A shameful period

Deborah Husbands watches Subnormal on BBC One.

In the 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of Black Caribbean children were deemed 'educationally subnormal' (ESN). The education system used labels such as 'slow', 'aggressive', 'backward', 'remedial' and 'dunce' to define these children. They were systematically excluded from mainstream schools. Instead, ESN schools became the containers for Black children, who were sent to these establishments often without the understanding of their parents. This BBC documentary exposes that shameful period in Britain's history, where prospects for Black children were written off by the degrading assertions of their teachers, blighting their hopes for the future. 

These children were the victims of several processes. Culturally biased IQ testing originated as far back as 1905 (the Stanford-Binet test) and failed to take the children's context or environment into account. Ill-founded research (Eysenck’s theories on race and intelligence), later reinforced by the infamous Bell Curve and intelligence study by Murray and Herrnstein, leant further support to racist ideas that reinforced a sense of inferiority. The effect of colonialism reared its head. Children were compelled to disown their first language ('patois' or 'creole') and steered towards the 'Queen's English'. There was no recognition for the possibility of dyslexia, dyspraxia or dyscalculia in these children. 

The suspicions of Black Caribbean parents became aroused. A research-informed movement by Black educators, activists and parents uncovered a connection between the purported under-achievement of Black children and sophisticated racisms. One output was a published book that exposed these atrocities and made important recommendations to re-engineer the self-esteem and identity of Black children. The book attracted national attention, and the Supplementary School system was born. 

This programme is an uncomfortable watch, but well worth it to ensure the shameful actions of the past are not repeated. 

-       Reviewed by Dr Deborah Husbands, Senior Lecturer, Chartered Psychologist & BME Network Co-Chair, University of Westminster. See also this statement in response to the programme, from the British Psychological Society’s Division of Educational and Child Psychology https://www.bps.org.uk/news-and-policy/decp-response-bbc-documentary-subnormal-british-scandal-and-role-educational

-       Watch now on BBC iPlayer https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000w81h

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