Watching last night’s finale to Steve McQueen’s Small Axe took me back to when I was at school. Unknown to many, I was a student that was considered Special Educational Needs [SEN]. Today, as a Black Caribbean SEN boy I would be 168 times more likely than my white counterpart to be excluded (Crenna-Jennings, 2017). I had extra classes and was in the minds of the white education system “educationally subnormal” [ESN]. How my experience of school differs to a good many Black students in this country though, in that I was at private school. Being the only Black student in the school to then need extra classes to keep up has a specific set of connotations. Looking back on this part of my personal history now, shows me that did I really need extra classes, or does education still not know how to treat students as individals? Moreover, is the system not designed for such an endeavour? The added invisible disability of dyspraxia also brought its own challenges. So, last night, I know if I was a boy in the 1970s, I would have been put in an ESN. No doubt about it.
McQueen’s picture has also cast my mind back to earlier on in the summer, when the cancelling of A-Level and GCSE examinations saw a resurgence of discussion about the embedded racism in the education system… when Race Equality specialist Sofia Akel wrote “predicted grades are a lottery of privilege where Black students almost always lose.” Unlike me, many Black students in this country, just like Kingsley go / went through the state system, just like my parents did during the 1980s. And I know my grandparents, also from Grenada, would remember the publication of Grenadian politician Bernard Coard’s seminal pamphlet How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System (1971).
Those schools no longer exist as those schools, they’re simply called “Pupil Referral Units”, or the same students that would be put into an ESN are today now excluded, Black Caribbeans disproportionately (Department of Education), along with Irish Traveller and Roma students, respectively… however, stats do not give you context.
Roma and Irish Traveller communities in Wales, for example, do not typically engage in the mainstream school system to the same levels as other ethnic groups (Fensham-Smith, 2014) and in the UK at large, we are some way from removing those barriers to this community (Hamilton, 2017). So, to see the data to also include this community despite so few of them in mainstream education, is a damning indictment as a whole. However, exclusion/isolation data for Black Caribbeans is also shocking and it has precedent going back 50 years.
Growing up, my mother and godmother started the Garvey Saturday School (2010) to combat the barriers facing Black Caribbean students in Northamptonshire. Amongst Caribbean communities, especially women in my experience, education is thought of as vital part of life, much alike breathing. Especially being around my mother’s friends, my aunties, grandmothers, women cousins… the passion about education was at the centre of Caribbean matriarchs and I hold fond memories of them telling me to study. But above that, learn, and to find something I was passionate about. Akel goes on to discuss the long-held idea that Black people must “work twice as hard to get half as far, an adage that has very real implications in 21st century UK schooling.”
At the higher end of the educational chain at universities; as a sabbatical officer it was evident to see the number of Black students being pulled through disciplinary panels in both housing misdemeanors but also assessment offenses (academic misconduct). What were then called ESNs in the school system are now Pupil Referral Units that set up Black students for jail, whilst simultaneously those university disciplinary panels feeling a lot like what I believe a police custody interrogation to feel like. Schools set students up for prison, especially Black students, and higher education is simply another violent institution should that student avoid the jail cell schools set them up for. And the hegemonic processes at schools (and universities) “are based in assumption about what embodied discipline looks like” (Graham, 2019: 132).
By showing the trajectory that Black students go, from the moment they enter the education system, private included (it just has differences), we are able to see the nature of the beast of racism in the education sector to the point that my colleague Liz Pemberton AKA The Black Nursery Manager runs an establishment in Birmingham that prides itself around issues of race and culture, very much catering for Afro-Caribbean children. You would think there isn’t racism in Early Years, right? Wrong. Liz has been doing some sterling work and I recommend you all follow her on Instagram and LinkedIn, and it truly shows to critique racism in education we also need to look at Early Years.
Presented by David Harewood, in 2017, the BBC aired the documentary Will Britain Ever Have a Black Prime Minister? (above). It explored the chances of a Black British child progressing through life via the education system, from the biased marking of in-school test scores to university chances and independently-marked GCSEs (where markers don’t know the student’s ethnicity). This was backed by research from Professor Simon Burgess that shows teachers that know their students, have a clear bias (not that unconscious). The finale to Steve McQueen’s Small Axe makes me think to education and COVID and looking at the impact that predicted grades have on Black students in a system that is already rigged against them, even outside of the grades part.
Even after Black students slog through school fighting off all numbers of barriers, they then come to the ivory towers of academia and UCAS, very much following the tradition of structural racism entrenched in the education system, as Black students are also twenty-two times more likely to face investigation by UCAS’ verification services compared to their white counterparts (Busby, 2018). Despite slogging through Britain’s education system as I have, my struggle was less so without the added layer of class. Even in my experience, at that time, I drew the golden ticket of privilege of private education where my only challenge was racism. Classism was there, not in the barriers to access but more the prejudice because I came from that background.
Bernard Coard’s seminal pamphlet is as relevant now as it was in 1971; the ESNs have changed their face but Black students continue to be failed by the education system at every level, from Early Years and Primary, to Secondary, Further Education [FE] and universities, don’t even get me started on the experiences of Black educators in schools and higher education… that’s for another blog for another Monday. Indeed!
Frensham-Smith, Amber (2014) Gypsy and Traveller Education: Engaging Families – A Research Report. Cardiff: Welsh Government. Available: https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/21443/1/141125-gypsy-traveller-education-engaging-families-en.pdf
Graham, Karen (2019) The British School-to-Prison Pipeline. In: Andrews, K and Palmer, Lisa Amanda. Blackness in Britain. London: Routledge. pp.130-142.
Hamilton, Paula (2017) Engaging Gypsy and Traveller pupils in secondary education in Wales: tensions and dilemmas of addressing difference. International Studies in Sociology of Education. 27(1). pp. 4-22. Available: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/09620214.2017.1377100?needAccess=true