A tribute to Athelston Winston Best

Est. read time: 16 min

It is impossible to speak or write about the British schooling system and its engagement with the post-war Black presence these last 50 years without calling the name, Winston Best, over and over again.  Without doubt, Winston stands in the vanguard of the black working class movement in education and schooling as both an educator and an activist.

Athelston Winston Best. Photo courtesy of the Best family.

Athelston Winston Best. Photo courtesy of the Best family.

Winston (pictured right) was born on 15 August 1930 in Sugar Hill, St Joseph, Barbados, the first of six children of Luther and Lillian Best. Luther was a road builder and Lillian a market trader. Winston was big brother to Eulene, Gloria, Moriah, Lloyd and Owen. Gloria in Canada, Moriah in Brooklyn, Owen in Atlanta, Lloyd in Barbados and Eulene in Ipswich, East Anglia. Winston and later Lloyd came to England, Lloyd returning to Barbados after almost 40 years.

Winston attended Southborough Boys School, Clifton Hill, St Thomas. At that time, only primary schooling was free. Winston’s parents paid for him to attend secondary school. After secondary school, he left and went to work in Curacao where he spent 12 years with Shell doing oil refining. He became very active in labour organisation there with Len and Albert Mason.

Winston was therefore able to assist his parents in paying for his siblings to attend secondary school; he makes particular mention of Lloyd at Cumbermere and Owen at Lodge School. Lodge School was one of the most racially segregated schools in Barbados. Winston acknowledged that Patrick Simmons, former Barbados High Commissioner in England, was one of those who was instrumental in helping to break down what Winston described as the ‘apartheid schooling system’ at Lodge School and in Barbados generally.

In time, Winston took charge of the care of his parents. His mother died in 1984. Mert Pitt, childhood friend of Winston and lifelong friend of the Best family, helped to care for his mother in her twilight years.

Welcome to Britain

Winston came to Britain in 1961, a year in which the British parliament was getting agitated about the number of immigrants coming into Britain from the Commonwealth and was taking action to prohibit unrestricted entry. The politics of the day was peppered with references about what the presence of all these ‘coloured immigrants’ will do to the country and the British way of life. Although Britain itself had been active in encouraging migration from the former colonies, including recruiting transport workers from Barbados, the process of racialisation of immigration was in full swing and the ground was being laid for the Commonwealth Immigration Act 1962.

A number of Caribbean immigrants, both recently arrived and longer residents, campaigned across London and elsewhere in the country against the proposed ban. West Indians in North London, including Winston, organised a picket of Hornsey Town Hall during which they symbolically dumped their British colonial passports in a bin, before retrieving them at the end of the protest. Among them were Ulric Thompson, a Haringey Councillor, Eddie Wedderburn, George Martin, Dudley Dryden and Len Dyke.

Winston did teacher training at Sydney Webb College of Higher Education and went into teaching in 1966, thus becoming one of the first black teachers in the UK.

His first job was at Gillespie Primary School in Islington.

On his second day in the school, a West Indian mother came to see him and said that her daughter her that he was going to be her class teacher. Was that true? She demanded. Winston said it was, to which she replied: ‘Well, I’m taking her out of here. I did not bring my precious daughter all the way from St Vincent to England, only to have her taught by a black man’. Winston told her to please herself and if she was not happy she could go and see the headteacher. The child continued at the school and before long the mother was commenting to Winston on how well the child was doing and what a great teacher he was. By the end of that year, the woman could not thank him enough and was begging the headteacher to let him move up to the next class so he could continue teaching her daughter.

That woman left St Vincent with visions of her daughter receiving a good, English, white-centred, colonial education that would enable her ‘to get on in life’, and in her eyes that was not the outcome she felt she could expect from a black man.

Gillespie had an annual festival and each teacher could choose a theme and students could opt to join a group and work on a production for the festival. All the Caribbean children in Winston’s school chose to go and work with other teachers. But when they saw what fantastic work the white and other children in Winston’s group had done with a Caribbean theme, they were all pressing to join his group for the following festival.

In time, a school inspector from Islington told Winston that there was another school in that borough that was in need of a tough teacher to help raise standards. Thus it was that Winston applied for and was appointed to an assistant headship at William Tyndale Primary. Winston recalls that school as being in ‘total chaos’ when he got there. The children were allowed to do as they please, to speak to teachers as they please, teachers appeared to have no high ambitions for those children and most of the children behaved as if they were on a mission to disrupt and frustrate. Winston remembers one particular teacher who had a routine from which he seldom deviated: he would spend practically the entire morning reading the Times newspaper, feet cocked up on the desk in front of the class, while the children got on with whatever took their fancy.

One day, not long after Winston started, there was a fracas in a classroom because a child had grabbed a chair and thrown it at a teacher. Winston persuaded the school not to involve the police, offering to work with the parents to help support the child. There was huge resistance from the headteacher and other teachers. The latter were saying: ‘The worse these children behave, the more attention they get. Now, we are being expected to go to their homes and help to parent them’. But, Winston got his way.

He found Tyndale Mansions where this boy lived and went to see his parents. On telling his mother what had happened, she went berserk and immediately reached upon a shelf for a sizeable belt. Winston stopped her from thrashing the boy and explained to him how serious the assault on the teacher was and what he should do to avoid working himself up into such a rage. He pointed out to the mother the effect of beating a child as punishment for wrongdoing and the relationship between the boy’s response to the teacher, using the chair, and her response to him by reaching for the belt even before she had heard his side of the story. Winston continued to take a keen interest in that child’s progress, the mother engaged constructively with the school and the boy went on to be a very successful student.

Education Activism in School and Community

Like so many black educationists of the period, there was no disconnect between his work in schools and his community activism in defence and furtherance of children’s education rights, especially the right to quality teaching and to a curriculum that was rich and relevant. Winston was therefore able to bring to his work as a teacher, school manager and school adviser/inspector the knowledge and experience he had gained as a community activist, starting and supporting community led voluntary education projects and taking part in education campaigns:

  • Against bussing, banding and streaming in Haringey;

  • Against the scandalous practice of sending Caribbean children to schools for the educationally subnormal, unnecessarily and in disproportionate numbers;

  • Against the eugenicists and biological racists, such as Hans Eysenck and Arthur Jensen who taught that black people were inferior to white in mental capacity and purported to provide evidence for that through dodgy and racially and culturally biased IQ tests.

Winston was a founding member of the North London West Indian Association with John La Rose, Jeff Crawford and others, which campaigned against bussing, banding and streaming in Haringey in the 1960s. The late 1960s saw them campaigning against Haringey Council and their insistence upon dispersing black children from their neighbourhood schools and bussing them to far away schools in order to ensure that there were not too many of them in any one school. The fear was that because they were assumed to be of lower intelligence, they would depress the educational performance and schooling outcomes of white children if more than 30% of them were allowed in a single school. This was official government policy and it was being applied in Haringey, Ealing, Bradford and elsewhere.

In that same period, Winston joined John La Rose, Donald Hinds, Jocelyn Barrow, Hewie Andrews, Jessica and Eric Huntley, Trevor Carter, Waveney Bushell, myself and many others to form the Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association (CECWA). CECWA was especially concerned about the experience of Caribbean children in the school system, particularly those (and they were the majority) who had come to join their biological parents who had left them behind with grandparents and extended families on migrating to Britain.

A disproportionate number of those children were being assessed as having special education needs and being sent to schools for the educationally subnormal. In 1970, CECWA organised a conference at which Bernard Coard presented a paper on the ESN scandal. That paper was later expanded and published by John La Rose and New Beacon Books with the title ‘How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System’.

Organising Caribbean Teachers

In 1974, Winston Best joined Yvonne Connolly and the late Jeff Crawford who had already laid the foundations for what became the Caribbean Teachers Association (CTA), and with Trevor Carter, Henry Thomas, Elva Miranda and a number of others established the CTA. The CTA focused upon the schooling experience of children in an increasingly multi-ethnic schooling system in which they were being pushed to the margins, as well as the experience of Caribbean teachers who had been trained ‘back home’ and those who had had all their training in the UK.

Frequently debated questions were:  Given the experience black children were having in the school system, what was the role of the black teacher? How might black teachers support one another, especially given the power exerted by white school managers and teachers who had such little understanding and such low expectations of black children? How might black teachers work with black parents and demand that the school curriculum be made more inclusive and less euro-centric? Winston brought his already extensive teaching and school management experience to bear on those discussions.

Winston later moved to Charles Lamb Primary School as Deputy Head and studied for a MA.

While at Charles Lamb, the then ILEA Education Officer, Peter Newsam, went on a visit to New York’s Board of Education and a tour of their schools. He was so shocked at what he found that he vowed never to let ILEA’s schools become like that. Winston was drafted into County Hall to act a senior education officer and help ensure that ILEA schools deliver quality schooling outcomes to black children. He headed up the Primary Curriculum Development Project (ILEA’s response to one of the Recommendations of the Swann Report).

Winston found Leela Ramdeen teaching at a primary school in Shepherd’s Bush and invited her to apply for a post on that project. Leela was appointed as Co-ordinator of the Project, and with Kelvin ‘Pony’ Carballo, Celia Burgess and other teachers worked under Winston’s leadership. When, some years later, after the demise of the ILEA, Leela was appointed Deputy Director of Education/ Head of Quality Assurance in Haringey, it was to Winston, her mentor and former ‘boss’ that she turned as she sought support in dealing with racism in education there.

With another senior education officer (for secondary education), the late Bev Woodroffe, Winston built a multi-ethnic/anti-racist education unit, headed up by Michael Hussey. Theirs was a formidable team which included stalwarts such as the late Tuku Mukerjee, Jagdish Gundara (later Professor of Intercultural Education at the Institute of Education) and a team of Education Liaison Officers, including the late Trevor Carter, Barbara Beese and Beverley Crooks. Valerie Amos, now Baroness Amos, was then secretary to Winston Best and Bev Woodroffe. Her mother also worked at County Hall. Winston worked closely with senior black teachers such as Ken Noble, Charles Mungo and John Prince, all of whom became headteachers.

He later became an area-based Primary School Adviser in Hackney, working out of the divisional office at Ockway House in Stamford Hill and providing development support to headteachers and staff in Hackney’s primary schools, as well as running staff development programmes at the Professional Development Centre in Queensbridge Road.

Winston persuaded the ILEA to develop links with the Ministry of Education in Barbados and operate a teacher exchange programme. That programme enabled up to twenty teachers at a time to come from Barbados and teach in London schools, honing their teaching and curriculum development skills and in turn sharing their own knowledge and teaching methods.

Throughout his career as a classroom teacher and a school adviser and later inspector, Winston worked in support of black publishing and book distribution: New Beacon Books, Bogle L’Ouverture Publications; Karia Press. He arranged for those publishers and booksellers to exhibit and sell books at the professional development centre and run workshops for teachers on how best to use those books to enhance the curriculum and widen their own knowledge, so that they could broaden the perspectives and knowledge base of the children they were teaching.

In the 1980s, Winston was appointed Chair of Westphi Academy, an education and training consultancy, which was founded by the late Willis Wilkie with Molly Hunte (PRO), the late Daphne Stewart, Margaret Phillips, Heather Thomas and Winston himself. Willis Wilkie was Treasurer. Westphi Academy broke new ground by establishing itself as one of the first black national consultancy groups in the UK.

In 1989, with John La Rose, myself and other members of the Black Parents Movement and representatives of Supplementary Schools across London, Winston co-founded the National Association of Supplementary Schools (NASS).  The NASS withered after 3 years as a consequence of the abolition of the ILEA and the decision by the inner London boroughs not to fund supplementary schools to the same extent as the ILEA, if they continued to fund them at all.

In 1989, on becoming Director of Education in Hackney, I appointed Winston Best primary schools inspector and Shirley Chase, Chief Inspector of Schools. Soon after his appointment, Winston accompanied me to Trinidad to recruit teachers to come and teach in Hackney during a national primary teacher shortage. In 10 days, we interviewed over 125 teachers and offered contracts to 50 to come and teach in Hackney schools, bringing their entire families with them. Those teachers had been retrenched by the Trinidad and Tobago government in fulfilment of conditionalities laid down by the IMF.

Our comrades in the OWTU, Errol McLeod and David Abdulah were instrumental in facilitating our recruitment drive. Winston, Shirley Chase and I delivered a programme of induction and continuous professional development to those teachers and took personal responsibility for their welfare. They proved to be excellent appointments, with many of them going on to become headteachers, deputies and school advisers.

Retirement

Winston continued to work to improve education in Hackney until he retired and beyond retirement. He also worked for some 10 years as a consultant with Southwark Education, while simultaneously working with Willis Wilkie, Molly Hunt, Jessica and Eric Huntley, Samira John, Judy Wellington and others in Ealing to enhance the achievement of black children and empower parents to demand the best out of the schooling system.

In 1999, he co-founded the Caribbean Volunteers Readers & Performers Project (CVRPP), an initiative that grew out of the work of Herbie Yearwood, former Deputy High Commissioner in the Barbados High Commission, London, who was eager that the High Commission should be seen to take an active interest in the experience of Barbadian and other Caribbean heritage children in London’s schools. With Herbie himself, Esther Holmes, Joy Mannion, Shirley Chase, Cecil Reed and others, CVRPP soon became a major school intervention project, with Winston as its director, Joy Mannion as Chair; Esther Holmes, Secretary; Shirley Chase, co-ordinator  and Cecil Reed, Treasurer. The project, now in decline because of the ill health of Winston and other founder members, operated in schools and communities in the last 15 years to support children’s learning and enhance the quality of their schooling outcomes.

Despite giving of his best on all those fronts, Winston still found time to guide and support trainee teachers, practising teachers, black teachers facing discrimination in schools, teachers preparing for promotion and those studying for MAs and PhDs. In this regard, he was one of the most generous people I have been privileged to have worked with these past 47 years.

A true professional, Winston has always held the view that no matter what the child’s background, she is capable of learning and is entitled to the highest quality teaching. No child should therefore be considered to be of less value in the classroom, or to society, than any other. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are therefore entitled to the best teachers, teachers who have high aspirations for them and are passionate about raising those children’s own aspirations. Winston therefore had no tolerance for headteachers who failed to apply Section 11 funding (Local Government Act 1966), or later the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant, and now the Pupil’s Premium for the purposes for which those funds were/are intended, i.e., providing teaching and learning support to children eligible for such and helping to raise their levels of attainment.

I found it very moving to hear Winston say to some of his colleagues in the Caribbean Volunteers Readers & Performers Project who were visiting him in hospital on Friday 14 March 2014, a matter of days before he passed on: ‘Whatever people may say, we did a lot to improve schooling outcomes for children in Hackney.  We made a difference and we would have done much more if we had been allowed to.  I am proud of what we did’.

I am immensely proud, too, of all that Winston did throughout his adult life as a committed teacher and education campaigner. He was and remains a huge inspiration to me. A living monument to his irrefutable achievements over more than half a century is the immeasurable number of people whose life he touched and whose life chances and careers he enhanced.

We remain forever in your debt, big brother!

Winston leaves to mourn his sons Kwame and Ian, two brothers, three sisters, many nephews and nieces, his childhood friend, Mert Pitt, and numerous friends and colleagues in the education world.

Funeral

Winston’s funeral will be held at All Saints Church, Forest Gate, London E7 0RF (corner of Hampton Road and Romford Road), on Thursday 10 April 2014 at 11.00. Flowers are discouraged. Those wishing to make a donation should please do so to Macmillan Services.

Photo (home): “Blue Dicks Flower Coon Creek 10 April 2010” by Mike Baird (Flickr – CC BY 2.0)

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6 Comments on "A tribute to Athelston Winston Best"

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Patricia Bell
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Thank you Bro Gus for a very comprehensive, precise, interesting and topical tribute and obituary. Winston was one of our giants and will be greatly missed.

David Benn
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A very moving and spirited eulogy. The Supplementary School movement is very indebted to the efforts and endeavours of Winston Best. He was a friend and a great colleague.
David

Lynette St Cyr-Caesar
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Lynette St Cyr-Caesar

Thank you Professor for sharing these deep insights into the calibre of the contributions to education made by Winston Best.
The tribute is moving, informative and an education in itself.
Rest in Peace Mr. Best.
Lynette St.Cyr-Caesar

Anderson Connell
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Dear Gus, Lesser persons of Winston’s statute and contribution to Education, our Youth and our Black Community have been graced with some form of national recognition or award. In the absence of either of these to one of the most deserving individuals, your tribute to Winston sure does him justice. I hope and pray that your tribute will help mobilize a campaign for a suitable national recognition or award, as well as ensure his contribution to Education, our Youth and our Black Community is continually used to inspire others.

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[…] had just finished conducting the funeral of another life-long comrade and friend, Winston Best, and was on my way to the crematorium when I learnt that Norman had died. Feelings of desolation […]

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[…] paid tribute to Athelston Winston Best at a memorial service held at the Clifton Hill Moravian Church, St Thomas, on Thursday 5th June […]

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