Tag Archives: Education and racism

The Culture Supplement: Black British Supplementary Schools for Children of Windrush

This is refugee week, as well as Windrush week, in the UK, and I wanted to combine those two events by continuing my thinking about the Declaration of the Rights of the Child.  This week my focus is on Principle 7, which states that “The child is entitled to receive education which shall be free and compulsory, at least in the elementary stages. He shall be given an education which will promote his general culture and enable him, on a basis of equal opportunity, to develop his abilities, his individual judgement, and his sense of moral and social responsibility, and to become a useful member of society.”  In Britain, the first part of this is and has been done, for citizen, immigrant, and refugee alike.  But the second half of the statement, about an education that promotes the child’s culture and sense of self, has been much more difficult to achieve for newcomers to Britain.

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Bernard Coard’s book highlighted the plight of the Black child in British schools in the late 1960s and early 70s–and led to an increase in supplementary education.

In the late 1960s, the children of the Windrush generation—some of whom had come to Britain after their parents got settled, and some of whom were born in the country—began attending British schools in large numbers, particularly in the urban centers of London, Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester.  Many schools struggled to accommodate them.  Arguing language difficulties, behavioral problems, and lack of preparedness for school, teachers placed a considerable percentage of Black children (particularly boys) in what were then called ESN (Educationally SubNormal) classrooms.  This was meant to be a temporary measure for most children, but many never left the ESN classrooms, and left school without qualification or skills—sometimes not even knowing how to read—because of it.

The official line from the British government was that these children should assimilate into British society, and accept British customs and traditions.  But parents of Black British children saw the situation differently.  They felt that it was because their children were being asked to give up their culture and not taught their history that they were disinterested in school.  Many of the parents had come to Britain to give their children a better chance at education and they weren’t going to watch them lose that chance because the government felt that their children ought to be just like white Britons.  Through organizations and movements such as the Black Parents Movement, the Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association, and the Anti-Banding Campaign, Black parents worked together to provide the missing piece of education for their children: the culture and history of their own people.  Bernard Coard’s How the West Indian is Made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British Schools, published by Black British publisher John LaRose in 1971, gave parent groups the impetus and the statistics they needed to organize and fight for their children’s rights to maintain a sense of pride in their culture.

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John LaRose, who helped start the George Padmore school, and Jessica and Eric Huntley, who were involved with the Marcus Garvey school and later the Peter Moses school, published children’s books and supported those who did.  Photo from “I Dream to Change a World” exhibition in 2015.

Since they generally could not get the schools to teach Black history and culture (and to be fair, most white British teachers had never been prepared to do so), Black parents set up a number of Supplementary Schools: local, after school or Saturday programmes staffed by some trained teachers and many more interested but untrained parent volunteers.  Some of these schools had only a few children; others had fifty or more.  The George Padmore school, started by John LaRose in his own living room, began with only four children: his own two sons, and two of their friends.  But large or small, the critical element was improving the experience of Black children in the British schools.  Initially, the supplementary schools concentrated on what one school, the Marcus Garvey school in Shepherds Bush, called “simple MATHS and elementary ENGLISH” (note to parents, found in the London Metropolitan Archives, LMA/4463/D/01/006) because the children were so far behind their white counterparts.  But even early on the supplementary schools wanted to improve the children’s sense of self; John LaRose, writing about the founding of the George Padmore school in Finsbury Park, said that the late 1960s “was a time when anxiety about the education system in Britain and what it was doing to black children had already surfaced . . . the schools gave black children no understanding of their own background history and culture and no help in understanding their experience of the society in Britain” (George Padmore Institute Archives, BEM 3/1).  One of the important ways that supplementary schools helped Black children develop a sense of identity was through a study of their history and culture in their reading material.

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Longmans history of Equiano was used by the George Padmore school. Illustrated by Sylvia and Cyril Deakins.

We can get a look at that reading material because fortunately, some of the schools kept records of the books they used.  Many schools included biographies, from the self-produced biographies of Caribbean figures like Alexander Bustamante at the George Padmore school to standardized educational biographies (the George Padmore also used biographies of people like Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain from the American group, Science Research Associates or SRA, which produced a graded reading scheme in the 1960s and 1970s that I used in my own childhood).  Some of the material came from mainstream publishers, such as John R. Milsome’s biography of Olaudah Equiano: The slave who helped to end the slave trade (Longmans 1969) or Phyllis M. Cousins Queen of the Mountains (jointly published by Ginn and the Jamaican Ministry of Education 1967, about Nanny of the Maroons).

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The publishers Ginn and Co. worked with the Jamaican Ministry of Education to produce this biography of Nanny of the Maroons. Illustrated by Gay Galsworthy.

The fact that Queen of the Mountains was a joint publication between Ginn and the Jamaican Ministry of Education was important, because much of the history used by supplementary schools was not available in British textbooks.  Supplementary schools had to look back to the Caribbean for reading texts that reflected their own children’s history and culture as well.  Although several reading schemes, including Leila Berg’s Nippers published by Macmillan and the Breakthrough series published by Longman, did by the early 1970s include Black characters in some of their stories, very little reflected the traditions or a positive view of the contemporary Caribbean.  This may be why the George Padmore and Albertina Sylvester School (the two schools combined to share resources) used reading texts from the Caribbean, such as Inez M. Grant’s The Island Readers from Collins and the Jamaican Ministry of Education instead of British readers. In reader 2A, Stories for Work and Play (1966), children in the supplementary school could read about the modern manufacturing of condensed milk in Jamaica, as well as the traditional celebration of John Canoe—which came originally from an African source.  In this, the Black British child had his or her culture supported, and have a firmer foundation on which to build a future.

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An illustration of the John Canoe celebrations by Dennis Carabine for Inez Grant’s story, “Betty and Harold see John Canoe” in the Island Readers Stories for Work and Play.

The supplementary school was an important feature of Black British life in the 1970s and beyond (many still are running today).  It led me to wonder if refugee or other immigrant children might be having similar issues as Black children had in the 1970s—and whether book publishers might think about ways to support them in understanding their past, present and future through books that recognize and celebrate their culture.

Trouble with the Teacher: The Ferguson Commission, Unconscious Bias, and Children’s Literature

Yesterday, the Ferguson Commission released its report on the August 2014 incident in which the 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson. The sixteen-member commission, headed by Rich McClure and Starsky Wilson, decided that it would be pointless to simply examine the shooting in a vacuum, as an isolated incident. Instead, the report looks at St. Louis county institutions, government, policing, and education, through a wide-angle lens. The commission points out disparities in income, unequal access to services, and inequalities in education. A searchable version of the 198-page report can be found here: http://forwardthroughferguson.org/ but I want to focus on just one aspect of the report for this blog. The commission, in a section of the report entitled Youth at the Center, tackles the issue of school discipline and unconscious bias. In Missouri during the 2011-12 school year, more than seven times as many black children as white children were suspended at the elementary school level. This is not, then, the suspension of teenagers, but of children under the age of 12. “In addition to hurting academic performance,” the commissioners write, “this disproportionate discipline of Black students lowers teacher expectations and has been shown to increase the likelihood of future incarceration” (http://forwardthroughferguson.org/report/signature-priorities/youth-at-the-center/). The authors of the report do not argue that teachers are uniformly racist; in fact, they point out, all teachers regardless of race tended to label black students as troublemakers. The bias, they suggest, is unconscious—but sadly pervasive.

This is not, of course, a new or especially American problem. Schools in many multicultural countries have long had disparities in the treatment of children based on race. This difference can be seen in children’s literature over time. One landmark British book that introduced many readers to this racial disparity was Bernard Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft (1974).

Do you think you can see what the trouble with Donovan is?

Do you think you can see what the trouble with Donovan is?

Donovan Croft is a West Indian boy who is fostered by the Chapman family when Donovan’s parents have to leave, his mother to Jamaica to care for her dying father, and his father to work. Because of the sudden loss of his family, Donovan becomes silent. This, apparently, is the trouble with Donovan Croft: that he won’t speak his feelings and thoughts. There are two groups of (white) people that interact with Donovan in Ashley’s book: the well-meaning and patronizing, and the violent. Donovan’s teacher, Mr. Henry, reacts to Donovan’s silence by slapping him, and a neighbor, Mrs. Parsons, almost slaps him as well. Both call him racial epithets. This is the obvious racism against “different” children seen throughout the world. But Donovan also faces more subtle “othering” from people who are “on his side.” Mrs. Chapman, Donovan’s foster mother “found herself talking to him in a sing-song voice she might have used on a four- or five-year-old” (31), and she often speaks of him in diminutives (“poor little devil,” p. 70 for example). She tells the school that his old school reports have been good, but she speaks of him as though he were in need of help, and not very bright or capable. The psychologist brought in to try and help Donovan speaks to Donovan’s real father in much the same way. Mrs. Chapman and Dr. Spencer both mean well, and are quite a contrast to obvious racists like Mr. Henry. But their unconscious expectations do affect Donovan—and presumably, might continue to do so throughout his school career. The publisher’s (Penguin Puffin) description of the book carries on these unconscious biases, positioning the reader of Ashley’s novel to both pity and blame Donovan Croft for his own situation: “Poor Donovan . . . went on resisting all the well-meaning efforts made to explain to him and to help him, making everything more difficult for everybody” (“Puffin Books: The Trouble With Donovan Croft front matter). If Donovan would only accept the help of white people . . . but “they” never do, and “we” all suffer.

The obvious racism of Donovan's teacher blinds us to the low expectations of well-meaning adults.

The obvious racism of Donovan’s teacher blinds us to the low expectations of well-meaning adults. Illustration by Fermin Rocker.

Ashley’s book was written during a time when Britons were trying to come to terms with changing demographics; one could argue that the biases displayed in the book (conscious or unconscious) are historic, and would not happen now. Certainly the level of everyday brutality of white adults toward black children has decreased (and indeed, is now illegal in schools—which it wasn’t in 1974). But it is important, as the Ferguson Commission emphasizes, not to dismiss bias or assign it only to a few isolated individuals. Unconscious bias is more difficult to dismantle, because it can seem random when not considered as part of a whole picture. To illustrate what I mean, I want to look at a later British children’s book, one I like very much because it is cheerful and optimistic and multicultural: Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s 1988 Starting School. Written during a period of conscious attempts to make schooling in Britain inclusive, Starting School is heartfelt in its attempts to do just this. A group of multiracial children start school in a warm, welcoming reception (kindergarten) classroom with a pleasant teacher. The children are shown in all sorts of activities, and non-white children are shown reading and doing other intellectual activities (puzzles, for example). The culture is assimilative (at the end of the term, the children have a nativity play as many British schools, whatever their religious makeup, still do) but also accepting (an Indian girl wears her sari to show-and-tell). The parents are involved in the school (the Black British boy’s mother plays the piano for music class). The children are not always happy, but they mostly are, and any young reader who read (or was read) this picture book would likely see the classroom depicted therein as an enviable one.

In (almost) perfect harmony--the Ahlberg's racially diverse class starts school.

In (almost) perfect harmony–the Ahlberg’s racially diverse class starts school.

Yet even in a book that tries (and mostly succeeds) so earnestly to depict the kind of society free from racism that we might all want, there is possible unconscious bias. The teacher depicted by the Ahlbergs is, in general, ideal, but “Sometimes the teacher is not cheerful either” (Starting School n.p.). The illustrations on the page show all sorts of situations which might try any teacher’s patience, but in only one is she chastising a child. That child is nonwhite; aligned with him by looking in the same direction (up at the teacher) is another nonwhite child. Standing by the teacher, and aligned with her, is a white child.

We all have bad days--but on whom do we take it out?

We all have bad days–but on whom do we take it out?

I do not think the Ahlbergs thought of this and deliberately depicted it this way, but it does stand out; and it is these small incidents that the people on the Ferguson Commission argue add up to lower expectations and lower success rates for nonwhite children everywhere. One picture does not matter, but it does as part of a societal pattern. The only way to combat unconscious bias is to make ourselves aware of it, not just in the big ways, but in the little, hardly-noticed incidents by which we chip away at each other because we are different.