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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].
This blog is inspired by an article posted on our Facebook group by my colleague @paulaabowles, from the work of Dweck (2016), suggesting mindsets can be categorised as either growth or fixed. It is interesting to consider how such a mindset can shape the way your life goes, but for me, any psychological analysis is always just part of the picture. That said, Dweck’s work is interesting and made me reflect on my life up until this week. This is a week where I seem to be waiting patiently (mostly) for acceptance of PhD corrections and to exchange contracts on my new house. Both of these processes are out of my control, require continued patience and a need to accept there is nothing I can do but wait.
For a lot of reasons, I immediately identified with the ‘growth’ mindset, being open to challenges, seeing intelligence as something to be nurtured and developed, worth the effort, understanding the need to learn from mistakes and being inspired by others. The other seems to me a life of stagnation, dismissal of anything new and creating a world which may be low risk, but ultimately unfulfilling. The fixed mindset also presents intelligence and success as something you are born with and therefore little effort is required to fulfil potential – almost as if life is mapped out for you, but it also belies a sense of entitlement, and inability to deal with failure as a challenge to move on from. However, if you are not somehow ‘blessed’ with the tools necessary for success, you must accept your fate. There are obvious social and cultural influences which can reinforce these messages, so perhaps, a fixed mindset leading to a life of success aligns with a life of privilege, but a life without this success identifies someone who cannot see a way to improve, blames others for their misfortune and doesn’t value their own ability to change. My parents always taught me the value of education (well, a lecturer and a teacher – of course they would!), and I never felt any limits were placed on me. But a big part of this must be attributed to me not facing the limits placed on individuals facing poverty, loss, psychological trauma or physical disabilities – my life, so far has largely been the outcomes of my decisions, and I count myself lucky to be able to say that.
That’s not to say I haven’t doubted my abilities, suffered ‘impostor syndrome’ and come up against challenges which have tested my resolve. It seems having a ‘growth’ mindset perhaps enables individuals to strive despite what life throws at you, and also despite how others may perceive you.
So, back to my week of waiting patiently and trying not to let anxieties come to the fore. Being able to call myself Dr Atherton and having my own house in the town I also work in is something I am really looking forward to, for obvious reasons. Years of work on the thesis and years of commuting from Birmingham to various parts of the Midlands (I know the M6 far too well) are about to lead to significant rewards. However, it also occurred to me none of this would be happening if I had given up on the PhD, stayed in a job which was not right for me, decided to carry on commuting and not made this decision to buy a house. It also occurred to me perhaps having a fixed mindset would be less stressful – you have to admit, my timing is spot on – but I don’t think that is the case. I chose the PhD and new job path because I was not happy, I chose to buy a house as M6 commuting is just not something I want to do anymore, and I want to feel more settled in my new post. As for the PhD, I knew I needed time away from a full-time job to complete it, and while it was risky to leave a permanent post, it seems my mindset pushed me to strive for something which was a better fit for me. My mindset helped me believe this was all possible, crucially it was down to me to do this and also, support from friends, family, ex and current colleagues have helped get me here. But, my social and economic circumstances also enabled all of this – we cannot just assume that psychological tools can overcome disadvantage, discrimination and a lack of opportunity.
Dweck suggests that these mindsets are a ‘view you adopt for yourself’. Fixed mindsets can impede development and the belief in change, and they also seem to create people whose concerns about others’ perceptions of them can be all-consuming, and no doubt lead to them avoiding situations where they will be judged. Those with the growth mindset see their traits as a starting point, from which anything can happen and they value the unknowable – the opportunities ahead, the hurdles and rewards. The fixed mindset creates a different kind of stress, a constant need for affirmation of beliefs, disregard of the need to adapt to changing circumstances, and god forbid, simply go with the flow. As much as I identify with the growth mindset, I can empathise with those who simply are unable to take risks, accept failure and manage the unknowable – there are times I have wanted to give up, take the easy path and feel more in control.
A day after starting this blog, the clouds parted and the sun shone down as the much-awaited email from the De Montfort University Doctoral College came to confirm my PhD corrections were accepted and I was to be awarded my doctorate. Suddenly after weeks of anxiety, the reward was certainly worth the wait. There will be plenty of days ahead to bask in the glory and enjoy this moment, and just for now, it is making me worry less about the house exchange, it will happen, I will be settled in my new home soon and enjoy a short drive to work for the first time in years. So, I will continue to strive, develop and take risks – not doing this may have meant a less anxious time this week, but they also lead to great rewards, and hopefully, even better things to come.
Dr. Susie Atherton
Senior Lecturer in Criminology