Department of Research and Policy

How the British school system systemically undermines Afro-Caribbean Children: are supplementary schools the answer?

The British education system, by way of the British state not confronting its imperial past, has systematically undermined Afro-Caribbean children, however I do not believe separate education is enough to undo this. I will divide this paper into three parts. Firstly, I will discuss the role that nationalism plays on the curriculum and what this means for its Afro-Caribbean recipients. Secondly, I address the proliferation of discrimination and black stereotypes in schools and what this means for specifically African students in regards to achievement and behaviour. Lastly, I argue that separate education is a temporary answer but the real systematic root has to be addressed which means a complete upheaval and reform of the current curriculum to include subaltern histories and increased BAME representation.

Afro-Caribbeans: Securitising alterity, nationalism and the curriculum

The British education system has systematically undermined Afro-Caribeban children by default of the normative ‘whiteness’ (Dyer:1997,2) and ‘normative empire’ that British state education is rooted in (Gopal:2017). To speak of the Afro-Caribbean child in the British education system is to speak of nationalism, as schooling is a microcosm of the state. Legacies of enslavement, colonialism and ideological constructions of race that entered the social, political and academic institutions during the 18th century continue to shape long standing histories of racism in the British school system (Graham and Robinson: 2004,661). Exploring how Black students are systematically undermined ties into how Black citizens are undermined by the state: a nation historically built via the exploitation and dispossession of Black people cannot provide centuries later an education system that gives adequate support to Afro-Caribbean students in correspondence to their white counterparts without undermining and sabotaging the collectively held ‘imagined nation’ (Anderson:1991,6). Therefore, the reality of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora in the British student body is largely and inherently reciprocal to the legacy of empire. Children of African descent are systematically undermined in the British education system because their identities and fight for their identities and objective histories are securitised in a national context. Preserving a good self-image of past identity, empire and present British identity in the collectively held national imagining is synonymous with masking the atrocity of the legacy that has built the present-day nation. Where sustaining legacies of empire is normative, the systematic undermine of Afro-Caribbean children follows. The fact that one identity and genealogy can only be sustained through the suppression of another renders Afro-Caribbeans and all the meanings associated with them, a threat to whiteness, and a threat to the collectively held image of the nation  (Dyer:1997, 1-3).

This systematic undermine pervades most acutely in the British education system which has the power to socialise, wield assumptions, genealogies and realities in Afro-Caribbean minds, creating by default, a dispossession of the worst kind: identity. Afro-Caribbean students experience a reality where their histories are omitted via silence or rewriting and genealogies of the subaltern when mentioned are inferior to those of the British (Sherwood:1999,185). The fact that whiteness is taken for granted means that Afro-Caribbean students are automatically excluded from the narrative in an educational setting where subjects such as History, English literature, Geography and Philosophy are rooted in eurocentrism (Gopal:2017).

Marika Sherwood who looks at history and history teachers in English schools, analyses textbooks from the closing years of the 19th C up until the 20th C. The typical Englishman as propagated by the textbooks was an honest, industrious Anglo-Saxon, brave, calm, and courageous in the face of danger (Chancellor 118; Sherwood:1999,185). When it comes however to how the ‘other’ is depicted in these texts ‘the notions of racial hierarchy that were the bedrock of social Darwinism and the eugenics movement are clearly evident (Sherwood:1999,185).’ India is depicted as having ‘no history’ and ‘no future’ and the Indian nationalist movement is denounced as ‘silly and seditious’ (ibid,185). Africa and Africans are depicted in a similar light, the latter described by Rudyard Kipling as “our new- caught, sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child (ibid,185)’.

Sherwood writes that these early texts seldom mentioned the profitability of empire, though both the Oxford and Cambridge professors advocated their use as an “outlet for [Britain’s] superfluous population” (Seeley 296; Froude 319; ibid,186). She mentions that ‘throughout the western world boys and girls are taught false history, false politics, false economics. Children learn in school the faults of other nations, but not the faults of their own (Chancellor 162; ibid)’. This ‘history that is taught by every nation today is deplorable. It is far more national propaganda than an exposition of truth (Ramsay MacDonald, 1925, qtd. in Castle 162; ibid).’ The fact that ‘generations of teachers teach what they learned when they were lagging far behind the new world for which it is supposed to prepare its citizens (Dance 47; ibid, 187) means that ‘few children know anything about colonial history, about the Commonwealth…[which] perpetuates the notion that ‘immigrants’ have no right to be here. (Jamila Gavin, Guardian Education 23 Sept. 1997,6; ibid)’.

It is clear that historically Afro-Caribbean children have been denied the history of their own countries and its true relationship with empire resulting in their systematic subversion in the British education system culminating in bias and distortion of the facts (ibid,189). This conversation continues today with the decolonise the curriculum movement highlighting just how normative and centered empire and whiteness is in the British education system (Gopal:2017).

Afro-Caribbean’s: Discrimination, behavioural issues and learning disorders

I focus here on the discrimination of specifically African children within the British school system. African children are discriminated against, stereotyped and failed by the system when it comes to behaviour and achievement in British schools. Bernard Coard who previously in a book raised awareness of the racist tactics teachers would employ to remove black students such as sending them to special schools/disproportionately diagnosing black students with learning disorders (Coard:1971), notes the racist policies, poor black self- image, racist curriculum and destructive low teacher expectations as his motivation (Coard:2005). These are factors prevailing in schools today which typically disproportionately target students of African descent. Coard writes,

‘What is particularly important to note is that the children of the 1960’s and 1970’s whom the British education system failed are the parents and grandparents of today’s children — large numbers of whom are being suspended and “excluded” from schools, or placed in “special units” or streams. For many reasons true then as now, black boys were affected far more than black girls. The lesson to be learned for today’s problems in the school system is that they were “hatched” decades ago, in the previous two generations. When society fails one generation of children, it lays the foundations for similar, even worse failures in the generations to follow. We human beings “inherit” not only through our genes, but often also from our social circumstances.’ (Coard: ibid)

It is interesting that Coard (ibid) notes the generational impact of racism. The effects of this often results in generations of African students often in low income areas not believing they are able to achieve as much as their white counterparts, having a poorer start in life and perpetuating (especially for those who are excluded) the cycle of low income and generational poverty- something which Coard believes that quality education alleviates (ibid).

Coard notes one of these institutionally racist failures that this latter generation has inherited from the previous generations is the tactic of exclusion which has become a regular tool for getting rid of rather than tackling the child’s problems (ibid). A conversation with my brother who attended an academy in Hackney informed me of a tall, well- built, 15 year old black student (Peter) being excluded from class for his expression and being asked to smile more by his white teacher due to ‘intimidating appearance.’ Such occurrences are common concerning the African diaspora in British schools, a phenomenon which Diane Abbott MP has called a ‘silent catastrophe’ (Graham and Robinson:2004,653):

“The Children’s Society in a press release dated 24 September 1997 announces that there had been an increase of 450% in the numbers of exclusions from school in the past five years and that “exclusions are rising fastest in primary schools where they increased 30% between 1995 and 1996 …. Children from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds are four times as likely to be permanently excluded as white children.” A month later the government announces that expulsions had risen 13% in the past year: the 12,500 expelled pupils included 1,600 from primary schools. Black pupils were five times more likely to be expelled than whites” (The Times 31 Oct. 1997; Sherwood:1999,194)”

Similarly, Conolly’s (1998) research study provides an example of the over disciplining of black boys to curtail the perceived threat to school authority and discipline:

“There were many examples gained from observation throughout the school year, where black boys would be sent to stand outside the classroom, told to stand up or move in assemblies, and be singled out and instructed to stand by the wall or outside the staff room during playtime. While black boys were not the only ones to be disciplined this way, they were significantly overrepresented in the process” (p.79; Graham and Robinson:2004,660).

Other forms of institutional discrimination include forms of racism that are invisible and inarticulable. Graham and Robinson note an interlocutor Mark who is ‘acutely aware of his position in the wider society (ibid,663)’ where racial stereotypes inscribed in social practices have become part of his everyday experience (ibid)’, ‘we can’t change it (ibid.)’ Mark says.

This institutionalised racism and discrimination prevalent in the British school system means that Black African students especially are undermined and their futures subverted by tactics that have become normative and reified. Cheryl Phoenix of the Black Child Agenda-a social movement based in the UK, is helping to eradicate such racially motivated disciplining tactics by British teachers:

“The Black Child Agenda was born in 2011, after the founder Cheryl Phoenix’s son’s came up against overt racism and direct discrimination at their school. They and other black students were being harshly penalised with regular sanctions of isolation and fixed term exclusions, or off-site education for minor infractions, whilst their white counterparts were given simple warnings. The pattern was not only being witnessed by Cheryl, but also by other parents, teachers, professionals and the general public, up and down the country. With countless case studies and reports, (the most recent being the Lammy report), highlighting the issues around discriminatory processes within the education, judicial, Healthcare & recruitment system. Cheryl has often said that it is not going far enough to simply “highlight” the issues, those of us within the African Caribbean and Mixed race communities live with these issues daily, we are often told we are “playing the race card”, when we wish to address our concerns, however this often falls on deaf ears. Cheryl explains, yet another report has been compiled, wasting millions of pounds with no clear outcomes, or policy changes which positively affect the African Caribbean & Mixed communities, there is a great deal of lip services, mainstream radio shows belittling the issues that this community faces, however we are being systematically failed daily.”

Separate education for some or quality for all?

I argue that separate education is a temporary answer but the real systematic root has to be addressed. This means a complete upheaval and reform of the current curriculum to include subaltern histories and increased BAME representation within staff.

Separate education in the form of supplementary schools for Asian, African and West Indian pupils has historically been employed to provide opportunities for students ‘not simply to discover their hidden histories but to recover them (Giroux: 1994,50)’. Foucault developed his genealogical methodology in order to explore ‘the union of erudite and local memories which allows us to establish a historical knowledge of struggles and to make use of this knowledge tactically today (Foucault, 1980,83)’. Reay and Mirza in writing about genealogies note it is supplementary schools rather than mainstream schools where genealogies serve as challenges to the taken for granted, normative assumptions of prevailing discourses. Reay and Mirza have taken a broadly genealogical approach to black educator’s narratives by using their accounts to present a different version to the prevailing discourses on ‘race’ and education. Black educators by providing separate education, counter the prevailing discourses such as normative whiteness and normative empire that children are faced with in mainstream schools where ‘all too often, in the public sphere, black people are starved of images of themselves’ (Gates,1988; Reay and Mirza:1999,486). Reay and Mirza who map a genealogy of counter school grassroots movements explore the ways in which the black supplementary school attempts to develop a curriculum which questions the narratives of whiteness as normative. They write,

“The aspect of ‘race’ that has been consistently overlooked and taken-for-granted in western societies is whiteness (Frankenberg, 1993). However, as Brenda’s (an interlocutor) words illustrate, whiteness is not taken for granted in supplementary schools. They provide discursive sites where assumptions of whiteness as normative are subverted. If, as Judith Butler writes, genealogy works towards disrupting normative categories (Butler, 1990) then a genealogical method can be used to subvert the normalisation of whiteness and offer some vision of alternatively racialised worlds. It is in supplementary schooling that we find the genesis of both approaches. Supplementary schools provide a context in which whiteness is displaced as central and blackness can be seen as normative’ (Reay, D and H.S. Mirza: 1999, 487)

However, is counteracting normative whiteness with the normative blackness of a supplementary school a sustainable solution? This solution to the normative whiteness of the education system still means that this narrative continues with only the minor challenge of grassroots scale black schooling. As with Coard (2005), I believe a solution would have to include all students and a state agenda to truly uproot the systematic undermining of Afro-Caribbean students. ‘A successful assault on poverty, racism, gender and class discrimination…requires a fundamental transformation of the British education system (Coard: ibid). Separate supplementary schooling does not uproot the cause of systematic undermining of Afro-Caribbean children in mainstream schools. Afro-Caribbean children still suffer internalised trauma due to racial stereotyping in main schools, there still remains an issue of under-representation within the staff body, cyclical narratives of hidden subaltern histories continue and the discrimination against Afro-Caribbean children prevails. Graham and Robinson (2004) note that black pupils are often working against teacher expectations that perceive them as having lesser ability and expectations of bad behaviour (ibid: 661); separate schooling does not undo the legacies of ideological constructions of race that have been prevalent since the 18th C (ibid, 661). I argue the answer is not with separate schooling but rather with an upheaval of the current curriculum and a cohesive reform of the staff demographic to include obligatory BAME representation. The current existence of BAME teachers in a white setting is what Bhattacharya (2002) refers to as ‘anomalous’ where just as the student, the BAME teacher ‘feels their blackness most acutely and woundingly (ibid,480)’. Curriculum and staff reform would mean that Afro-Caribbean teachers as well as students would cease to be marginalised to the extent that they are and trajectories of empire would cease to exist.

In conclusion I have addressed several ways that Afro-Caribbean students are subverted within the British education system namely via a nationalist agenda and racialised disciplinary policies. I have discussed the issue of separate supplementary schooling and how this is a temporary solution to a problem that instead requires the upheaval of the current nationalist curriculum and staff reform.

Soukeyna Osei-Bonsu

Soukeyna is a researcher for Black Muslim Forum. Her research interests cover the African diaspora, Islam and race, inter-generational trauma, African political thought and black minorities in North Africa.


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Bhattacharya, G. ‘Black Skin/White Boards’, in L. Black and J.Solomos (eds) Theories of race and racism: a reader, Routledge, 2000.

Coard,B. How the West Indian Child is made educationally subnormal in the British School system, 1971. New Beacon.

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Dyer, Richard. ‘The Matter of whiteness in White’ : Routledge (1997)

Foucault, M. (1980) ‘Power/Knowledge: selected interviews and other writings’, 1972-77 C. GORDON (Ed.) (Brighton, Harvester Press).

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Graham, Mekada, and Gil Robinson. “”The Silent Catastrophe”: Institutional Racism in the British Educational System and the Underachievement of Black Boys.” Journal of Black Studies 34, no. 5 (2004): 653-71.

Reay, D and H.S. Mirza ‘Uncovering Genealogies of the Margins: Black supplementary schooling, ‘British Journal of sociology and Education’, Vol. 18. No. 4, 1997, pp. 477-499.

Sherwood, Marika. “Engendering Racism: History and History Teachers in English Schools.” Research in African Literatures 30, no. 1 (1999): 184-203.

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How the British school system systemically undermines Afro-Caribbean Children: are supplementary schools the answer?

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