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Bernard Coard

Black Students and ESN

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I came to Britain in September of 1966 to do a masters degree at Sussex University. When I completed it in the summer of 1967, I started working full-time while signing up for a PhD in development economics at Sussex part-time. My focus was on completing my PhD and returning to the Caribbean to serve my people there.

For the three and a half years between the summer of 1967, when I first started working, and December 1970, I first ran evening clubs for children from seven schools for the "educationally subnormal" (ESN), and then taught full time at two other ESN schools. This gave me first-hand experience of what was happening not just in these schools, but in the education system as a whole, as I discovered that the system was using the ESN schools as a convenient dumping ground for black children who were anything but "educationally subnormal".

I was outraged by what I was witnessing, but I had no overall data, and therefore no proof, that what I was witnessing in the nine ESN schools to which I was exposed was true throughout the system, or that those in authority knew exactly what was happening and took a conscious decision to do nothing about it.

One day, around the spring of 1970, out of the blue, a cousin of mine contacted me and placed an "internal" Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) report on all the ESN schools under its jurisdiction into my hands. A friend of hers who worked within the system had clearly decided that enough was enough, and was seeking to get someone, anyone, to take this report with all the tables of statistics and expose and explain its scandalous contents to the public at large. I now had the personal experience, and the hard evidence, of the scandal affecting black children in the school system.

But I was not a journalist, I had no contacts in the British media; neither was I a member of any organisation - West Indian or otherwise - in Britain. Indeed, I was in Britain for only about 40 months when my cousin placed that "internal" ILEA report in my lap in the spring of 1970. The questions I asked myself were: "How do I go about doing something about this scandalous situation? What can I do, concretely, to get people's attention in a really big way, so as to have the situation addressed?"

Just as I was stumped for an answer, I went to a party one Saturday night thrown by six Grenadian friends of mine who shared a house in Tulse Hill. At this party there where West Indians from all the islands. They had been living in Britain for many years, had children in the school system, and had been "hearing rumours", as they put it to me, of what was happening in the schools, most especially the ESN ones. More than one came up to me and said, something like, "We hear you are a teacher [there were precious few black teachers in those days] in the ESN schools. We are hearing all kinds of things. What's really happening there?"

I explained as best as I could what was "happening". By the end of the evening, I was asked by several of those present to prepare and present a paper on the situation to a conference which was to be held a few weeks later. Samuel Selvon, Andrew Salkey, and other West Indian literary greats were also due to be presenting papers, I was told. By sheer "accident" - or divine will - I had found a vehicle to get the message into the black community. But would a few dozen parent-activists from the community be enough? Time alone would tell.

After I presented my paper to the many dozens of West Indian community activists who were present, a lively question and answer and then general discussion followed. At the end of it all I was virtually ordered by all present to turn that paper into a book. I was given, in practice, a deadline of three months to write the book, as everyone was anxious to have the scandal exposed in the shortest possible time.

I set to work on the book, using the three summer months of 1970 when there was no school, and no classes at Sussex for me to attend. I spent each day in London University's school of education library, and each night collating my voluminous notes and drafting chapters. By the time the summer was over I had written 210 typewritten pages, outlining the many problems black children were facing, why, and what I felt should be done about them.

I then took a critical decision. I would address the book explicitly to black parents. Not to teachers, not to the education and political authorities, not to the public at large; exclusively to black parents. I wanted to get them conscious of the problems, and organised to deal with them. I wanted them to feel personally spoken to; to recognize that this was a problem that they had to get up and tackle; not rely on any others to do on their behalf.

I wanted a book written for them, and addressed directly to them. This decision meant that I could not take the approach of writing an academic treatise on the education of black children in Britain. Black parents were (still are!) very hardworking and busy people. They didn't have the time to read 210 pages. I would have to concentrate on the most important issues.

Having completed a scaled-down version, I brought the completed manuscript to the leaders of various West Indian organisations for them to have a look at it. They were all satisfied with its contents. Everyone's concern now turned to having it published. We approached all the leading publishers. None would have it. There were two major problems with it from a business standpoint: having never published anything before, my name had no recognition in the educational books market; and I was choosing to write a book for a highly restricted target market - West Indian parents. A tiny fraction of the British population, and one, moreover, which hardly ever bought books.

This response from the established publishing industry, combined with the sense of desperate urgency on the part of the West Indian community leaders, led to them organising a meeting of the leaders of 26 different West Indian community groups and organisations. At this meeting they took a decision to raise the up-front money to pay a printer and publish the book. A one-man West Indian publishing company, New Beacon Books, headed by the visionary and activist, John LaRose, undertook to have it published; ably supported by another one-person West Indian publishing concern, Bogle L'Ouverture Publications, headed by the indefatigable and visionary Jessica Huntley. The leading West Indian community activist of Hackney at the time, Jeff Crawford, and the late, great Jamaican novelist, Andrew Salkey, lent their support and encouragement throughout, as did many others.

The black community's response to the book was incredible. Thousands of black parents in small groups throughout the country began meeting, and several parents' groups were formed. Black supplementary schools were formed up and down the country. Some estimates put the number of these schools at as many as 150. Black youth groups were formed, and existing ones held regular discussions on the scandal and what their members could do to help. I found myself invited to come and address many of these groups and other organisations all over Britain. From May to September of 1971, I was addressing between three and five such groups each weekday afternoon and evening, and on weekends. The level of concern, and the sheer energy of the participants, was something to behold. Amazingly, several of these groups, and even supplementary schools, survive to this day, 33 years later.

In addition to the extraordinary galvanizing effect that the book had within the black community, it is my belief that the turn-around in the establishment's response also owed a great deal to the support which the contents of the book, its main thrust and objectives, received from thousands of teachers - white teachers, including several head teachers - up and down the country. Significant sections of mainstream British public opinion embraced the fact that what was happening was unfair; indeed scandalous, and should be acknowledged by those in charge and brought to an end. Dozens of journalists went out of their way, too, to get this message across. A book which was written for and intended, by the author, only for black parents and the black community, had taken on a life of its own; mobilizing, as never before, the black community, but also reaching, touching, and influencing white teachers, student teachers, university students, journalists, trade union leaders, and other broadly progressive sections of the majority population.

All the above developments forced a rethink and a radical adjustment in tactics on the part of the establishment. They would have to concede, to surrender, on "this ESN thing", but find new ways of still denying black children equal and high quality education. We won that battle. Hands down. And we enlisted many persons in the wider society. But, truth be told, black parents and their children - and white working class ones as well - are yet to win the war. Indeed, they are as far away from winning it as ever before, except for a minority of black people, who have been fortunate to "make it" educationally and otherwise.


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