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BPS Communications Team

Racism and inequality in the British education system – how far have we come?

31 May 2022 | by Dr Melernie Meheux

Following the publication of the BPS’s Oral History with Waveney Bushell, co vice-chair of the DECP Dr Melernie Meheux explores how far the education system has come in terms of racism and inequality, and how much further it and the profession of educational psychology has to go.

There was great upset about the management of Educationally Subnormal (ESN) Schools (a term not used now) in the 60’s and 70’s. ESN schools were for children we would identify now as having special educational needs (SEN). You might ask what was so bad about such schools - surely provision of such schools was fair and equitable?

Well, the overriding issue with these schools was the overrepresentation of Black Caribbean pupils on their roll. This was a forgotten part of the history of British education until recently following the release of the documentary ‘Subnormal a British Scandal’ by executive producer Steve McQueen and director Lyttanya Shannon. Black Caribbean students in ESN schools were incorrectly labelled SEN through use of tests they were destined to fail from the outset. The language and concepts the children were tested on were alien to them.

Although their responses to questions presented to them were correct within their cultural context, they were perceived to be incorrect in their new adopted home in Britain. For example, a child presented with a picture of a tap labelling it ‘pipe’, (as you would in the Caribbean), would be marked as inaccurate by educational psychologists administering the tests, who lacked this cultural understanding….with the exception of Waveney Bushell, the first black educational psychologist in the UK and originally from Guyana.

In the documentary Waveney spoke with passion and humility about the work that she and her colleagues did to expose systemic racism within the British education system in the 60’s, promoting the Black supplementary school movement to empower families. Waveney reflected on the marginalisation of Black Caribbean children and the significant role IQ tests played, (the same IQ tests that many psychologists use today, and which requires a whole other blog!)

The BPS’ filming of an oral history of Waveney’s life meant I had the privilege of interviewing her in person recently, and she was even remarkable in person. Meeting Waveney made me reflect on what the education system is like now for Black and Black Caribbean children.  In 2020/21 Black Caribbean children’s average attainment 8 score (average score for GCSE’s) was 44 per cent, in comparison to the national average of 50.9 per cent. In addition only 35.9 per cent of Black Caribbean children achieved a strong pass in English or Maths in comparison to the national average of 51.9 per cent (DFE, 2021). 

Black Caribbean students are permanently excluded twice as much as White British peers, four times as likely to be suspended from school, and more likely to remain in alternative provision following an exclusion, rather than be reintegrated back into a mainstream school. There have also been recent high-profile cases in the media highlighting the adultification and criminalisation of Black children which need further exploration.

So how far have we really come? There are many factors affecting Black and Black Caribbean children’s educational outcomes, including low teacher expectations, teacher bias, lack of diversity in the curriculum and teaching force, limited access to higher exams tiers and punitive discipline methods.

However there has been some change – albeit very slowly.  Recently the Doctoral Programme in Educational, Child and Adolescent Psychology (DEdPsy) at the Institute of Education (UCL) hosted the British Caribbean Association’s Annual Lord Pitt Memorial Lecture, on Education, Child, and Adolescent Mental Health and Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, presenting data taught to all trainee EPs on the programme as part of their training.

In addition to the stark findings above, good practice and research was shared in relation to raising the attainment of Black Caribbean children, including research carried out by Dr. Feyisa Demie and Christabel McLean, (if you haven’t read their work and you work with black and black Caribbean children you must).

As an EP I feel it’s my duty to share these and other findings to promote good practice, starting with an awareness of the need for culturally appropriate and competent practice. My hope is that The DECP EDI Implementation group will contribute to this very important work. It’s imperative we challenge and shift narratives about the ability of Black and Black Caribbean children and firmly root their outcomes within the structures and systems around them, rather than solely within them as individuals.

So in the words of Waveney Bushell, “I hope that whenever they’re thinking about Black children, they would think beyond what is produced in the classroom".


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