Tag Archives: readers and primers

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.

Black Gold: What a Black Bookstore Can Be and Do

Last week I was in the UK on various projects, and on my last day before returning to Buffalo, I went to New Beacon bookstore in Finsbury Park. Originally when I had planned my visit, I thought it would be my last time, as the bookstore was set to close after its 50th anniversary. However, thanks to a populist campaign, the bookstore has raised enough money to revamp itself (see Natasha Onwuemezi’s article in the Bookseller: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/swell-support-new-beacon-books-helps-raise-10k-513551); it plans a new storefront, a different layout, and most importantly, more room and plans for community space and activities. I’m looking forward to going back with some of my postgraduate students in July to see how it is all coming along.


Educational essays by writers such as Gus John are not usually available at your local bookstore–unless that bookstore is one like New Beacon.

But of course this reprieve did not stop me from a few (ahem) purchases, especially since, in order to make room for new stock, they were selling off some of their old stock at deep discounts. New Beacon is not primarily a children’s bookstore, but they have throughout my relationship with them furnished my shelves with many gems. This is partly because of founder John La Rose’s connection with the supplementary school movement. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Black British children (especially boys) were being placed into ESN (educationally sub-normal) classrooms or excluded from school altogether at an alarming rate. John La Rose, like other activists, tried to counter the effects of this travesty. He did this partly through supporting and publishing educational experts in the Black community, including Bernard Coard and Gus John (and I found a couple of Gus John’s essays at the bookstore this time).

But La Rose was also one of a number of Black British and West Indian activists who began supplementary after- or Saturday school programs, where kids could learn basic skills as well as Black history that the mainstream schools ignored. I have purchased many basic reading texts here over the years that feature Black characters, some from traditional publishers such as Macmillan Caribbean or the Evans English Readers, who had branches in Africa or the Caribbean. These readers were imported specifically by many supplementary and mainstream schools who wanted to be sure that their children found mirrors that reflected them in the books they read.  The one I found this time (above) is from Sierra Leone; the illustrator is Tom Simpasa.


Independently published stories range in quality, from pamphlets stapled together to hardcover books; but all need independent outlets like New Beacon to provide a market.

Other reading texts came from independent and community publishers, such as Centreprise, the Peckham Publishing Project, or the one I found this time from a group called Brockwell Books. Often these books were “home-made” in quality, created by teachers or even by the students themselves. These are not the kinds of books that are found in mainstream bookstores, or even in places like the British Library—their fragile nature means that few exist anymore, making New Beacon a critical resource. I also found a book of poetry, written by a 14-year-old British Bangladeshi girl, Faryal Mirza, and published in 1987 to an unusually high standard for a self-published book. It still has its original dust jacket, with the photograph of Mirza looking seriously out of glasses she probably would prefer to forget now.


This book, published by New Beacon Press, “is intended for use in schools and colleges or for individual and collective study.”

At New Beacon I’ve also found Black history, both older works published by New Beacon, such as Roxy Harris’s Being Black (complete with study questions and vocabulary), and more recent works of the kind that too quickly go out of print. This is one of the key features of an independent bookstore like New Beacon—books that either never reach the mainstream chains or are only available for a few months are much easier to obtain at an independent bookstore. Clive Gifford’s The Empire Windrush (Colllins Big Cat: 2014), Errol Lloyd’s Celebrating Black History (Oxford Reading Tree 2007) and Dan Lyndon’s Resistance and Abolition (Franklin Watts 2014) are all still available, but have you ever seen them in a bookshop? I found all three on Saturday.


Black History texts such as these go out of print quickly–and often are not replaced by anything else.

New Beacon also had books that preserve and teach history in other ways. For example, I bought one of photographer Joan Solomon’s beautiful multicultural books from her The Way We Live series, first published in the 1980s. Sweet-Tooth Sunil is a story of a British family celebrating Diwali; other books in the series include Sikh, Jewish, Caribbean, Chinese, and Japanese families.


Solomon did a series of photo picture books in Britain’s multicultural communities.

And finally, I bought books that I’ve been meaning to pick up for some time, before they disappear completely (and other than used book sites, New Beacon is the only place I’ve ever seen them). The independent publisher Verna Wilkins produced a series at Tamarind around the turn of this century called “Black Profiles” that showcased Black Britons who had achieved success in their fields despite any setbacks they may have encountered. These books were meant to inspire young Black Britons to do the same, and the books covered a wide range of people. When Tamarind became a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, the Black Profiles series was revamped, changed from a hardcover series with watercolor illustrations designed for the library market to a trade paperback series for the general market, with cover photographs instead of illustrations. The PRH version was perhaps more appealing to the young reader, but one of the editorial decisions made about the revamped series was to change the name, from Black Profiles to Black Stars. This new name made a subtle allusion to Black History, but it also meant that successful figures like the surgeon Samantha Tross disappeared from the series. New Beacon had both for sale.


Verna Wilkins of Tamarind published the Black Profiles series before the company was bought out by Penguin Random House.

I’m delighted that New Beacon will remain open, even if the changes they make may mean I won’t find quite so many older treasures. It will nonetheless remain one of the few places in Britain where you can find children’s books for and about BAME people in every imaginable category and by every kind of writer. And that is something that everyone in Britain (and outside it) should celebrate.

An Alternate View: Changing the Paradigm in British and Caribbean Reading Texts

In the early 1960s, Beryl Gilroy was asked by the Caribbean branch of Longmans Publishing to create readers specifically for a West Indian audience. Gilroy, born in what was then British Guiana in 1924, had been in the UK by this time for a decade, and had spent some time teaching in London schools when she was requested to write the texts. In some ways she was an obvious choice, as a “colonial” who had done university work in England, and who had taught British children; Longmans could trust her to write texts using the “correct” methods (which, as some of my earlier blogs will attest, involved key word schemes and recognizable characters, among other things). In other ways, however, Gilroy was an unusual choice, not having attended formal schooling until she was past the age that the textbooks she was asked to write were aimed at reaching. She had instead grown up in the bosom of a large extended family, and had learned through experience and also through the storytelling—the passing down of an oral tradition which included the folklore of the Caribbean—of her aunts, uncles, and grandparents.


Learning to read and obey in the Blue Water Readers, 1961.

The Blue Water Readers, which first appeared in 1961, in many ways mimicked British readers of the time. The main characters were Joe and Jean, brother and sister, who like their British counterparts Janet and John or Peter and Jane, lived with both parents and their pets in reasonably comfortable circumstances. True, their pets included a goat, and where Peter and Jane in Things We Do (Book 4a of the Ladybird Series) went to the fish shop and the grocers for fish, apples, and cakes, Jean and Joe get their food (fish but coconuts rather than apples) from roadside and market sellers. In the foreword to the Teacher’s Guide, Elsa Waters told the story of a group of West Indian children and their 16-year-old teacher struggling to make sense of a British reading text that, being fairly old, would have been incomprehensible to contemporary British readers let alone those in the West Indies. She adds that “A child learns best when what he learns has meaning and significance for him” (“Foreword” viii; italics in original). It was important to Gilroy that the texts reflected life in the West Indies, but she also pointed out in her Introduction that the “average West Indian child is not fundamentally different in growth or maturational needs form the millions of children who have been tested elsewhere since 1880” (“Introduction” xii).


New parenting styles, but the same basic reading text in 1967’s Green and Gold readers. Illustration by Leila Locke.

But the world of those average children was changing during the 1960s, and Gilroy’s work reflected these changes. In the late 1960s, Gilroy became the first Black headteacher in England, and also wrote for another Longmans Caribbean reading series, The Green and Gold Readers. That these readers replaced the Blue Water Readers is suggested by the fact that the main characters for this text are also Jean and Joe, and some of the stories are very similar. For example, book two of the Green and Gold series has a story about Jean helping mother. In the Blue Water version, Jean is abruptly told that she must help her mother, and she is told exactly what to do. Jean has no voice and no backstory; she was clearly existing just to sweep for mother. By 1967, however, when Gilroy revised the story for the Green and Gold series, Jean has desires of her own, in this case to play with her friend. While she is still compliant when her mother asks her to help, it is significant that her mother does give her a choice about how she wants to help (even though admittedly, Jean’s choices are all connected with traditional female tasks, including cooking, sweeping and minding the baby). Although British media and scholarly studies often portrayed the West Indies as a very traditional society, Gilroy’s work suggests that changes in Western attitudes toward women were beginning to appear throughout the West Indies as well.



All together now–(middle class) racial harmony in the Green and Golds.

The Green and Gold Readers are also different from their earlier counterparts in the society that is depicted in the West Indies. Whereas Blue Water Jean and Joe live in an almost exclusively Afro-Caribbean society, Green and Gold Jean and Joe are part of a much more multicultural one. They have Indian Caribbean friends and Anglo-Caribbean friends, and all play happily together. They also share the same traditions, and they are a very distinctly West Indian set of traditions. This is best showcased in book three, from 1969. The book starts with multiple stories about Terry, the Anglo-Caribbean boy, and his sister Pam. In one of them, Terry’s mother tells him a story—and not just any story. She tells him an Anansi story, and the illustrations show the trickster figure as an Afro-Caribbean man (rather than in his spider form). Later on in the book, the Indian boy, Lal, reads his friends a story, and his story is also an unexpected choice: Red Riding Hood. By offering stories from African and European traditions up as everyone’s stories, Gilroy again reminds us that children of whatever background learn best through stories, and all stories from any tradition have useful things to teach us.


Anansi is for everyone . . .


Gilroy would go on to write for a very different kind of reading series, Leila Berg’s Nippers series, in the 1970s. Again, her work changed the paradigm of what could be expected in a reading series. The Nippers series was famous for aiming itself at a working-class, rather than middle-class, population, but in books such as New People at Twenty-Four, Gilroy also takes on issues of racism and interracial marriage, which had never before been depicted in a series designed to teach children how to read.


A new kind of family for reading texts. Illustrated by Shyam Varma.

Gilroy, more than most authors of reading series, pushed the boundaries of what was commonly acceptable. She provided an alternate view, not only of what the reader could be, but who the reading subject was and should be.