Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1972

How schools fail black children

This article is over 16 years, 3 months old
Brian Richardson, the editor of Tell It Like It Is, a new book that exposes the scandal of the education system’s treatment of black children, talks about why he put the book together
Issue 1972
Tell it Like it is cover
Tell it Like it is cover

Tell It Like It Is has come out of the crisis facing school students, particularly black children, in our education system. African-Caribbean boys are four times more likely to be excluded from school than their peers. A recent Joseph Rowntree report suggests that that in some areas they are 15 times more likely to be excluded.

If you look at GCSEs there is a massive gap between the achievement of African-Caribbean boys and other groups (with the exception of Bangladeshis). A major theme of the book is about African-Caribbean boys, but it is not just about them. The book covers issues that are relevant to everyone.

Tell It Like It Is has come out of the debates and discussions around why schools are failing black children.

The book has a wide range of contributers, such as Labour MP Diane Abbott, poets Benjamin Zephaniah and Linton Kwesi Johnson, Doreen Lawrence, professor Gus John, Heidi Mirza, Natfhe lecturers’ union leader Paul Mackney and many others.

All of the people who have written are genuinely committed to race — and wider — equality in schools. They all have different perspectives on how this can be achieved. Different authors are raising solutions that can be applied more generally across the whole education system.

Many people were inspired by Bernard Coard’s How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System: The Scandal of the Black Child in Schools in Britain in the 1970s. It was a very important book.

The people who had come to Britain from the West Indies in the 1940s and 1950s were relatively middle class. They had the expectation that they might struggle but that their children would get a good education and be successful in the “mother country”.

But they found that their children were failing in school and they didn’t know why. Coard’s book blew away the lid of what was going on and exposed the scandal of children being institutionally discriminated against.

It was studied in teacher training academies. People went door to door selling it, arguing for its positive, practical solutions. It had an effect in galvanising people in the black community.

I feel, as someone who went to school in the late 1970s and early 1980s, that I benefited from its impact. There was a clear commitment by black and white teachers and the unions to address the issues of racism in schools. Bodies such as the Inner London Education Authority were challenging the old racist system.

Historically and politically the book should be in print. Things have changed since the book was written 34 years ago. We felt it should be reprinted but that other authors should take up the current issues—and Tell It Like It Is was born.

Many of the positive developments from the 1970s were driven back during Margaret Thatcher and John Major’s years in office. They systematically attacked what they regarded as politically correct nonsense. They had a deliberate policy to destroy anti-racist gains.

Institutional racism

New Labour’s narrow vision of what schooling should be about and its introduction of the market into education means that nothing has changed for school students.

The Macpherson inquiry into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence focussed on the racism of the police, but it was important in getting official recognition of institutional racism. It did talk about education and the exclusion and underachievement of black children.

A lot of people say that absent black fathers, gun culture and rap are part of the reason for the problems facing black children in school. While it would be wrong to say that those issues aren’t important, the book focuses on the failings in the system. In a recent essay Coard issued a rallying cry, demanding the highest standard of education for all. That is what the book is trying to encourage.

We are hoping that the book can achieve some of the success of the original. We want it to play a role in bringing together teachers, parents, local communities, young people and community activists to discuss the problems and the solutions.

We want to encourage a debate on issues such as exclusions and testing. We are very keen to have local events where community groups and union branches host meetings and discussions about the issues raised by the book.

Tell It Like It Is: How Our Schools Fail Black Children
is published by Bookmarks and Trentham.
Available for £6.99 from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop.
Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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