following several appeals to DHSS tribunals, precedents
were established and 'availability' was accepted if a student declared
they were prepared to give up their college course if a suitable
job was offered. Their declaration was rarely tested.
Around 1969, under pressure from mounting claims,
the DHSS tried to exclude 'O' and 'A' level GCE courses. Soon,
following a national row, this token resistance collapsed. The
effect was quite dramatic. Colleges started to advertise courses
for the unemployed and throughout the country many hundreds, possibly
thousands, of unemployed young people started to attend college
courses, particularly unemployed school leavers.
In something like desperation, the DHSS referred
to the Social Security Act which denied benefit rights to a person
'attending school or receiving full-time instruction of a kind
given in schools'. The SSTUC argued that college 'vocational' courses
and 'part-time' courses were not of a kind available in schools.
The DHSS appeals tribunals accepted the SSTUC argument.
With some dismay the Department of Education
(DES) discovered that there was no official definition of 'part-time'
and an arbitrary definition of a maximum 21 hours attendance week
was hastily introduced.
This in turn created its own problems: there
was no accepted definition of 'attendance' (did it include private
study?), and the resulting chaos resulted in an unusual reversal
of tradition whereby students asked tutors that their attendance
not be recorded.