‘Our difference was really magnified’

Educational Psychologist Dr Melernie Meheux in conversation with Waveney Bushell, Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society.

Waveney Bushell is often referred to as the first black female educational psychologist in the UK. She was a founding member of the Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association (CECWA) and its first chair. More recently she appeared in the BBC documentary Subnormal: A British Scandal by Lyttanya Shannon (produced by Steve McQueen), highlighting the disproportionate numbers of black children labelled as ‘educationally subnormal’ in the 1960’s and sent to specialist schools, and her role in challenging the existence of these schools.

If you prefer, you can watch this conversation on YouTube.

Waveney, I’m delighted to find out more about your history. Tell us about growing up, your early childhood.

I was born in Guyana, and my father died when I was very small, and my mother as well. I really don’t know my father at all, my mother I remember having to read to her. She was an avid reader. Growing up in Guyana was being loved. Even though my mother died when I was six, her sister, my Aunt, brought us up – three of us. The emphasis was on keeping us together, and loving us. My father’s sisters were teachers, and I remember always wanting to teach when I grew up. And I did! I went to high school, and was successful. I had the highest senior Cambridge score, and applied to the local teacher training college and became a teacher. 

It sounds like education just runs through the family, and inspired your path when you came to the UK.

Yes. I came by chance, really. A friend I met in teacher training college, her friends had been to the UK, and came back saying ‘they want teachers’. This was after the war, the local authorities were really trying to recruit teachers. To be able to teach in England, that caught our imagination. 

The emphasis amongst Black people in those days was studying. Social advancement was achieved through study. My friend, she joined her husband who she married soon after she left college in Guyana. She literally pestered me, ‘when are you coming?’ When I got here, which was two years after she left Guyana, I realised the reason for her asking that, over and over again. She was lonely.

At her advice, I applied to the London County Council, to become a teacher, and was accepted. I came to join the teaching force in England.

What was it like, when you arrived? 

Life here then was different from at home. At home we knew everybody. I lived in the capital of Guyana, Georgetown. Everyone knew who had gone here and there… life here was so different. It was lonely. We soon realised that we were different, and we were made to keep within our little groups. There was no mixing… because of that, we were eager to maintain friendships amongst our own groups. If you walked down the street on a Saturday and you saw a Black person, whether you knew that person or not, you waved. 

In the shop windows, there would be cards with ‘No dogs, no Blacks’ and so on. You realised that you were now something quite different, something not accepted. That made you feel more lonely than you really were.

How did you manage those feelings?

The West Indians were known for their dancing, and we met socially and just kept ourselves happy in that way. It was a way of feeling that you belonged to a group, whereas society showed you that you didn’t. 

The sense of belonging and community was really important. I know you then looked at education, at supplementary schools… how did that work come about?

I came in 1956, and the supplementary schools didn’t start until the ‘60s. As children came to the country, there was much more emphasis on differences, which we were seen to represent. Our children were different, our educational system was different. In Guyana, there was a greater emphasis on nursery rhymes, and on children’s ability to repeat those rhymes correctly. The educational system was built on things like repetition, and ability to remember what was being told. There wasn’t this emphasis on children’s ability to analyse things, there was no reference to that at all. That made quite a difference, in terms of performance in schools, on tests – which I became involved in. Our difference was really magnified.

Did the supplementary schools support the development of those skills?

Yes. They were started by West Indians themselves. They saw the difference between what was expected of the children who had just arrived, and what had been expected of those children while they lived in their countries. There was a vast difference. That was the topic of conversation when we met – what was the expectation of our children, were we meeting those expectations, did we feel about our children the same way the local people felt? We thought the answer was to be able to teach the children in the way teaching was seen to be in this country. 

Many supplementary schools focused on children’s ability to see themselves as important members of the schooling community. So not only school work, but emphasis on one’s culture and history. It was felt by many of the teachers that children needed to feel good about themselves, that was necessary in order for them to produce work in the classroom.

What was it like studying Psychology?

I went to Bedford College. I applied because it was a London school, and I thought during the college holidays I would be able to teach at my old school. I didn’t realise that Bedford College was a girls’ school, and therefore rather an upper class compared with University College, which I also applied to. I did get into Bristol, but didn’t want to go out of London.

The college was exclusively middle class, and to my knowledge just two Black girls there – myself, and a girl from Jamaica reading Sociology. Our timetables weren’t the same, but we saw to it that we met in the Common Room every day. We became very good friends. I felt very lonely there. Our class had about 14 girls, who obviously thought that they were a cut above other people, especially the Blacks. So I didn’t make a lot of friends, and I don’t think my friend did either. I had two… one was a Jewish girl who sought me out, befriended me. And an English friend, I think she was lonely too. We became friends.

I soon realised that expectations of me were really poor. I got fairly good marks, but looking back I know that my work was inconsistent. What struck me was what happened to me in my second year. Our tutor said ‘Be as critical as you want to be’, and I was critical. My essay was good. I got it back without a mark. Written at the bottom was ‘Quote your references’. I couldn’t understand this. I went to the tutor’s room, he was rather dismissive of me. He said ‘I just said quote your references’. I said ‘I have, there’s nothing else to quote’. He just dismissed me. I was very hurt… there was no discussion. Years ago I met Diane Abbott, and she said exactly the same thing happened to her. 

This tutor’s behaviour was quite the opposite to another tutor, who called me when I did some work and asked ‘Are you worried about anything? What’s the matter?’ He didn’t say it quite like this, but he was asking why my work wasn’t as good as it had been. 

I was in a very strange environment, looking back on it all. But I survived. It was the first experience I had of academia being prejudiced. One tended to hold on to the idea that when one’s intelligent, one isn’t prejudiced, in the world of academia people wouldn’t have such feelings… but that wasn’t so at all.  

What about the content of the course?

I was a bit disappointed in what we had to learn… what rats can do and so on. It was the social psychology that interested me. I couldn’t wait for the time when I would go on to the postgraduate training, which I did at the Child Guidance Training Centre. There, I flourished. It could just be the atmosphere. I never got the feeling there that I was doing the impossible. We used to have case conferences every day, presenting some work that you had done. The Centre trained social workers and psychiatrists, there were only four psychologists trained per year. We had a varied audience to our case conferences, and it wasn’t unusual for people in the common room to say ‘Oh, today’s your case conference, I’m coming!’ I think I did fairly well.

But from the moment I was exposed to tests, I realised our children wouldn’t be able to cope with this. In the pre-school days, education was centred around learning not how to abstract and relate what you have learned to the work you are doing, but just repeating what you heard. This began before school, with grandmothers, who were always the people who tested children in that way, starting education at home using nursery rhymes. Education itself was really geared to that repetition of words. Our children, when they came here, found it was different. I’m sure that they felt insecure when questions were asked of them which had never been asked before.

Something else that affected our children was the use of words… we in the West Indies were still using the language that people like Somerset Maugham used. When I opened his books, I realised we were still using those words… ‘grip’ for a suitcase, ‘pipe’ for tap. Language moves, and in the West Indies it moved too slowly for our children, to bridge the gap between what and how they learned in the West Indies and here.

So the language in the tests meant they didn’t do as well as they could do?

Oh yes. No doubt. I was disappointed that nobody, for example the school’s psychological service, seemed to be interested in that and didn’t do a small project/research into this. It was all left to individual psychologists, who just believed what was written in the book by the Americans. It was copied from the Americans, no doubt. Intelligence tests…WISC, Stanford Binet… 

What impact do you think that had on Black children and Educationally Subnormal Schools (ESN)?

It meant they were placed in the wrong schools, with acceptance of it. I got a message from an American psychologist over here, asking ‘was there a Black psychologist?’ I got a similar message from an American social worker. They were both disappointed that there was nobody who came forward and said ‘let’s look at this again, let’s look at ourselves and see what we are not doing.’ I blamed the British Psychological Society quite a lot for that. I went to their annual conference, and found myself asking myself ‘what are you doing here?’ 

I feel the Society should be much more involved. I’ve been out of it for such a long time, but the emphasis seems on the academic side of things. I enjoy reading journal articles, but there should be more emphasis on how children learn. That emphasis is better for our society, for the children, for the parents, for the whole country. 

I think you’ll be pleased to know there is more work being done with the British Psychological Society in that area, but I think it’s good to hear from you on what can be improved.

How do you feel about the fact that IQ tests are still used?

There came a time when I thought ‘away with you, this doesn’t help me at all’. It doesn’t help me to tell the teacher how they must approach a child’s learning in the classroom. It doesn’t help me to find out why the child’s approach to schoolwork is the way it is. I noticed it from the start. Why give our children these tests, which have words they never use and concepts they aren’t aware of? I feel that much more work should be done, much more direct work. When I was working, it seemed the child was punished academically for what they didn’t know. 

You were instrumental in supporting the knowledge the children did have. You were on the Select Committee that led to the Rampton Review, and led to the Swann report, of 1985.

I was not a member of the Rampton Review, I was co-opted. There were people there who had done more direct work with children. Everybody was written to by the committee about something in education, and there was nothing that was sent back that didn’t reflect prejudice. It was so sad. There wasn’t any empathy, there wasn’t any understanding. Not only children, but their parents, were dismissed… in a way, for being here! ‘You don’t belong here, what are you doing here?’ Those questions weren’t asked direct, but they were at the bottom of everything. 

In my report, I had to say that’s how I felt. I was certain that the approach of the teachers and headteachers was out of order. They never thought about the effect of their own attitude on the children. 

I once gave a talk to some teachers at a London university, and a questionnaire I submitted was around teachers’ feelings about the children. The teachers objected strongly to that. I didn’t see anything wrong with it. If you’re in any relationship – and it is a relationship, you meet the same child every day – you must have some sort of feelings about these children. There was a denial. Very few answered the question.

But it led to a number of recommendations about teacher attitudes, feelings and belief, and the impact on educational outcomes. 

When you think about the Swann report, how far do you think it went in terms of being implemented?

Many members of Rampton pointed to things like prejudice, and he went too far in allowing some of the members of the committee to say what they had found. Swann succeeded him, and didn’t go further than saying this was all a cultural thing, children weren’t bright enough and so on. 

You said that IQ tests led to high numbers of Black children being placed in ESN schools, ‘educationally subnormal schools’, a term we wouldn’t use now. Can you tell me about your experience of working with some of those Black boys?

I worked with some in the Saturday schools. They seemed to me to be quite different in their behaviour from that seen during the school week. They didn’t feel extended at all in the school environment, so they behaved very badly. In one school, the headteacher asked the social worker to have them deemed ‘maladjusted’. The social worker felt they had one label, and the headteacher was asking them to be labelled a second time. She was American, and that’s when she started to ask around to see if there was any Black psychologist who could help her. Someone more sympathetic to their needs, to avoid getting them labelled. She was surprised there wasn’t a Black group who would take up that case for the community. She was left with me. 

I agreed to see these children, but I was not allowed to do so.

In spite of that, you went on to be involved in the book How the West Indian Child is made educationally sub-normal in the British School System, by Bernard Coard. 

A group of us met often – parents, who became community workers. We talked about what we felt was the injustice facing our children, how we could redress that. We decided to go nationwide, by holding a conference and inviting teachers. We called ourselves the Caribbean Education Community Workers Association. Bernard was invited to sepak, and he was really electrifying. He was a student and had been teaching in ESN children in his holidays from university. He felt that these children were not being extended in the classroom. He was passionate about the injustice, he was sure this was prejudice. 

I felt that people honestly believed that these children were dull, and to me that was worse. It meant that our whole group was regarded as dull, that we just didn’t know what we were talking about, that we didn’t know how dull we were! That really hurt.

What would you hope Educational Psychology as a profession would take away from all of the work you’ve carried out so far?

I would hope that people will learn to understand all the influences on children, the good and the bad. The good were those that they learnt at home, and they did learn a lot at home. The bad would be what people thought about them. I hope that whenever they’re thinking about Black children, they would think beyond what is produced in the classroom. If work is mismarked, or not marked at all… we need to consider the impact that has on people. I’m living proof of that! 

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