Tag Archives: John LaRose

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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.

The Sharp Edge of Hope: John LaRose and Children

Today I had the privilege of viewing an exhibition in a library basement. The Islington (London) Museum is in the basement of the Islington Library, and at the moment they are having an exhibition on Trinidadian-born Briton John LaRose. LaRose wore several hats—poet, publisher and activist. As a poet, he never wrote a children’s book. As a publisher (founder of New Beacon Press, one of the oldest Black British presses), he published few works for children. But as an activist poet publisher, John LaRose had a huge effect on Black British children beginning in the 1960s—even if they did not know it.

First, LaRose was an activist who became involved in anti-racist campaigns in Britain. These included the anti-banding campaign in Haringey during 1969. Banding was used to sort students by “ability” based on intelligence testing (yet the majority of those labelled Educationally Sub-Normal were non-white). Often it meant that Black British students were sent to schools far from their home. LaRose campaigned against it—but he didn’t just go on marches. He set up a Supplementary School in his own home to provide extra tuition for Black British students—both in the traditional school subjects, and also in African history and culture. He taught in the school himself, and arranged field trips to places like the British Museum so students could see evidence of great African civilizations in history. Additionally, LaRose published Bernard Coard’s pamphlet, How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System in 1971. Coard had taught in London, and the work came from his doctoral thesis; it was widely influential in educational circles, especially as counteractive to more traditional discussions of the poor success rate of West Indians in British schools (many of which blamed the West Indians themselves). LaRose saw the value in speaking through many different mediums—protest, teaching, and academic discourse—to improve the lives of Black British children.

How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System (1971) by Bernard Coard. 51pp.

But LaRose was also a poet, a founding member of the Caribbean Artists’ Movement in 1966, a group set up to support the creative artists who had come to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. The group met regularly until 1972, but even after they stopped formal meetings, LaRose continued to support these writers and artists. Errol Lloyd, a Jamaican-born artist, for example, designed the cover for Bernard Coard’s 1971 pamphlet. Many of the writers that LaRose knew from CAM were later published by New Beacon Press, including fellow CAM founders Kamau Brathwaite and Andrew Salkey. The bookshop that LaRose ran (New Beacon Books, which is still open and thriving today on Stroud Green Road in Finsbury Park, London) also sold greeting cards created from the artists he knew at CAM, including Errol Lloyd and Aubrey Williams. He continued to support all these writers and artists at the International Book Fairs of Radical Black and Third World Books, the first of which was held in 1982. The book fairs not only promoted the artists’ and writers’ work, it gave them space to perform and exhibit. Many of the artists and writers that LaRose supported in their early days went on to become children’s book illustrators and writers with other presses. LaRose gave people like Errol Lloyd, Karl Craig, and Petronella Breinburg the support and encouragement—and publication—they needed to go on to be successful.

From the exhibit, a selection of children's books--only one of which LaRose's New Beacon Press actually published, but all of which he supported in some way.

From the exhibit, a selection of children’s books–only one of which LaRose’s New Beacon Press actually published, but all of which he supported in some way.

In fact, the exhibit at Islington Museum nicely captures the spirit of John LaRose’s generosity by showcasing a book that he did not publish. Soon after Bernard Coard’s pamphlet was published, he asked LaRose that the profits from the book go to help another Black British publishing house—Jessica and Eric Huntley’s Bogle L’Ouverture Press—start a line in children’s books. LaRose was supportive, and the first book that Bogle L’Ouverture published for children was one written by Coard and his wife Phyllis, Getting to Know Ourselves (1972). This book was designed to make links between Black British children of West Indian parents and African children, to show their common heritage. Islington Museum have not only displayed all the pages of this book, but also set up part of their interactive table for children with page reprints for museum visitors to color. Some of the pages colored by children are pinned up under the exhibition poster, which shows an image of John LaRose. Although LaRose had nothing directly to do with the publication, he supported thosee involved—being the first publisher of Coard, helping the Huntleys with advice in setting up their publishing house, and supporting the education of Black British children, particularly in terms of their African heritage.

Children's coloring pages at the Islington exhibit: proof that LaRose's unending journey of influence continues.

Children’s coloring pages at the Islington exhibit: proof that LaRose’s unending journey of influence continues.

LaRose once wrote that he lived “on the sharp edge of hope/ on the testing road of an unending journey” (in his poem, “Unending Journey”). The hope he had for the future of Black British children had an edge to it for certain—he was constantly battling for them to have more success in their British lives—but his work took root, and continues today through his bookshop (which has a large section of children’s books), his own writings, and his influence on the next generation, people who would become the first generation of Black Britons. Thanks to the Islington Museum for making some of his unending journey visible to all.  The exhibition runs until 29th August, in case you happen to be near London.