“We wanted to create a space where children could learn to think critically and feel empowered to change the world. We hope they can realize that this can be achieved when we come together as a community.”
Glasgow’s first socialist Sunday school opened in over 40 years at the Kinning Park Complex – once a site of resistance and revolution when local families occupied the building to save it from closure in the 1990s.
Students will learn about ethical issues, labor movements around the world, delve into social history and play educational games in a unique program designed with the help of parents and the school’s volunteer team .
Writer and founder Henry Bell, who penned a biography of Glasgow socialist revolutionary John MacLean, was inspired by the city’s long association with socialist Sunday schools since the late 19th century. The last known school in town closed in the early 1980s.
“Glasgow has a huge legacy as a left-wing city – and we don’t want that to be a thing of the past,” he said. “It was a huge part of people’s lives.”
The socialist Sunday school movement began in the 1890s for working class children as an alternative to the religious and liberal capitalist education offered by the state.
At the height of the movement in the 1910s and 1920s, around 10,000 children across the UK attended the schools – with dozens of different schools in Glasgow alone in places such as Springburn, Castlemilk and Govan.
Alumni include Jennie Lee, who founded the Open University, and Patrick Dolan, Glasgow’s first socialist Lord Provost in the 1930s. some even married at the school.
Similar to those in the church, children would be baptized in Sunday schools and given denomination certificates. They sang socialist anthems, recited the 10 commandments or socialist “precepts”, which included standing up for the most vulnerable in society and “taking care of your brothers and sisters”.
Youth also learned how to chair meetings, move motions and take minutes to prepare them for a union future.
Schools also held parties, took children to the bowling green, and also provided a hot meal and childcare for working families in the city.
The schools spanned the left wing of the political spectrum; the Socialist Fellowship schools had their roots in Christianity while Comrade Tom Anderson’s proletarian school at Govanhill offered a radical Bolshevik curriculum.
A ‘larger than life’ figure, he was blacklisted as a carpenter after leading a major strike in Glasgow in the late 19th century. He then landed a job at his friend’s draper’s shop and started the country’s first socialist Sunday schools in the 1890s.
He broke away to open an even more radical school in the 1910s – with the motto “Thou shalt teach the revolution”.
In order to graduate from Govanhill, children were encouraged to plaster communist slogans on council buildings in defiance of authority.
“For the record, we have not agreed that our students will do this,” Henry added with a laugh.
The first Red Sunday School was a resounding success; the children heard about the 1915 rent strikes before making their own musical instruments for a game of ‘buddy or usher’ in the spring sunshine.
They also heard about the strikes in the Chilean copper mines and sang a few songs before having lunch.
“It was absolutely brilliant – the kids loved it,” Henry said. “They’re still getting to know each other, but we think they’ll be friends in no time.
“They were so excited to learn some history about their own neighborhood, to learn how the money is made and where it comes from. They were really engaged.”
He added: “A five-year-old asked his dad if he ‘knew what an usher was’ before telling him: ‘That’s something we have to shout about to get them out. “”
The next session is devoted to the history of May Day; also known as International Workers’ Day. Children will make flags and banners to take part in the protest this weekend. At the height of the movement, each of the schools had its own decorated float in the annual May Day parade.
Henry explains that the parents have suggested themes and issues that the children should learn about in upcoming lessons, such as racism, imperialism and the environment.
Organizers hope to incorporate games, drama and arts and crafts for a multi-sensory learning environment into classrooms and invite families to come and experience it.
Henry also lamented the loss of many community resources provided to working-class families in the city by the Independent Labor Party in the early 20th century.
“They ran summer camps for children, sports clubs and birth control centres. While researching Red Clydeside, I realized there was so much we didn’t have anymore. This tradition has faded.”
But he hopes the revival of Glasgow’s Socialist Sunday School will start a new movement and put the power in the hands of Glasgow’s younger generations to fight for a better future.
“I think we’re seeing something of a renaissance right now, with clean-up strikes by workers, unions and the growth of groups like Living Rent,” he said.
“We saw the protests in Kenmure Street last year, this experience of unity and victory against the state. People are learning what they can do together, that they can rely on their neighbours.
“I think we would like it to be a place where children can meet and learn. When the first schools started, hundreds of them opened later. It would be great to see the opening start in d “other areas of Glasgow. We want to rebuild that sense of community.”
“Glasgow needs solidarity more than ever.”
To learn more about Red Sunday School, visit the website.
You can also learn more about the history of socialist Sunday schools by watching Ruth Ewan’s documentary The Glasgow Schools.