How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System (1971)

Bernard Coard’s polemical pamphlet, addressed directly to black parents, set out the “scandal of the Black Child in Schools in Britain”. The book was published by New Beacon for the Caribbean Education and Community Workers’ Association (CECWA). CECWA was a group of West Indian teachers, social workers, educational psychologists and community workers who campaigned to improve conditions for Caribbeans in Britain. New Beacon and Bogle L’Ouverture played an instrumental role in that campaign movement, both in organising action and in publicising the movement’s work. Coard’s book was an important catalyst for CECWA’s grassroots campaign against the ongoing discrimination faced by young black people in the education system in Britain. This built on the earlier work of other groups concerned with the position of Caribbean migrants in Britain such as the West Indian Standing Conference (founded in 1958 following the Notting Hill riots) and fed into the long-term work of the Black Education Movement and, from the mid-seventies, the Black Parents Movement.
 
Bernard Coard (1944-) was born in Grenada and studied in the US before moving to England to study at Sussex University and teach at two ESN schools in East London. He is known today for his involvement in the 1979 Grenadan revolution, alongside Maurice Bishop, and the subsequent coup against the government of the latter, which resulted in Bishop’s execution in 1983. Coard was imprisoned for his role in those events from 1983 until 2009.
 
 
How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System (1971) by Bernard Coard. 51pp.

Content

 
The book is composed of nine chapters that present quantitative and qualitative evidence of the wide-spread mistreatment of West Indian children in the British school system. The prose is measured in tone and polemical weight, and written in accessible language. The conclusion (“Things we can do for ourselves”), final chapter (“Questions and Answers for Parents”), and appended booklist for parents confirm the book was intended to serve an active function beyond its description of the current situation.
 
Coard begins with an account of West Indian children’s experience of the educationally sub-normal (ESN) school environment, describing a system which placed a disproportionate number of West Indian pupils in these schools following IQ tests and fostered low expectations. Coard notes the discriminatory effect of the assessment procedure: “the Black working-class child, who has different life-experiences, finds great difficulty in answering many of the questions, even if he is very intelligent” (15). As Chapter two sets out, these tests enacted cultural and class bias with little or no account taken of the potential emotional disturbance experienced by children who have recently migrated. The following chapters draw on Coard’s personal experience of British classrooms and the “inferiority complex” he has observed among black pupils. The final chapters link these psychological questions to the broader issue of “the immigrants’ role in Britain”: the education system shapes that role by maintaining the status quo and preserving social hierarchy. Coard concludes with four concrete recommendations:
- the immediate removal of Black children of 65+ IQ from ESN schools
- future testing of Black children to be done by Black Educational Psychologists
- the teaching of Black Studies in all schools
- considerably more Black teachers in British schools
(Press Release for Coard book BEM 2/2/2/2 (18))
 
Underlying the book’s argument is a larger question regarding the fundamental aim of education, a question which continues to challenge educators and policy makers today. This concerns the optimum relationship between education as a form of self-improvement or emancipation at an individual level, and the idea of improving society more broadly through a centralised curriculum and national education system ultimately aimed at social stability and economic profit. The concern is how to balance the interests of state, society, community and the individual.
 
Coard’s book remains an important historical document that elicits powerful reactions. While many aspects of the situation it describes now seem to have changed, it could be argued that the education system still reproduces inequalities and exerts forms of implicit discrimination. We were reminded of this anecdotally at the third meeting of the New Beacon Book Club (15 May 2013), attended by several teachers of secondary, further, and higher education in London and led by Dr Roxy Harris (King’s College London). Having read the book, several teachers commented on parallels to their experience of the British school system in 2013. Questions surrounding expectations, assessment, and streaming continue to seek new answers in the current climate. The autonomy of the teacher in relation to the state is an ongoing debate in radical (and other independent) education movements.
 
 

Production

 
This book originated as a paper given by Bernard Coard at a CECWA conference in 1970. Following its positive reception at the conference, Coard researched and wrote the full manuscript over the summer of 1970. Campaign literature was usually produced on Gestetner printers at home, a messy and time-consuming process that could not cater for large print-runs. The decision to publish this book gave it a more prominent and lasting status.
 
CECWA helped raise funds for the book, over 50% of which were covered by black campaigning organisations. CECWA secretary Fitz Yaw wrote a call for further funds, addressed to the Barbados and Jamaican High Commissions and other organisations:
The book will cost £750 to publish, and will be sold at 30p per copy. Numerous interested organizations are each making a donation towards publication. Other organizations with limited funds are assisting us through advance payments of £10, £20, or even £50, in return for an equivalent number of books, which they will then sell, to regain their money.
 
Since the book will be published in two weeks time, we would very much appreciate urgent assistance from you in either form. (FJ Yaw to Sir/Madam, 21.4.71, BEM 2/2/3/3) 
 
Letter from F.J. Yaw, dated 21 April 1971. Archive Ref: GB2904 BEM 2/2/3/3
 
Altogether 57 organisations were approached for financial assistance, including the Black Panther Association and the Oxford West Indian Association. The book was for a time planned as a joint publication by New Beacon and Bogle L’Ouverture, the publishing house founded by Eric and Jessica Huntley in 1968, and these publishers worked closely together to ensure the book was widely distributed. New Beacon and Bogle also collaborated in other activities of the Black Education Movement, as is well-documented in the archives of the George Padmore Institute. CECWA organised a launch for the book, including a presentation of the book to the Department of Education of Science and the Inner London Education Authority, and made arrangements to visit black organisations and parent groups throughout the UK. Through this concentrated effort, the book stimulated discussions and gave disparate groups a common beginning for their dialogue and their action.
 
Errol Lloyd provided the illustration for the book cover – a black and white drawing of a mother with two children. This was during the early days of Lloyd’s work as a book illustrator, following his move from Jamaica to London to study Law. He subsequently went on to design over fifty book covers for a number of different publishers, including several for New Beacon and Bogle L’Ouverture. While New Beacon specifically sought out Caribbean artists to design their book covers, the technical means of producing the artwork was not always straightforward. Lloyd recalls the difficulty of using Letraset, for example, a technique used to transfer individual letters onto the artwork, with spacing measured out with a ruler, before the advent of electronic publishing.
 
The book was printed in 10,000 copies – an unprecedented amount for New Beacon. Reprints were made in 1974. Coard donated all royalties to Bogle L’Ouverture Publications for the development and publication of its children’s books (CECWA newsletter no.2 BEM 2/2/2/2; BC to JLR 7.10.71, NBB/1/10). By 1978 New Beacon had relinquished their role in publishing the book which then fell out of print:
At the time we did the first reprint we were not aware that you had not wanted New Beacon to reprint the book. We only learned of this about a year later. At the same time we learned that you wanted the reprints of the book to be done by Bogle L’Ouverture Publications. In the circumstances we wish to relinquish any further interest in the book and it will now be up to you to make arrangements for its publication” (JLR to BC 11.12.78, NBB/1/10).
 
The book was reprinted in 2005, framed as a historical document of interest by its editor Brian Richardson.
 
 

Reception

 
Coard’s book was New Beacon’s first best-seller, in part due to the unique way in which its reputation spread alongside the work of the black supplementary schools.
Within the first year, 5250 copies had been sold and around 3000 copies given away (JLR to BC, 1972, LRA/01/0217). Its distribution via parents themselves demonstrated the growing power of the campaign movement and its pressure on the British education system to open new perspectives. As the CECWA newsletter noted:
In spite of the great publicity which attended the book’s publication, the majority of sales so far has been undertaken by Black parents, Black Organisations and Black activists. One Black parent has sold over 400 copies to other Black parents. […]
 
We were aware of the anxiety of Black parents concerning the performance of their children in schools. Many people complained of parent apathy. The facts which surround the publication of this book contradict numerous assumptions about the apathy of Black parents. [...] We appeal to more Black parents and teachers to keep on circulating this book. (CECWA newsletter no.2 BEM 2/2/2/2, p7).
 
The publication stretched New Beacon’s modest resources yet it is an important example of how their early work operated in collaboration with other publishers and organisations. 
  
Stencilled Publicity Flyer. Archive Ref: GB 2904 BEM/2/2/1/1
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Reception was widespread in specialist and mainstream press. Both La Rose and Coard were approached by radio and television channels to give interviews. Review copies were requested by the BBC and Rolling Stone magazine, an extract was reprinted in The Guardian (4 May 1971), together with articles in the New Statesman (7 May 1971) and The Times Educational Supplement (7 May 1971). As La Rose wrote to poet Mervyn Morris, whose own publication at New Beacon was delayed as a result:
There has been great national publicity on radio, television and of course, in the newspapers. There has been an international overflow as well, in The New York Times. The black population here has been actually selling the book. One black parent first took ten then came back for twenty five and twenty-five more later. (JLR to MM 20.5.71, NBB/1/13).
 
Letter from The Rolling Stone. Archive Ref: GB 2904 NBB/1/10 (uncatalogued)
 
 
As a result, the success widened awareness of New Beacon’s bookshop and book service, and the kinds of books both they and Bogle L’Ouverture made available. Andrew Salkey described the book exuberantly as:
The first notable achievement of its kind we’ve ever scored in our community in Britain […] The impact of chapter 5 will certainly be definitive in the lives of all concerned in the immigrant-host equation. It is the stuff of which revolution is made, believe me! […] a source text, a manifesto of change, a call to galvanise the new consciousness; it is more than a study, more than a critical report, more than a book; it is a community statement of truth, an accusation, and a clear example of our intention to win through in our continuing struggle for social justice in this country. (AS to BC (copied to JLR), 4.5.71, LRA/01/0698/2 pt2).
 
The book also met with some limited hostility, including from within the black community. R.H. Leon’s review in The Black Liberator (1.1, Sept/Oct 1971) castigated Coard as a “philosophical idealist” declaring that he had downplayed the question of revolutionary class politics by failing to adequately critique the “bourgeois-underpinning” of intelligence testing. The book “is descriptive rather than prescriptive, i.e. it is not a programme for action. It is rather a pragmatist’s attempt to answer certain questions posed by the bourgois corruption of the children of the minority nationalities and the indigenous working class” (BEM 4/4/2/4 (57)). Kamau Brathwaite described this review as “leninist bull” in a letter to La Rose (EKB to JLR 12.8.72, LRA/01/0143/2). Such responses are a sign of the sensitivity of class and race politics in the complex theoretical and practical debates of this period.
 
Following the book’s notoriety, Coard claims to have been approached by nine British publishers and an American publisher to write another book on education, an offer which he turned down (Coard, 2005). New Beacon also planned to publish another book on this theme, “Violence in the Toilets, the Experiences of a Black Teacher in Brent Schools” by Marina Maxwell, the Trinidadian teacher and co-founder of the Yard Theatre. La Rose wrote to Maxwell:
It does not matter whether New Beacon publishes it or whether some other publisher publishes it, what will matter is that the work should continue to circulate among the numerous people now involved with the educating of black children in the country. […] A whole movement has emerged since March 69 around the supplementary black school; these are schools run by black people in order to help black children in a diverse number of ways. There are many schools in London, in Birmingham, Bradford, Manchester, and the idea keeps growing. That’s why I think that all relevant materials both for the teachers and the taught should be constantly available. (JLR to MM, 12.1.71, LRA/01/0517)
 
This project appears to have gone some distance. In August 1974 La Rose wrote suggesting the project was ready to print, but it eventually foundered. Like other unfulfilled projects, this was largely due to competing pressures on La Rose and White’s activist work, while Maxwell was travelling widely and occupied with theatre projects in Jamaica. In 1976, La Rose wrote describing the founding of the Black Parents Movement (in April 1975) following the police assault on school pupil Cliff McDaniel in 1975 (Alleyne, 52-53). He apologised for the delay and suggesting other avenues for publication:
If you are thinking of other publishers I suggest Heinemann and Deutsch. I hope they can publish. We never have enough funds to do all the publishing we would like. But we are making progress slowly. It has taken three years to consolidate our bookshop effort and we are now beginning to publish again. Even so things cannot be done in the way we would like. New Beacon is a politico-cultural centre involving work in other directions.
 
We are beginning to get better organized but nothing goes quite smoothly yet. Nor ever will I think. (JLR to MM, 20.1.76, LRA/01/0517)
 
 

Further reading

 
Coard, Bernard. “Why I wrote the ‘ESN book’”. The Guardian February 5 2005. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2005/feb/05/schools.uk [consulted on November 20 2013].
Gilroy, Beryl. Black Teacher. London: Bogle L’Ouverture, 1994; 1976.
Harris, Roxy, ed. Being Black: Selections from Soledad Brother and Soul on Ice.
London: New Beacon Books, 1981.
Richardson, Brian. Tell it like it is: How our schools fail black children. London:
Bookmarks, 2005.