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Activism

How the Black Education Movement took on the racist schools system

A new archive tells the story of a radical community collective formed in the 1960s to challenge the treatment of Black pupils. Emmanuel Onapa looks at the parallels with groups fighting inequalities in education today.

The fight to end racial disparities that continue to blight the British education system has been energised by the Black Lives Matter movement, with a growing number of campaign groups joining the push to bring about real change in UK schools.

Grassroots organisations such as No More Exclusions (NME) are aiming to end exclusions that disproportionately impact Black boys, while the Black Curriculum is leading the fight to make Black history mandatory on the UK curriculum. And the fact it has already helped to do so in Wales suggests things may finally be changing.

But this is not a new fight. Decades before these groups were formed, the Black Education Movement (BEM) – a radical community collective of the 1960s and 1970s – took on the establishment and fought for equality in the schools system.

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Between 1965 and 1988, the BEM served as a form of self-help when the national education system was intolerant of, and inadequate for, the needs of Black children.

Now, a new project is aiming to honour and protect its legacy. The George Padmore Institute (GPI) in Finsbury Park, north London, has produced an archive presenting the work of the BEM, as well as a short film about the movement narrated by award-winning writer Professor Gus John.

“The movement started when Caribbean teachers began arriving in this country with experience and qualifications but were not allowed to join schools here to teach,” John tells The Big Issue. “British people did not feel that their training was up to scratch, even though it was delivered by British trained and educated white people across the Caribbean.

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“There was more than a hint of racism involved. White parents had huge misgivings that a Black person would come from the Caribbean and teach their child. 

“As a result, many teachers who came to this country with ambition were forced to work jobs they did not desire.

“While this was happening, those same immigrants were experiencing their children being discriminated against in the classroom. The school system also lacked Black education. That is what caused the start of the Saturday supplementary schools.”

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, members of the BEM established Black Supplementary Schools (BSSs). With the help of activist John La Rose, who came to the UK from Trinidad in 1961, and others in the north London area, they would organise the BSSs whenever they could. And wherever, too – church halls, community centres and lounge rooms would all host the classes on weeknights, after schools and weekends. 

“It was not really one individual that started the movement. It was [a group] of parents and communities organising themselves to resist what schools were doing to our children. That is why we call it a movement”, John continues. 

“John La Rose started New Beacon Books [The UK’s first Black bookshop and publishing house], while Jessica Huntley and Eric Huntley founded Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications [another radical London-based publishing house]. Both of those were instrumental in teaching Black children Black literature”.

Black children at a supplementary school. Image: George Padmore Institute

The movement and BSSs aimed to nurture the self-esteem of Black children so they could resist forms of prejudice and injustice within mainstream education. 

As resentment grew among Black Caribbean parents about the lack of quality schooling for their children, so did the work of the BEM. It soon became embedded within the lives of the Black community across Britain. Independent supplementary schools for Black pupils were set up, along with associations to debate education issues and generally raise awareness of the discrimination taking place.

The GPI’s archive is divided into four areas: The Black supplementary school movement (BSSM); a campaign against Haringey Council to ‘band’ or ‘stream’ school pupils; the creation of the BEM associations and the expansion of public awareness and support of education disputes and concerns. 

This collective action was used as a model for how local communities can come together to challenge the state while also highlighting the injustices they were fighting against. 

Professional archivist at the GPI, Sarah Garrod, tells The Big Issue: “The most important thing is that [The Black Education Movement] created awareness. 

“People need to question and confront past and present encounters of injustice, and that’s what the movement set out to do.

“It was about building confidence and self-help [for the community] not to be afraid to challenge institutions themselves.”

The movement helped Black communities pressure local governments and keep them accountable. Materials about the “anti-banding” campaign in Haringey, north London, in 1969, make up a large part of the archive. It documents the resistance to plans by the local council to ‘band’ pupils based on their academic ability.

New Beacon Books in Finsbury Park – the oldest Black bookshop and publisher in the UK. Image: Sam Gelder

The stated aim was to maximise performance, but it led parents to become suspicious of the damaging ramifications for Black children in the borough. When a document known as the Doulton Report leaked, their fears were realised.

“The report stated that West Indian children have a lower IQ than their English contemporary and that if a school had a large population of Black children, their performance would drop,” says Sarah. “[The report] was rooted in a bigotry which catalysts the movement.”

Local meetings were held across London, and protests against the plans led to the council backing down. Demonstrations continued, and played a significant role in the Conservative council losing the May 1970 election.

The movement continued to live past the ’60s, with supplementary schools remaining a feature until the ’80s, when financial problems saw them “fizzle out”, as Sarah puts it.

Figures such as La Rose, the late activist, poet, writer, publisher and founding chairman of the GPI, were crucial to the movement. Part of a long line of radical Caribbean activists, La Rose had a strong involvement in the fight for political independence and social change in Trinidad during the 1940s and 1950s.

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After arriving in Britain, he continued his work, setting up New Beacon Books with his wife Sarah White. It was first run out of their Hornsey home, before moving to a shop in Finsbury Park where it remains to this day, though a rent dispute with its landlord – the GPI – has placed it under threat.

“John also helped set up supplementary schools in his own house”, Sarah says. Subjects would include culture, pan-African history, geography, English and maths. 

Bernard Coard, a Grenadian politician and former deputy prime minister for the People’s Revolutionary Government of the New Jewel Movement, also played a crucial role with his book How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System, which became a vital and tactical publication for the movement.

He distributed it to the local community, and the book revealed to parents the subjugation of young Black pupils, especially Black Caribbean kids.

The book covers institutional racism and educational disparity through the outlook of ‘educationally subnormal’ schools, which disproportionately and wrongly enrolled Black Caribbean children who often struggled and suffered economically and academically. 

Though it is no longer active, the work of the Black Education Movement sadly remains as relevant in 2021 as it was 50 years ago, with Black students over-represented in the school to prison pipeline and a lack of representation in the national curriculum. There has even been a dramatic resurgence of Black supplementary schools since the start of the Covid pandemic. 

“We’re in a different era,” Gus John says. “Black school leavers are coming out of school with higher grades. However, schools are still targeting and labelling Black kids and school exclusions remain a scandal, with Black boys getting excluded for petty things at an alarming rate.”

John says schools need to stop looking at pupils as customers, and focus on more than grades. 

“Suppose teachers spent more time nurturing,” he says. “In that case, that school does more for the community they serve than simply excluding struggling students and only focusing on high educational performance, which neglects other students.

“If they gave attention to the child’s basic needs, there wouldn’t be so much despair in young people. There is a destruction of hope and the death of aspiration.

“Change will come when Black parents organise themselves independently from institutions and students become more politically engaged and active, using their power to hold schools to account.”

The murder of George Floyd in 2020 sparked ongoing conversations around British education. And as seen in Wales, there has been some progress where the curriculum is concerned.

“It’s long overdue,” John adds. “Not simply because of the growing Black population in schools, but because Britain has been responsible for teaching the truth about its colonial past ever since the 1940s. Britain was an empire that made people believe that they were justified in colonising half the world.

“Britain owes it to the population to reveal the truth about how it built its industrial revolution and how its colonial past is the reason for the nation’s wealth today. If not, this government will continue to see resistance. You can’t keep people repressed and think they won’t fight back.”

Watch the Black Education Movement documentary here, and visit the GPI website for more on the archive collection.

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