BBC documentary Subnormal: A British Scandal

May 26, 2021

The George Padmore Institute (GPI) has been involved in another BBC documentary, Subnormal: A British Scandal. The documentary follows on from the film Education, part of the critically acclaimed anthology Small Axe directed by Oscar winner Steve McQueen, who is also executive producer of Subnormal.

Subnormal: A British Scandal is an examination of racist education policies in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, which wrongly classed hundreds of Caribbean children as ‘educationally subnormal’ and sent them to ‘special’ schools, leaving many without basic reading and writing skills. It tells the story of how black parents, teachers and activists banded together to force the education system to change.

In the programme there is powerful testimony from activists, teachers and publishers, many associated with the GPI. Professor Gus John, co-founder of the GPI, who came to the UK from Grenada in 1964, soon became aware of the disproportionately high number of black children in the special schools. He talks extensively about the damage caused to young children’s self-esteem and life chances.

Sarah White, co-founder of the GPI and New Beacon Books, also gives a fascinating insight into the publication of How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System by Bernard Coard. The book was published by New Beacon Books, Britain’s first black publisher, and became instrumental in expanding awareness of the problem, leading to the sharp rise of supplementary schools. Set up by black parents, these schools aimed at raising the educational attainment of black children. Michael La Rose, GPI Trustee and son of John La Rose, tells how his own experience of attending a supplementary school bolstered his confidence.

In the documentary, tributes were paid to the late activists John La Rose and Jessica Huntley, both of whom were especially lauded for the relentless drive and energy with which they pursued justice for children who had been poorly treated by the education system.

Subnormal: A British Scandal is available to view on BBC iPlayer. Its sister documentary Black Power: A British Story of Resistance, which the GPI was also involved in, is available on BBC iPlayer as well.

To find out more about the issues raised in the documentary, the GPI holds archive collections on the Black Education Movement and National Association of Supplementary Schools. Visit the archive page

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Part of the Reaching New Generations Project funded by Arts Council England