This comment is in response to a request from the Royal Society of Arts to join a group of 20 ‘experts’ and advise on a new ‘investigation’ into Supplementary Schools.
To place my comments in context, let me summarise the extent of my involvement with the Supplementary Schools movement.
I was one of the co-founders of the first supplementary school in Oxford in 1965, based in a community hall along Cowley Road in East Oxford. I was then a friar at Blackfriars Priory in St Giles and a theological student there and at the university. I was also the education secretary and Chair of the Education Sub-committee of what would today be called the Oxford Race Equality Council, but was then named the Oxford Council for Racial Integration.
In 1968, I started the first Saturday/Supplementary School in Handsworth, Birmingham, with a group of colleagues, some of them African-Caribbean students at Birmingham University. A major issue for us then was teachers’ dismissive attitude towards and wrongful classification of the home languages of African-Caribbean students (something about which I have written extensively since; cf John 2006: Taking a Stand – Gus John Speaks on education, race, social action and civil unrest 1980-2005).
Those students were generally thought to be speaking ‘bad’ English, with the capacity neither to make themselves understood, nor to understand their students and white English peers. Teachers therefore tended to assume that such students were academically backward and incapable of high attainment.
This attitude towards Caribbean/African heritage students was compounded by academics of the eugenics school who believed that there was not just a correlation but rather a causal relationship between race and intelligence. Researchers and community activists alike, myself included, had to campaign for years against the damaging influence that the work of people such as Hans Eysenck, Cyril Burt, Philipe Rushton, Arthur Jensen and Charles Murray had on teacher education and training and teachers’ expectations.
IQ tests based upon the theories of such academics were instrumental in creating the massive disproportionality in the number of Caribbean children being assessed as Educationally Subnormal and sent to ESN schools. By 1969, a full 25% of all Caribbean children of school age in the 12 inner London boroughs were being schooled (or contained) in ESN schools.
It is crucially important at this time for us all to focus upon the enduring impact of the work of the eugenicists and their acolytes on the development of schooling policies and practices in the UK and the USA, especially as so little attention is paid to the validation that academia gave to those biological racists and the way their theories helped to shape teacher expectations, racialised majority/minority binaries and all the rest of it.
When I went to work in Handsworth, Birmingham, for the Runnymede Trust in 1969, I was appalled at the number of African-Caribbean children from that small community who were being sent to ESN schools. Thankfully, when I raised my concerns with the education psychologists in the city (all white and schooled/educated in the UK, of course), they were eager to have an open debate about the practice and to expose their tests and assessment methods to scrutiny. In fact, a few of them had been harbouring similar concerns and were willing to share those concerns and to provide statistical information to me and the growing number of parents and community activists who were intent upon challenging those practices.
Some of those educational psychologists were actually disciplined by their managers for ‘colluding with Gus John to undermine the educational psychology service‘. So, one the one hand, I had the West Midlands Police berating and harassing me for challenging their practices and that of the Courts (which typically endorsed those practices) in relation to black youths and their hard working parents, and on the other the education establishment in the city dismissing out of hand my concerns about the treatment of Caribbean children in Birmingham schools. That story is told in the report I wrote for Runnymede in 1970, ‘Race in the Inner City’.
My work in Birmingham and my stance on these matters was very much informed by my active participation in the work of the London-based Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association (CECWA) , which organised the national conference at which Bernard Coard and Maureen Stone presented the work they had been doing on ESN practices in London. It was that conference which led CECWA to commission Bernard Coard to convert his paper into a text for publication.
The late John La Rose (above), who like me was a founding member of CECWA, was also founder, publisher and bookseller at New Beacon Books. Established in 1966, New Beacon was the first black publishing house in the UK. On behalf of CECWA, it published Coard’s ‘How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System’.
We in CECWA, colleagues at the Institute of Race Relations (of which La Rose, Wilfred Wood -who later became the 1st black Anglican bishop in the UK- and I were Council members), and other anti-racist educators waged a campaign in that period against the work of Burt, Eysenck, Jensen, Rushton and later Charles Murray and others. It is not so surprising, therefore, that as a result of the focus Coard’s seminal work compelled the establishment to place upon the ESN question, the All Party Parliamentary Select Committee on race relations and immigration whose very first report in 1969 was on ‘The Problems of Coloured School Leavers‘ was by 1973 observing that:
‘DES statistics showed that in Greater London 25% of all children in ESN schools were immigrants, compared to a national average of 7%. By far the majority were of West Indian origin’. (p.38) That Select Committee received evidence ‘time and again – that in streaming, that in examination success, and so on the West Indian is at the bottom’. (p.13)
My experience as an action-researcher/activist in that period and my academic work since convinces me that the ESN disproportionality we fought against then is correlated with: SEN disproportionality, School Exclusions disproportionality, Youth Offending disproportionality, Stop & Search disproportionality, BME Youth Unemployment disproportionality, Serious Youth Violence/Youth Murders disproportionality.
For all of those reasons, I welcome the fact that we at University College London and the Institute of Education are now revisiting the way eugenics grew roots and developed as a discipline that had such a profound influence on education theories and practices, on teacher education, teacher expectations, pedagogy and schooling practices and on the shaping not just of racialised identities and mindsets, but of attitudes to the learning potential (never mind educational entitlement) of children racialised as ‘black and ethnic minority’ and children with disabilities (categorised as among other things: ‘slow‘, ‘mentally retarded‘, ‘backward‘, ‘imbecile‘, etc).
The concerns of supplementary schools in that period, therefore, were:
Supplementary schools were therefore building an alternative education culture and giving children a different and more relevant schooling experience in an environment where they had no need to apologise for themselves, to endure being patronised by their teachers and peers alike, where they were encouraged to be positive about and respect themselves and to respect people and cultures that were different from theirs.
In summary, our educational philosophy was that:
What we found increasingly, however, was that when children did go to their mainstream school armed with that confidence, they were often rebuffed, ignored when they put up their hands to provide answers to teachers’ questions and generally made to feel out of place. Those teacher reactions were accentuated when such children, on the basis of what they learnt in supplementary school, dared to correct a teacher’s account of events in history, or explanation about what was happening in the local community or in the country.
It was not unusual for headteachers to warn parents about the ‘dangers’ of allowing their children to attend supplementary schools and to dissuade children from doing so. In some cases, headteachers and police community liaison officers went to the priest in the local church, or to the local council to get them to withdraw permission for the supplementary school to use their premises on account of ‘evidence that the supplementary school was indoctrinating children with dangerous Black Power ideology’.
Despite our best efforts over the years, in London and elsewhere, we could not persuade mainstream schools to work in partnership with us to support children’s learning and holistic development, not even when it was clear to the schools that children whom they had pretty much written off as ‘unteachable’, or as having ‘the most appalling behaviour’ were actually thriving in the supplementary school.
Similarly, mainstream schools would not believe that anything needed fixing in the schooling system, despite an increasing body of evidence of children who were classified as educationally subnormal, or as having special educational needs, achieving good exam grades on being sent to schools back in the Caribbean, or to private schools in this country.
I say all of the above in order to make one crucial point.
The majority of supplementary schools have never operated a ‘deficit model’ with regard to the needs of black children. We have never assumed that our children have a deficit either in their capacity to learn and to demonstrate high levels of academic performance, or with regard to their identity as black young people. On the contrary, we have always located the problem in mainstream schooling and their inability to respect and connect positively with black children and their families.
Over time, this has led to black communities dumbing down the high educational aspirations they had in the 1950s through the 1970s, when they harboured high expectations that schooling and education in the UK would be a route to self improvement, social mobility and social transformation. They had experienced in their own lifetime schooling and education serving precisely that function in the countries from which they had migrated to Britain, countries that spent considerably less of their GDP on education than the UK. The correlation between the schooling experience of the parents of the last two generations of black (African heritage) children and their attitude towards the schools their children or grandchildren now attend is instructive in this regard.
But there are other structural and demographic issues that have punctuated the development of the supplementary school movement and its relationship to mainstream schooling.
In the middle 1980s, I was Assistant Education Officer and Head of Community Education in the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) and among my responsibilities was funding for the supplementary schools and mother tongue provision in the 12 inner London boroughs. In 1989, on the abolition of ILEA, I was appointed Director of Education in the London Borough of Hackney.
Also in 1989, I joined John La Rose, the late Winston Best and other members of the Black Parents Movement and representatives of Supplementary Schools across London and 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.
Because of the ILEA’s ground breaking work on multicultural education and on combating racism in education, there was a greater degree of synergy between the work of state maintained schools and supplementary schools, but few headteachers proactively promoted partnership working with the latter, even though they were aware that many of those schools made provision for ‘education otherwise than at school’ to that large number of black children, especially boys, whom the mainstream schools were excluding for ‘fixed terms’ or permanently.
Supplementary schools had greater access to educational resources from the 1980s onwards than ever before. Publishing houses such as Karia Press and Karnak House joined New Beacon and Bogle L’ouverture in publishing books by and from the African Diaspora. Between 1982 and 1995, the International Bookfair of Radical Black and Third World Books and Bookfair Festival attracted thousands of people from the five continents annually and the Bookfair was a bazaar frequented by supplementary schools, their teachers, volunteers and children.
Those books were also available to teachers in mainstream schools and Teachers Centres and Professional Development Centres in urban areas made good use of them. With the advent of the National Curriculum and the School Standards agenda with its emphasis on improving school standards and raising achievement, many schools felt that the curriculum space they had to develop and teach curriculum based upon material from outside the UK and Europe was severely curtailed. Indeed, on Michael Gove’s watch in this Coalition Government, there have been major protests about government attempts to narrow down the curriculum and marginalise the contribution of African and other Global Majority people to literature in English and to the recording of world history.
The standards agenda has been largely responsible for the apparent widespread revision of the original purpose and orientation of supplementary schools – as summarised in a) to i) above. They now mostly mirror what goes on in mainstream schools, i.e., teachers teaching towards examinations, rather than focusing on the rounded development of children and on building partnerships with families and communities in support of children’s learning and self-development. Supplementary schools, therefore, focus on teaching for high level attainment in SATS, GCSEs and A levels.
To put it crudely, they provide for free, or for relatively small parental contributions, what many other parents, black parents included, purchase in the form of private tuition for their children at a cost of between £30 and £60 per hour.
A related factor here is the changed and still changing demography of most of those cities and towns in which supplementary schools operate. The last quarter century has seen the growth of a much larger West and North African population in London and other cities than in the first couple of decades of the supplementary education movement. Parents from those communities are much more focused upon enabling their children to get high SATS, GCSE and A level grades than on ensuring that they could counteract British racism and be at peace with themselves and their neighbours.
Their demands on the supplementary schools are therefore qualitatively different from those of parents from the African Diaspora, albeit the latter are increasingly looking to the supplementary schools to help produce high level grades. I suspect that a national survey would reveal that there is now a much greater number of children in supplementary schools whose parents are from the African continent than African-Caribbean children.
Despite the fact that there are now in excess of 500 languages spoken in London, anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of local authority funded, community based mother tongue teaching projects run by Chinese communities and those from the Indian subcontinent is far smaller than those which were once supported by the ILEA.
The Remit of the Investigation
All of this is by way of background.
Let me now, therefore, comment upon the brief, insofar as I understand it, for this second RSA’s second investigation on key education issues in the UK.
Is the target of this ‘investigation’ government funded supplementary schools only?
If not, what business does the RSA, ‘senior policymakers, practitioners and other stakeholders’ have with the way non-government funded supplementary schools organise themselves, once they are not breaking the law?
Who might these ‘other stakeholders’ be?
The brief indicates that among the questions the investigation will address is:
That ‘over the past decade, ethnic minority attainment has increased within mainstream education, with certain ethnic minority groups, such as Indian, Chinese and Nigerian students, far exceeding the national average. However, their achievements beyond compulsory education still remain relatively stifled, with ethnic minority students ever underrepresented at Russell Group Universities and consistent patterns in levels of unemployment and underemployment amongst ethnic minority graduates in comparison to their white peers. [Therefore] if educational attainment is generally improving, what other obstacles (including psychological barriers such as resilience and expectations about acceptance and belonging) do minority ethnic students face that affect their career trajectories and lifetime outcomes?
I find this an extraordinary question, as I do most of the other questions in the investigation brief. Educational attainment is generally improving and yes, Indian, Chinese and Nigerian students are far exceeding the national average and outperforming every other ethnic group, including whites. That improved attainment does not apply across the board, however. A disturbing feature in all this is that despite the general improvement in educational attainment, the attainment gap between different categories of students remains stubbornly constant and has hardly narrowed in the last decade, with Black Caribbean and ‘mixed-race’ students, boys in particular, inexorably bumping along the bottom.
The other questions are as follows:
What I find extraordinary about these questions is that, barring (i) and (ii), they eschew structural considerations and the fact that black communities had to campaign for anti-discrimination legislation since the 1960s and challenge the state about its obsession with stemming immigration and with integration and tolerance, while African and Asian communities were experiencing the worst forms of racism and denial of human rights at all levels of the society.
Our campaigning, including through the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD), gave rise to the Race Relations Act 1968, the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. Schools and other public bodies were required to comply with all those and especially the general duty of the latter two.
The government failed to provide the watchdog bodies, the Community Relations Commission and its successor, the Commission for Racial Equality, with the teeth and the money to ensure that they could hold public bodies to account for non-compliance and especially for discriminating against individuals and groups and denying them their rights. Abuses by various arms of the state itself went unpunished, especially the police.
The 2010 Equality Act requires public bodies, including schools, colleges and universities to comply with the Public Sector Equality Duty and have in place equality objectives and measures for meeting them. Despite the evidence of the extent of non-compliance with the General and Specific Duties of the RR(A)A 2000, the government drastically reduced the budget of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, thus making it even less able to hold organisations to account for non-compliance not just on race, but on disability and other protected characteristics.
An issue of perennial concern to black parents for decades has been school exclusion and the disproportionate number of black children, especially boys, being excluded from school year on year. I am a co-founder of the Communities Empowerment Network, CEN, a charitable organisation that provides advocacy and representation to students excluded from school and their families and has been doing so for the last 15 years, dealing with upwards of 1000 exclusion cases each year. We work closely with the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. Our database provides evidence of a growing number of illegal exclusions by academies and free schools.
Increasingly, we are told of academies bringing their barristers to governors disciplinary committees to face down and intimidate parents who are protesting about the way their children were treated. Some of those lawyers make direct threats to parents about them being made ‘to face the full force of the law’ if they continue with allegations of racism or of bullying on the part of the school, its senior management and its governors. Such conduct is even more aggravated if the parent takes the matter to an independent review panel.
The academies bring out their big guns in the form of expensive senior lawyers and Executive Directors, if not the Chief Executives of the entire academies chains. Among the membership of those panels is at least one local headteacher. Parents are not told whether or how such headteachers are vetted, what their understanding of issues to do with race, racist bullying, children’s or parents’ rights might be, what their relationship with the school in question is or was, or what their own record of excluding students is or was. The crucial point here is that those parents certainly do not have an automatic expectation that such headteachers sit on the review panel to represent their interests and safeguard their and their children’s rights.
And all of this is happening against a backcloth of government efforts to weaken, if not abolish altogether, the Public Sector Equality Duty of the Equalities Act 2010, dismissing it and encouraging public bodies to ignore it as ‘red tape’.
In the current dispensation, nothing stands between those academies and free schools and the secretary of state for education. Parents simply do not know where to turn. And yet, the government provides no funding to ensure that parents and their children could have the same level of advocacy and representation as those schooling corporations.
(6) If the governing body decide not to reinstate the pupil they must without delay—
(a)inform the relevant person, the head teacher and the local authority (and, if applicable, the home local authority) of their decision and the reasons for it in writing; and
(b)in the case of a pupil who is permanently excluded, give the relevant person notice in writing stating the following—
(i)that the exclusion is permanent;
(ii)that the relevant person may apply for the governing body’s decision to be reviewed by a review panel;
(iii)where the relevant person applies for a review, that the relevant person may require the local authority to appoint a SEN expert to advise the review panel;
(iv)the role of the SEN expert in relation to a review;
(v)how an application for a review may be made and what the application must contain;
(vi)where and to whom to send the application and the date by which the application must be received;
(vii)that the relevant person may, at their own expense, appoint someone to make representations for the purpose of the review; and
(viii)that the relevant person may issue a claim under the Equality Act 2010(9) where the relevant person believes that unlawful discrimination has occurred, and the time within which such a claim should be made.
This guidance was issued at a time when funding for organisations such as the Advisory Centre for Education (ACE) that provided advice to parents had already been cut. Few parents know of the existence of the 2012 pupil exclusions regulations, let alone have the capacity to organise themselves to ensure that schools comply with them. The dice are therefore structurally loaded more and more against parents and pupils and in favour of schools.
For several decades, communities have been concerned about the disproportionate number of black students, African-Caribbean boys in particular, being excluded from maintained schools. One would have thought, therefore, that government would have wanted to see evidence of all schools complying with the requirements of the Equality Act 2010. Yet, as research carried out by ‘Race on the Agenda’ (ROTA) in October 2013 has found:
Only 7.7% have published one equality objective
Issuing a claim under the Equality Act 2010 is a big deal for most parents. It is not something they would ordinarily feel competent to do without specialist advice, preferably from a lawyer. Sources of free legal advice and representation have diminished over the years as a result of public funding cuts. This goes for law centres as for race equality councils.
Power and especially the power to discriminate against children and their parents/carers and deny them their rights is being given more and more to schools, in inverse proportion to the ability of parents/carers to hold schools to account. Those schools have the infrastructure and the funds to intimidate and obstruct parents and to make it well nigh impossible for them to seek redress. Parents are no longer able to look to their local authority to safeguard their rights and their children’s entitlement to education.
That is why the Children’s Commissioner is spot on in her decision to consult on a rights-based approach to education.
I struggle to understand why, in the light of the foregoing section, the RSA has chosen to embark upon ‘a new investigation into supplementary schools’, especially as:
This, I suggest, is not a problem for supplementary schools, nor should the RSA seek to burden them with it. The RSA should not, even by default, appear to place responsibility for all those ills back within communities themselves. It is akin to Tony Blair asserting, crassly, that the issue of gun and knife crime and the scandalous number of murders of young people by other young people that are caused by those weapons is an issue for the black community itself, as if we are congenitally prone to mayhem and murder.
The RSA’s timeline for the investigation suggests that the RSA is nearly two months down the road with this investigation. Despite that, however, let me respectfully suggest that your focus is wrong and that you are setting out to answer the wrong questions. It is an old sociological dictum that the way a problem is defined is itself indicative of the measures that would be adopted towards its solution.
I would invite the RSA to look through the lens I have provided in this paper and change course, even at this stage.
This is an unsolicited intervention, but it is an informed one by someone who has engaged with the supplementary school movement for almost 50 years. I hope the RSA considers it worthy of its attention.
Photo (home): “Students in Classrooms at UIS 9-14-10” by Jeremy Wilburn (Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)