Being a black child in education during the 60s and 70s in Britain
I wonder if you felt as I did, watching Steve McQueen’s Small Axe: Education. We were subjected to a story about a young black male boy (Kingsley) placed in a ‘special school’ to help him.
Although it was fictional and based on facts, it was difficult to view. Kingsley’s removal from his original school starts with him stumbling when reading in front of his classmates. Then later in a music lesson, we see him and his classmates messing about, but he was the only one hauled out of the class by his teacher.
Like so many black parents at that time, his parents were working hard and weren’t fully aware of events at school; they believed what the professionals told them. According to the headteacher, Kingsley’s IQ test and ‘liveliness’ would be more suited to a ‘special school’ where he would have more support with fewer children in the class.
Unfortunately for him, his parents believed the information they were presented with. Why would they question the authorities? Of course, they’d have his best interest at heart, wouldn’t would?
However, that was much further from the truth.
He was bused to school with four times as many black children in the class, with a few white children too, all deemed ‘educationally subnormal’. As you watch, you could see Kingsley change from the child he was to behaving and making noises as the other children who had been there before him.
I watched it shocked, realising that although this was fiction, this actually happened to some of my peers. For me, it brought back some unhappy memories of my own. I’m not sure how I managed to escape the same fate.
My year 6 teacher was not interested or cared why I was quiet and often told me off for copying work from other children. I was admonished and was moved away from them and made to sit by myself. The truth was it was the other children that were copying me. That teacher’s self-assessment led me to be placed in one of the bottom forms in my secondary school. Unfortunately for me, the Eleven Plus was cancelled that year.
Watching the BBC’s Subnormal: A British Scandal, I realised the extent and the reality of what children like Anne-Marie Simpson, Noel Gordon, Maisie Barrett and many, many others, were subjected to in and out of ESN (educationally subnormal) schools. Parents, like my own, had no reason to suspect the turmoil their children faced until things became apparent.
I’ve got to say, the programme was hard to watch knowing that these were real, lived experiences, unlike Small Axe: Education. I found the content challenging and barely palatable.
I recommend that you watch it and judge for yourself, although it is difficult to view. It’s hard to comprehend the emotional trauma that was inflicted on these children.
Some children were able to overcome their potential damaging start in life. They fought against the educational expectations by doing further studying once they were out of primary and secondary education. Some did this by attending the supplementary schools set up to readdress what was happening in mainstream and ESN schools, supported by the Black Education Movement.
Both programmes only show a snapshot of the effects and trauma caused, and yes, not every black or mixed-race child experienced school like this and left school with outstanding exam results. Sadly though, some adults are still affected by their negative experiences despite having had successful careers.
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Written by Sharon RM Stevens
Small Axe: Education –
BBC’s Subnormal: A British Scandal –