A new BBC documentary has revealed how hundreds of black children were wrongly sent to schools for the ’emotionally subnormal’ in the 1960s and 70s because of ‘rampant racism’.
Subnormal: A British Scandal, which airs tonight on BBC2 at 9pm, explores how students who were incorrectly deemed to have a limited intellectual ability where sent to ESN schools, which categorised them as having moderate to severe learning disabilities or being ‘un-teachable’.
Black children were labelled ‘thick and unintelligent’ because they ‘couldn’t speak the Queen’s English’, and were prevented from pursuing any further education after leaving the ESN schools.
Many report that there was no real effort to educate them and that they were allowed to play non-educational games, not taught basic literacy and numeracy, and left school with no prospects.
Noel Gordon, from Tottenham, was sent to an ESN and labelled a ‘dunce’ in the 1970s after a health condition was wrongly diagnosed as learning difficulties, while Maisie Barrett, from Leeds was sent aged seven after a teacher branded her ‘backwards’.
Activist and academic Gus John says black children were ‘written off’, and that attending an ENS could be ‘paralysing’ in terms of academic progression and self-confidence.
A new BBC documentary has revealed how hundreds of black children were wrongly sent to schools for the ’emotionally subnormal’ in the 1960s and 70s. Pictured, Noel Gordon, from Tottenham, who was sent to an ESN and labelled a ‘dunce’ in the 1970s
Activist and academic Gus John says black children were ‘written off’, and that attending an ENS could be ‘paralysing’ in terms of academic progression and self-confidence
‘The education system fuelled and legitimised the idea that black Caribbean children were less intelligent than other children,’ said John. ‘This was why so many of them ended up at ESN schools. It was rampant racism.’
Children who grew up in a Jamaican household, for instance, would use Jamaican English – patois or creole – and this was interpreted as an inability to speak ‘properly’.
John added: ‘They thought their inability to speak the “Queen’s English”, as they used to call it, was because they were thick and unintelligent, as distinct from the fact they were speaking a different language.’
Noel spent ten-years at an ENS boarding school 15 miles from his home after being sent there at the age of six, having recently moving from Jamaica to England – and described the institution as ‘hell’.
Maisie Barrett, from Leeds was sent aged seven after a teacher branded her ‘backwards’ and left school with no qualifications
He was recommended for the institution around a year after anaesthetic given to him during a trip to the dentist triggered a serious reaction, leading to longer term health complications.
The reaction was caused by undiagnosed sickle cell anaemia, an inherited red blood disorder which can cause painful episodes and an increased risk of serious infections.
What was an educationally subnormal school (ESN) and why were so many black children sent there?
Hundreds of children were taken out of mainstream education and placed in Educationally Subnormal (ESN) schools in the 19760s and the 1970s.
ESN schools did not stick to a curriculum and would have children between the ages of four and 16 in the same class, while children with mild learning difficulties were in a class alongside those with severe needs.
The term ‘educationally subnormal’ derived from the 1944 Education Act and teachers were often able to send students to ESN schools without a strong reason.
But why did so many black immigrant children end up being referred – with ESN schools having more than double the proportion of black students than mainstream schools?
Figures show that in the 60s and 70s, black children did not perform as well academically as their white counerparts, fuelling a belief that they were intellectually inferior.
A leaked 1969 local authority report by head teacher Alfred Doulton, claimed that children from the West Indies had lower IQs, based on the results of IQ tests taken by primary school students.
However, children who were not taught to speak English in the UK typically struggled with the IQ tests because of the use of different words and terminology to those spoken in their home country.
There was also widespread belief in the theories of high-profile professors such as Hans Eysenck of Kings College London and Alfred Doulton who claimed that intelligence is inherently linked to genetics, and that white people are superior.
However a study from Philip Ewart Vernon showed that once immigrant children had the chance to become acclimatised to the UK, their IQ results matched those of white students.
After white parent protests in 1965, guidance was issued by the government stating that immigrant children should be limited to around 30 per cent of a school’s population. This practice was abolished in 1980.
A governmental enquiry partly blamed institutional racism in the underachievement of West Indian children. In 1981 the term ‘educationally subnormal’ was abolished as a defining category in the Education Act.
The painful episode, caused by his sickle cell anaemia, resulted in longer lasting health issues – which his teachers confused with a learning disability, prompting the idea that he should go to ‘special’ school.
Noel’s family was told that the boarding school would take care of his ‘medical needs’, but also dubbed the young boy ‘stupid’. Neither Noel or his parents were ever shown any evidence of a learning disability before he was admitted to the school.
The school did not stick to a mainstream curriculum, didn’t include basic literacy or numeracy and Noel recalled the majority of his time would be spent playing non-educational games.
He remembred crying for his mother during his first night at the boarding school, after being racially abused by another student on his very first day.
Noel struggled to adjust to life at the school, and said racial abuse wasn’t taken seriously by teachers, one of whom told an offending pupil just to ‘sit down’ after using racist language.
Noel’s parents weren’t made aware of the type of school their son was being sent to until their son was seven and a 15-year-old boy punched him in the face during a visit.
They were devastated, having had high expectations for their son’s education after arriving in the UK – but felt powerless to change the situation.
By the age of 12, Noel had been accepted into a local secondary school on a part-time basis, spending the rest of the week at the ESN school.
Noel kept attending the ESN school until the age of 16 and left without any academic qualifications.
He said his time at the boarding school has left him with lasting psychological problems.
‘Leaving school without any qualifications is one thing, but leaving school thinking you’re stupid is a different ball game altogether. It knocks your confidence’, he said.
Despite not being able to ‘spell or fill out a job application’ after his time at the school and still struggling with his literacy, Noel has earned a degree in computing.
Mother-of-two Maisie was sent to an ESN school in the 1960s after a teacher said she ‘couldn’t learn’ and recommended it to her mother.
Like Noel, her mother had no idea of what an ESN school would entail, revealing: ‘When my mother was told that I’d been recommended for a special school, I remember her smiling. She thought that a special school meant a better school’.
Maisie wasn’t taught a curriculum – instead playing games and having ‘discos’. Despite having undiagnosed dyslexia, Maisie was branded ‘stupid’ by teachers, adding that the school itself was a ‘racist institution’.
At 13 Maisie was enrolled in a mainstream secondary school after her mother put her in touch with a black social worker who, after assessing her, saw she was intelligent and said she was placed in the ESN school due to racism
However with her dyslexia remaining undetected, she struggled with literacy and left her secondary school without any academic qualifications.
Maisie’s dyslexia wasn’t diagnosed until the age of 30 and admits that being dismissed as unintelligent in her early years ‘messed up her confidence’.
Since leaving education, Maisie has written two books and earned two degrees – but said that she still struggles to find work and is currently unemployed after being made redundant from her job as a dyslexic support worker two years ago.
‘The ESN label crippled my confidence,’ said Maisie. ‘I could have been anybody – but I was never given the tools to be the person I was born to be.’
Grenadian writer and teacher Bernard Coard penned How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System in 1971
Education campaigner John came to the UK from Grenada in 1964 as a student, quickly noticing the disproportionate number of black children in ESN schools.
He believes that tests used to assess the intelligence of children were culturally biased, including phrases and vocabulary newly-arrived Caribbean speaking Jamaican English would not know.
Former Educational Psychologist, Waveney Bushell, who performed IQ tests in the 1960s and 70s, said that she noticed first hand how difficult the test was for children who weren’t taught English in the UK.
She recalled testing a group of student, some of whom did not know the British word for ‘tap’, because it’s known as a ‘pipe’ in certain parts of the Caribbean.
‘When I used to test children. One found that children didn’t understand the words that were asked of them’, she said. For example when children were asked: What’s a tap? They couldn’t describe it, they couldn’t define it.
‘I felt, you must be able to say this, to say what this is. It’s something used in the West Indies it must have a name. Fortunately there was a tap in the very room in which I was testing and I walked across the room and said “Well, what’s this?” And the child said “A pipe”.
‘The child knew what the pipe was, which was the same concept. That meant on tests, they were made to feel inferior when they realised that many of the items that were asked of them, they could not clearly define.’
Former Educational Psychologist, Waveney Bushell, who performed IQ tests in the 1960s and 70s, said that she noticed first hand how difficult the test was for children who weren’t taught English in the UK
A turning point came when Grenadian writer and teacher Bernard Coard penned How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System in 1971.
Coard taught in an ESN school after he and parents had noticed a disproportionate number of Caribbean children, wrote the book dubbing ESNs a ‘dumping ground’ for black children.
‘When I was told that there were schools for the ‘educationally subnormal’ called ESN schools my immediate reaction was “What, what are you talking about?” Id never heard about this before’, he said.
‘I noted that the ESN schools had a higher percentage of black kids than I’d consider normal, given the demographics of the boroughs from which they came. Also I saw too many kids there that were clearly above average intelligence or even above average.’
Using information from a leaked council report, Coard leaked the statistics showing: ‘A black kid is four times more likely to be wrongly placed in an ESN school than a white kid.
‘In other words there were four times as many black children in ESN schools, who should not have been there, as there were white working class kids, whorls should not have been there. The ratio was four to one.
‘It took six months, and at the end of six months, they said: It’s all true. I think we should use it in teachers colleges as recommended reading and in schools of education.’
His work led to recognition of the Black Supplementary Movement (BSSM) which helped children whose needs were not being served by the national education system.
In several cities such as London, Birmingham and Huddersfield, black teachers organised schools run by volunteer teachers, community activists and parents, usually taking place in the evenings or on a Saturday.
Subnormal: A British Scandal airs Thursday 20th May on BBC One and iPlayer