Black children still underachieving

There is a thread which connects Stephen Lawrence, Grenfell, George Floyd and the BLM movement (image: Lorie Shaull (CC BY-SA 2.0))

Bernard Coard argues that racism and discrimination still run deep in the British education system

“Little has changed”, one Caribbean grandmother said to me in Birmingham.

“The situation is just as bad”, another concluded, this time in Brixton.

This was the common refrain at the many meetings I had in several parts of London and in many of Britain’s cities as I toured in connection with the publication of my memoirs three years ago. I was struck by the number of parents and grandparents who came to the meetings with copies of my 1971 booklet, How The West Indian Child Is Made Educationally Subnormal In The British School System.After ten years of sustained struggle in Caribbean communities throughout Britain, the schools for the “educationally subnormal”, into which large numbers of Black Caribbean children of average (and even above average) intellectual ability had been dumped, were finally closed. The role of these ESN schools in suppressing the educational prospects of Caribbean children was then fully taken over by other entities. Schools for “children with learning difficulties”; schools for the “emotionally and behaviourally disturbed” (EBD’s); “pupil referral units” (PRU’s), and so on, quickly filled the ‘spaces’ left by the closure of the ESN schools.

Additionally, stepped-up use of the devices of setting and tiering in the ‘regular’ schools (fundamentally determined by low teacher expectations) captured large numbers of Caribbean-origin children in a system structured to restrict what level of exams they would be permitted to sit, thus effectively limiting their academic and life-career possibilities. The tool of exclusions was also ramped up and is still used to this day, despite the growing evidence that it has become a conveyor belt to prison for so many.

The disproportionate exclusion of Caribbean-origin children from schools mirrors a more deep-seated and profoundly damaging exclusion of these children and their parents’ identity, history, culture, and contribution to Britain from the curriculum of the British school system. Low academic expectations, and disrespect for their identity, culture, and history, all lead to rebellion. Some rebel by ‘shutting down’. Those who rebel by ‘acting out’ soon find themselves excluded; victims, now, of a double exclusion.

There is a thread which connects the killing of Stephen Lawrence and the way the case was handled by the police, the more recent Grenfell Tower fire in all its dimensions, the public lynching of George Floyd (and the constant extra-judicial killings of black people in the USA) and the electric global response to his televised murder, and the launch of the Black Lives Matter movement by three remarkable Black American women.

Let’s face it: it is not unreasonable to expect lasting psychological damage to result from centuries of the violent capture, transport, sale, enslavement, and violent brutalisation of fellow human beings, the colonisation of other peoples’ lands and the genocides which accompanied this process (in North America, Central and Southern Africa, Australia, etc), and colonial rule of Black and Brown peoples worldwide. It is reasonable to believe that it would leave a mark on the collective psyche for many generations. Race-based rationalisations, assumptions and belief systems of the dominant ethnic groups which engaged in these activities over such an extended period would be inevitable.

Put another way: it would be extraordinary if doctrines of white supremacy, of the inherent inferiority of Black people, did not become embedded in the overwhelmingly unconscious socialisation process of Europeans wherever they live. Such influences on most persons’ thinking would be unconscious, and would be consciously repudiated by most – genuinely so. This is why fifty years after the ESN scandal was exposed, the substance but not the forms of the educational suppression of Caribbean-origin children remains.

The administrators, educational psychologists, principals, teachers, government ministers and their civil servants of the 1950s, 60s and 70s are no more, replaced several times by new generations in these positions. Yet the fundamental policies and practices have remained unchanged; only the specific devices for their execution have changed, adapting creatively to maintain the system of educational suppression against the periodic assaults on it by the suppressed, the oppressed.

This is the definition, and illustration, of what systemic racism is: when generations of people running a system come and go in turn, but the results remain largely unchanged. This is what connects the Stephen Lawrences, George Floyds, Grenfell Tower residents, and all the other persons and events together by one thread.

It is time to consciously and definitively break the generational curse. It is more than time for people of all ethnicities to unite to smash this phenomenon. The brazen lynching of George Floyd ignited a fuse which saw literally millions of white Americans joining the numerous demonstrations in numbers never before seen in America. “Black Lives Matter” has become a global clarion call, not just an American movement.

It is time to openly tackle and defeat systemic racism (not just openly racist actions) in all its manifestations! Steve McQueen’s Small Axe drama series, and now his forthcoming documentary on the BBC, ‘Subnormal: A British Scandal’, are major contributions in the raising of consciousness by all who absorb these extraordinary films.

Bernard Coard
Bernard Coard's seminal book, How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System, was published by New Beacon in 1971. After teaching in Grenada, in the late 1960s he ran youth clubs for children in Deptford, South East London, and taught at two "ESN" schools in East London. Bernard has taught at The University of the West Indies and at the Institute of Higher Studies (Netherlands Antilles,1975). He continues to write and teach.

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