The British education system is inherently colonial, perpetuating eurocentric histories in order to uphold the “Great” Britain ideal.
The eurocentric curriculum masks and suppresses the histories of minoritised groups, whose histories are inherently intertwined with British history. It is thus no wonder, for example, that African, Caribbean and Asian histories, writers, musicians, scientists, sociologists etc. are not regular features in the British curriculum. And when they are featured, they are marginal and not the focal point of the teaching. In history (the focus of this blog), we teach the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the narrative that Africans sold themselves into slavery and Christian Abolitionists “freed” them from enslavement – simplifying a complex history, negating the legacy of trauma, dislocation and violence. This is an example of the curriculum masking Britain’s history of racism. The failure of our education system to provide an accurate – or rather, honest – depiction of minoritised histories that interlink with British history suggests (to me), that the current curriculum, and education system as a whole, is failing our black children. And whilst many of us can acknowledge this, and even link this to wider systemic racisms in British society, until we start to provide solutions, these conversations remain merely conversations; providing no real change.
Problems within Education
The curriculum is just one problem. Schools, universities and colleges are microcosms, reproducing social hierarchies, stereotyping and, racial and gendered discourses which exist in wider society.
Gov.uk statistics highlight the disproportionate exclusion of black students in comparison to their white counterparts in the UK, noting that Black Caribbean pupils were permanently excluded at 3 times the rate of White British pupils in 2015/2016. The data also shows that the exclusion rate of White/Black Caribbean Mixed pupils is particularly high, especially in primary school. According to the statistics, amongst broad ethnic or minoritised groups, Mixed and Black pupils had the highest rates of temporary exclusions. These striking numbers, coupled with the fact that 60% of our prison population were excluded in school, illustrates there is a serious problem. The education system is producing our prison population reinforcing the idea that these institutions, such as education, are microcosms of wider society.
Postcolonial Melancholia and the Black Esteem
There are many reasons for the disproportionate reputation of black pupils in exclusion statistics – and subsequently, the criminal justice system. Some racists would argue that black people are simply an inherently more badly behaved, delinquent and criminal ethnic group than others however, such arguments are rooted in early formations of racisms stemming from the Enlightenment Period and the construction of racial categories (i.e. human categories) based on “biology”.
As aforementioned, a more plausible reason educational disparities is the intrinsically colonial education system; perpetuating racist discourses and reinforcing the “British Values” agenda. In his stimulating, and still widely relevant, book There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (1987), Paul Gilroy begins to explore the British experience of imperial nostalgia, postcolonial melancholia, and convivial living. He discusses the idea of Britain’s yearning for this “Great Britain”, this lost utopian, empire that no longer exists. Whilst this seems like a random academic reference, I would argue that it is through the eurocentric, British education and curriculum that Britain endeavours to reclaim the Great British narrative. Here, Postcolonial Melancholia is an intrinsic element in the construction of education and curriculum. Such a focus on British history, with a marginalisation of “other” histories, does little to empower black youths. With little focus on historical figures such as Nanny of the Maroons, Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, it is no wonder there is a sense of disempowerment and disconnect with our young people.
Additionally, the simultaneous way in which teachers and more generally, teaching practice, chip away at the black esteem is another reason for the statistics presented by Gov.uk. The Black Esteem, put simply, is “racial esteem” – how we view ourselves as “black people”. It is produced through education, interracial contact, and ideological processes (Houston 1984). In education, there is an “unconscious bias” against black students. Black pupils are more harshly punished for behaviours that other students are not. It is argued that this racial stereotyping is unconsciously produced by teachers and thus, they themselves are not racist. However, the “unconscious bias” argument is problematic, as it puts the emphasis on the individual – i.e. the teacher. Yes, individuals are psychology and mentally projecting racism onto young people however, this approach is not good for anti-racist reform because individuals (teachers) perpetuate the racist discourses which exist within wider society – hence, my earlier point that education institutions are microcosms of wider society. Racism is not about individual racist actions but a system of oppression thus, “unconscious” racial stereotyping by teachers is inherent in teaching practice and part of wider racial issues.
Emotion vs. Reason
Teachers force black students to split between reason and emotion. Again, stemming from the Enlightenment period, reason is associated with knowledge, academia and respectability (and white people) whereas, emotion is associated with irrationality, primitivity and simple mindedness. This is problematic because emotion is stereotypically related to “non-white” people linking non-white people to notions of aggression, poor behaviour and being unreasonable. If we take this and apply it to teaching practice, it is no wonder that black students are more harshly punished and have a higher exclusion rate than other groups – because their behaviour is racialised, irrespective of whether this is unconscious or conscious. Knowledge is performative, and as a result, students have to perform knowledge in a way that can be recognised by the education system reasonable. This illustrates another example of how the education fails out young black people – through stereotyping which often leads to self-fulfilling prophecy.
The parameters of educational success are different for different groups. It has been highlighted that all ethnic minority groups are less likely to get a 2:1 or 1st at university and black people in the UK are 21 times more likely to have university applications investigated (The Independent) illustrating the existence of some barriers to success.
Whilst this article is quite short and I’ve kind of touched on a few different things, in various amounts of detail, the point is that we are receiving a Bad Education – both in terms of curriculum and teaching practice/education systems. It is vital that we understand the systems in place which disenfranchise us and how, and why, these systems function the way they do. And once we have this knowledge, we can begin to think about decolonising education* and navigating the system.
*I will discuss ideas for Decolonising Education in a later blog 😊