After thirty-five years, campaigners have seen fit to re-issue one of the first exposés of racism in the British education system. For racism and exclusion, if in new guises, still blight the lives of young Black people in Britain.
‘How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System’ was first published in 1971. Written by Bernard Coard, a Grenadian, who worked in southeast and east London as teacher and youth worker during the 1960s, the book aimed to expose the endemic levels of racism in Britain’s education system and to rally communities to resist.
Now it has been reissued in Tell it like it is: How our schools fail black children; a collection of essays, poems, testimonies and articles from politicians, academics and activists ranging from Baroness Lola Young to Linton Kwesi Johnson. Its aim is to show how Coard’s book is as relevant today as it was ‘back in the day’, whilst also providing up-to-date reflections on education and racism.
Black children deemed ESN
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the presence of Black children in British schools was seen as problematic. Many Black children, particularly Caribbean boys, were labelled as ‘educationally subnormal’. Portrayed as unable to get to grips with the English language, suffering from negative self-image and struggling with identity crises, many children were written off and subsequently dumped in ‘educationally subnormal’ (ESN) schools, where pupils were destined to be road cleaners and not much else. By 1970, in ‘normal’ London schools, 17 per cent of pupils were from ethnic minorities, but in ESN schools that figure was 34 per cent. Racism was never believed to be the issue by the authorities. Schools, local authorities and central government preferred to locate the problem of Black failure within the Black community and the Black family.
Coard turned orthodox thinking on its head. Three key factors, with racism at their heart, were causing the Black child to fail:
‘Low expectations on his part about his likely performance in a white controlled system of education; low motivation to succeed academically because he feels the cards are stacked against him; and low teacher expectations, which affect the amount of effort expended on his behalf by the teacher and also affect image of himself and his abilities.’
Coard’s pamphlet aimed to challenge the institutional racism that was dis-educating Black children and to agitate Black communities in demanding educational and social justice.
So, three decades on, why has Coard’s work been re-published? Because our schools are still failing Black children is the simple answer. Although much has changed in education since the 1970s, too much remains the same.
According to Brian Richardson, the editor of Tell it Like it is, ‘Black kids may not be labelled as “educationally subnormal” these days, but they are disproportionately excluded from school, dumped in pupil referral units and sent into the world with fewer qualifications than their peers.’
In 2004, Black boys were three times as likely to be excluded from school as White boys and the percentage of Black Caribbean pupils getting five or more grades A* to C at GCSE and equivalent was 36 per cent compared to 52.3 per cent of White children.
And, in 2005, the cocktail of excuses served up to wash down such unpalatable facts is still of the 1970s flavour. Both major parties and the mainstream media still focus on the supposed shortcomings within the Black community: the lack of ‘academic focus’; the supposed dearth of strong and positive role models created by living in fragmented families and now the influence of ‘ghetto fabulous’ culture. Despite the evidence accumulated over the last three decades which highlights the institutional racism at the heart of ‘underachievement’, there are still plenty of schemes addressing cultural confusion, negative self-esteem, alienation and bad behaviour among Caribbean youth and their parents.
The fact that groups of Indian and Chinese children are outperforming White children in terms of A* to C passes at GCSE has also led to a questioning of whether racism is really a contributory factor in the production of Black underachievement. The question goes: if ‘they’ are achieving, why can’t African-Caribbean pupils? People seek simple answers – whereas the inequality of attainment is complex. To analyse children’s performance in terms of their ethnicity not only risks obscuring key determinates such as class, gender, poverty and regional difference, but can fall back on racist assumptions about intelligence and ability.
The IQ tests of Coard’s day which, by design and default, showed that Black children had a lower intelligence than White children, have been discredited – but ‘natural ability’ is today’s tool for sifting out Black children. Under New Labour, schemes such as ‘Gifted and Talented’, have contributed to a system that tracks, sets, bands and streams children according to their perceived ‘ability’. This can have the effect of locking Black children into lower level groups. And, although streams are not ethnically determined, the emphasis on ‘ability’ can in fact lead many teaching professionals to determine the ‘appropriate’ tier based on a child’s ethnicity. This results not only in many Black children becoming trapped in poorly resourced classes for ‘underachievers’, but also unable to even attempt the needed GCSE.
Low teacher expectations
Focus groups undertaken with children as part of the London Development Agency Education Commission in 2003 also found that low teacher expectations played a major part in the underachievement of African-Caribbean pupils. In addition, Black pupils complained of inadequate levels of positive teacher attention, unfair behaviour-management practices, being watched with suspicion in break times, being subject to negative stereotyping and simply being disliked on account of being Black.
The role of teachers is clearly crucial if the cycle of low expectations and low academic attainment (that Coard identified) is to be broken, and Tell it like it is draws on a number of examples to show how good teachers and good anti-racist practice such as the ACE project at Forest Hill Boys School, can have a very positive effect on children’s academic success.
But the buck can’t stop with teachers. Many education professionals are inadequately equipped. There is still no obligatory anti-racist training as part of initial teacher training and, in a recent survey, 70 per cent of newly qualified teachers admitted to feeling unprepared for teaching children of other ethnicities.
Citizenship education watered down
Following the publication of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry report in 1999, there was optimism. The existence of institutional racism had been acknowledged and New Labour was keen to emphasise that there would be a ‘step change’ in attitudes to racism, not only in the police force but in education as well. At the forefront of this battle, according to Jack Straw, the then home secretary, would be citizenship education. ‘Citizenship education given its generic nature, will be able to challenge institutional racism within education practically and with sufficient force to engender a real recognition of Britain’s cultural diversity.’
By 2001, all reference to tackling racism had been dropped from the citizenship curriculum and replaced with a more vague commitment to ‘valuing diversity’. By 2004, it was not only citizenship education that had had any reference to racism removed, the DFES five-year strategy, which set out the priorities and policies for the future of education, had nothing to say about anti-racism or the need to challenge institutional racism. It did, however, mention ‘business’ and ‘businesses’ thirty-six times and ‘standards’ sixty-five times. The step change the government had promised was, in fact, a step backwards.
As New Labour has trod the same path as its Conservative predecessor – insisting on competition between schools, squeezing creative space out of the curriculum and turning generations of children away from learning by imposing tests – it has succeeded in deepening inequality in education and society. If the government’s proposed educational reforms get the go-ahead, which is more than likely now the new Conservative leader, David Cameron, has pledged his support for the choice and parental power agenda, we are likely to see more competition and selection, and more private-sector input which, together, can only serve to further entrench existing inequalities.