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Last December I watched the final entry of Small Axe entitled ‘Education‘, the best entry in my opinion and thus I delivered a blog on the film too. The finale articulated the history behind the schools for the ‘Educationally Subnormal’ [ESN] or ‘special schools’, and it took me back to when I was a nine year-old boy being treated as if I was intellectually inferior or incapable, by my White teachers in comparison to the White children. It turns out I was dyspraxic. The story of Maisie Barrett, however, in the recent documentary Subnormal: A British Scandal resonated. My schooling experience differs from most Black children in Britain today (since I was at private, not state) but the story of Maisie Barrett resonates because she was dyslexic (word blindness in the 1960s/1970s) and simply, like my teachers with my dyspraxia, they did not know how to teach her or me. She was placed in one of those ‘special schools’ really because she happened to be Black and her dyslexia translated as “difficult” to the teachers of the time.
In the 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of Black children in Britain were caught in an education scandal where many were sent to schools designed for the ‘educationally subnormal’. Some children were labelled as “subnormal” by the state, as they were seen to have low intelligence and not fit for the mainstream school system. A decision by the state that would see many (if not all) of these children to grow into adults traumatised by their experience with that childhood trauma impacting their adult lives. What happened in the 1960s and 1970s disproportionately to Black British children of Caribbean descent has an enduring legacy today, where battles are still being fought in the name of race and racism, from Early Years all the way up to higher education [HE] in universities. In the 1944 Education Act, the term “educationally subnormal” entered British lexicon to describe children that the state deemed intellectually deficient.
The people that we now know in the colloquial sense as the Windrush Generation (Caribbeans that came here between 1948-1970), came here to work. This scandal impacted their children and is really an aftershock of the hostility to Caribbean arrival in 1948. My own great-grandparents themselves came to this country from the Caribbean in the late 1950s, early 1960s with some of their children (including my grandmother) coming on her parents’ passports. And I know my maternal great-grandparents were factory workers when they first came. I’m told they went to work at Long and Hambly, a Northamptonshire-based plastics manufacturer. However, these ESN schools should not be relegated to history as the education sector continues to fail Black and Brown students at every level. Whilst back then the state called them ‘special schools’, now we have Pupil Referral Units [PRU] where Black students in schools continue to be placed when they become “too difficult” for the mainstream system of education.
Watching Subnormal, it struck me that whilst it claims this scandal started in the 1960s with the arrival of the Windrush Generation and whilst I earlier claimed it as an aftershock of 1948, I would take this back further. Why were / are Black students being treated as if they were / are less intelligent? In the documentary, Prof. Gus John states “there were many academics who were equating race with lack of intellectual ability [with] the reason for Black underachievement as those children were Black” … academics like Professor Hans Eysenck, a key figure in discourses around race and intelligence in the 1970s. He believed genetics played a role in influenceing intelligence and that “entire racial groups might be genetically condemned to lower intelligence” (Subnormal). These ideas lead to beliefs that Black children were not as capable of academic success as White children. With people like Prof. Eysenck leading on this, it made ESNs not really a national scandal but justifiable … essentially justifying racism with “science.”
Yet, going back to the 18th and 19th centuries we also know that similar ‘race science’ was used to used to justify colonialisms and also enslavement as well as the subjugation of Black people in the Caribbean and the African continent. In her book Superior, Angela Saini traces the origins of race really showing the racial hierachies that existed in that era with White European people at the top and Black people of African descent at the bottom and “what Europeans saw as cultural shortcomings in other populations in the early nineteenth century soon become conflated with how they looked” (p11). So-called ‘race scientists’ drew on physical differences to emphasise us and them and I believe the ideas perpetuated by the Government in constructing the ESNs do not sound too far from the pseudoscientific racial theories that underpinned colonial racial thinking of the 18th and 19th century. Very much followed by the Nazis themselves, inspired by UK-US eugenics creating policies also discriminating based on disabilities, that would have included neurodivergent conditions like dyslexia (or as they called it in the 1970s … word blindness).
Black people being seen as intellectually inferior is a stereotype that goes back to the days of White masters and Black enslaved people. The justifications made for the ESNs were simply an afterthought of the “academic reasonings” made to subjugate Black people on slave plantations. Simply, the UK government were standing on the shoulders of old stereotypes created in the slave polity. When you link this with the hostility to Caribbean arrival, we can then see that the conditions of anti-Blackness have been in Britain since the 16th century. In watching the film, what we saw is ‘race science’ playing out in a contemporary context, as well as eugenics, which was also pioneered by men like Winston Churchill, who the British public saw fit to vote as the Best Briton in 2002, and then have on the £5-note in 2016.
In British schools and universities, we continue to see these same stereotypes playing out (the return of race science, to put it bluntly) but more importantly, this is White supremacy in action. Whilst I enjoyed (if that’s the term), the documentary as it had lots to take away, I felt it was not critical enough. Much alike lots of the documentaries we have received from especially the BBC since the George Floyd killing, they go as far as to say ‘racism is bad and we need to talk about it’ but fall short in naming White supremacy as a social and political system (Mills, 2004). Further to the fact of how institutional Whiteness (White Spaces) allows our structures to continue to centre and frame the emotions of White people in dealing with racist incidents. The scandal that culminated in Bernard Coard’s book How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System, was well articulated by the BBC as well as showing the role of Black parents, community leaders and activists, but falls short at showing the overarching system leading us to believe this as an isolated tragedy and not part of complex system that was orchestrated from dot.
We had lots of testimony from the victims as well as parents, community leaders, activists and the like but much akin to so much of the trauma narratives of late, the people that helped facilitate these crimes are nowhere to be seen … we have a victim-focussed narrative with no analysis on the mechanics of the oppression itself. 50 years on, more awareness for sure … but no accountability. The BBC is the establishment broadcaster and it shows. Babylon, for true!
Coard, B. (1971) How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System. In: Richardson, B. Tell it like it is: How our schools fail Black children. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books.
Mills, C (2004) Racial Exploitation and the Wages of Whiteness. In: Yancy, G (ed). What White Looks Like: African American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question. Abingdon: Routledge.
Saini, Angela (2019) Superior: The Return of Race Science. London: 4th Estate.
Ventour, T (2021) The Alternative History Behind the Windrush Scandal. Medium [online]
White Spaces. Institutional Witnesses. White Spaces [online].
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