Education and the immigration of African-Caribbean People

By Elaine Arnold PhD

Doctor Elaine Arnold taught social work students on MSW courses at Goldsmiths College, and Sussex University. She was Director of training at Nafsiyat an inter-cultural therapy centre. She researched the adverse effects of separation and loss and sometimes traumatic reunions, due to the immigration from the West Indies to Britain among some families of African Caribbean origin. She is the Director of Supporting Relationships and Families (SRF) formerly known as the Separation and Reunion Forum which she founded to highlight the traumatic effects of broken attachments, separation and loss.

Elaine has worked as a teacher, lecturer, child care worker, counsellor and psychiatric social worker, and her interest in attachment issues and separation was first sparked in the late 1940s, when teaching in a school in a children’s home in Trinidad and Tobago. Some of the children were there because of their parents’ emigration. 

She is an author of, and contributor to, a number of books, the most recent of her own is “Working with Families of African Caribbean Origin : Understanding issues around Immigration and Attachment London”: pub: Jessica Kingsley, 2012, and she edited Separation and Reunion Forum’s “Parents and children in prison Attachment,separation and loss”:London: pub. London League.

Find out more about  Supporting Relationships and Families.



Education and the immigration of African-Caribbean People

 Education has always been important to African – Caribbean people, as they saw it as the most viable means for their children to be released from the trap of poverty in which many lived. In the Caribbean islands there was basic education for children. It was of varying quality in some of the islands. Those who were able to pay school fees, sent their children to the secondary Grammar type schools with the hope that they would obtain the few scholarships which were given for tertiary education in the United Kingdom. Many of the children of the white plantation owners and black women from the working classes, were fortunate to have their education paid for by their fathers who sent them off to schools and universities in the U.K Upon their return they were the professionals mainly in Law, Medicine, Higher Education, Banking, Journalism and Business.

When the large scale immigration to England afforded people from the working classes to migrate, many regarded this as an opportunity to improve their economic status and to be able to pay for higher education for their children. Unfortunately for some people, their dreams of economic success in the UK failed to materialise. The children whose parents had left them behind in the Caribbean, were sent for when parents realised that their stay was becoming permanent, grandparents were aging, and the extended family were unable to care for them. Generally the parents envisaged their children would be well placed to receive an English education, which was regarded as the best in the Western world, obtain well paid jobs and become socially mobile. Regrettably, the story of the education experience for many black children has not been, and still is not a happy one.

In the early days of the immigration there were few children who accompanied their parents and often in some schools, especially in areas out of the inner cities, there were few black children in the schools. Speaking with adults of their school days, some recalled the feelings of isolation, of being different and of the racism levelled at them. There were others who were fortunate to attend schools where the school was welcoming, and their ability was respected. One interviewee recalled the Head teacher telling her “in this school we encourage everyone to work to the best of their ability.” She succeeded and went on to university in the days when only few black students were getting through to tertiary level of education.

The teachers in the schools in inner cities where the bulk of the migrants settled, were not prepared for the children with their various accents and use of words, and the patois of the countries from which they came. Some teachers felt threatened by the children who persisted using a language which they did not understand, and so their attitude and behaviour towards the children were influenced negatively by this. Some employed harsh discipline, or ignored the pupils. Children who turned their eyes away when spoken to by an adult, were used to doing this as a sign of deference and respect in the Caribbean, but was interpreted by the teachers as bad manners, or a sign of guilt for some wrong doing. This lack of interaction between teacher and pupil prevented the building of trusting teacher-pupil relationships, so vital for educational attainment.

Very little attention was given to the emotional stress under which the children lived having experienced broken attachments from their parents and grandparents. Some children, unhappy at home, sometimes acted out at school in what was considered disruptive behaviour, and a high proportion of them were excluded from school. Others withdrew from participating in any activities, in the classroom and it seemed that   some of the teachers did not have high expectations of the children‘s abilities and so they were ignored. The hostile environment against Black migrants in general and the racist taunts by their peers did not help in the development of self-esteem among many of the children.

In discussing the problems of ‘Classroom Stress and School achievement,’ Driver, (1979) observed that the effectiveness of the teachers was limited by the historical development of the education and principles of education and their training. Neither was appropriate for them in the new situation of the multi-racial/cultural class room. Since the teachers did not have the skills of communication and the knowledge of cultural background of the pupils that were necessary in the new situation, they too found themselves stressed and anxious in the classroom. Their attitudes to the children and their assessment of them could have been adversely affected. “The case study of West Indian children in a West Midlands School suggested that the pupils were exposed to considerable personal insecurities and difficulties which arose from their teachers’ confusion. This explanation was given as more acceptable than accepting any consistent conspiracy on the part of the teachers, and Driver concluded that the alleviation of the difficulties were in the hands of the teachers. He also rightly put the responsibility in the hands of policy makers for creating the conditions of institutions and appropriate training to induce teachers to develop their competence and skills in classroom relations

In conversation with a white teacher, Miss D, who was considered a “good teacher,” by some families Miss D related that when she was allocated a class with a large percentage of black children, she felt so deskilled when she stood before them day after day and realised that she was not getting through to them… There were times when she was unable to distinguish one from the other and times when she  mispronounced their names. Sometimes the children would laugh at her. All this made her feel totally inadequate and resentful .There was a lack of regular supervision and her peers were unable to help as some of them were going through similar experiences. She began to dread going to work, but because she loved teaching she persevered. Asked how this was resolved? Miss D said that she   requested more supervision and she was able to change some of her methods of teaching, listened more carefully to the children   and provided more opportunities for them to participate in class activities. She also spoke more freely to the parents when they attended parent-teacher meetings, and she found that the children responded better to her and seemed to trust her more as they observed the favourable relationship between parents and herself, and their educational attainment improved.

One significant decision on the part of the education system in some schools, was to classify a significant numbers of children of West Indian origin who were considered not progressing in the class as Educationally Subnormal, and remove them from main stream schools to Special Schools. Many parents were lead to believe that their children would receive special attention and they thought that this was a way of helping their children to achieve, but it was observed that these children found great difficulty in being readmitted into the mainstream schools.

Inspired by the publication of the book “How West Indian Child is made Subnormal” by Bernard Coard in 1971 mounted  a campaign by mothers particularly, and black teachers and community activists. This campaign lead to the setting up of Saturday and Supplementary Schools in the community. There were many volunteers, especially women, who taught Black History, Mathematics and English. Many of the children who had been classified as being educationally subnormal succeeded and went on to sit the O and A level examinations (Bryan, Dazie and Scafe (1985, 1988).

One of the early volunteers involved in the important movement of improving the education of black children in England was Waveney Bushell who was “at the forefront of the early struggle against the placement of West Indian children into schools for the educationally subnormal (K J Academy Calendar 2005) .   She was the first black Education Psychologist of African Caribbean origin to practice in the country, and supported the work in Supplementary Schools for many years.

She worked as a Local Authority Educational psychologist for 24 years and was also a consultant psychologist for a girls’ Junior Remand Home serving the South East of England.   There she advised the Local Authority and the Judicial Courts on the educational and emotional needs of the girls. She subsequently set up a consultancy service for black families and is now retired.

At the peak of the immigration and with many children joining their parents more and more attention was focussed on the children’s educational performance and the many headlines of West Indian children especially boys being at the bottom of the educational pile. This caused grave concern among the West Indian community and many were of the opinion that racism was a main factor in the situation. In 1977 the Select Committee on Race and Relation and Immigration   recommended that the Government should set up an enquiry into the Cause of the under achievement of West Indian children and the remedial action to be taken. The recommendation was accepted and the Enquiry was set up in 1979. Among the terms of the enquiry   was “to review the educational needs and attainments of children of ethnic minority group and to give early and particular attention to the educational needs and attainment of children of West Indian origin and to make recommendation on action to be taken in the interest of the Group.

There was a great deal of interest taken by the public and by the Black Community in particular. The report of the enquiry   was entitled “West Indian Children in Our Schools.”(This title has always given me the impression that the children did not belong).

One of the conclusions of the report was  that there was no one single cause responsible for the underachieving of West Indian Children, but rather a network of widely differing attitudes and expectations on the part of teachers, the education system as a whole and on the part of the West Indian parents, which lead the West Indian Child to have particular hurdles in achieving his or her potential.

The Report served to bring into the open, and to initiate a debate in education circles, the part that racism, intentional or unintentional, played in the attitudes and expectation of teachers to the pupils of ethnic minority backgrounds.   It also urged the employment of teachers of ethnic minority backgrounds. (Swann 1985)

Much of the focus on improving the educational achievement has been on London. In the 1990s an initiative to tackle the problem of educational under achievement, “London Schools and the Black Child” was launched by the Hon Dianne Abbot MP. At the annual conferences, children, parents, teachers, educators and other relevant groups discuss the various issues which still exist in the society today. Pupils are encouraged through an Annual Achievers Awards Ceremony.

Another initiative which is encouraging Black students to achieve educationally is the Amos Bursary Scheme. It is dedicated to helping boys of African and of African Caribbean heritage from London schools and sixth Forms who are academically able to pursue studies at the University College of London

There have been many improvements with more black children achieving, more black teachers being recruited, more black school governors more black students being admitted to top universities, and black young men and women entering the various professions, and holding responsible jobs in various enterprises.   In spite of these achievements, some of the old problems have not been solved. There are still disproportionate numbers of black boys being excluded from schools, and high rate of referrals to Pupil Referral Units, and still reports of some students and parents who suffer from negative attitudes on the part of some teachers in schools and universities

Parents, and community workers and supporters of families, need to challenge negative attitudes wherever they exist in order to enable their black children to feel safe and secure in educational establishments and so achieve their full potentials.

Fortunately there are some dedicated school staff members who succeed in earning the   trust of the pupil, and they are able to meet his educational and emotional needs

The following is an example of this…

Albert a young man of African Caribbean origin relates his story.

”I was a very bright child and advanced for my age. However this did not always reflect in my school reports. At primary school I was often in trouble for thinks like     disturbing other children, calling out and not doing my work, and sometimes for mistaken identity as I was the most likely, and sent to the headmaster’s office.   Over the years I had a bad reputation and among   other children and teachers… I was popular as I was an all-rounder and did well at sports, music and the academic work. Nevertheless I was bullied by those in the class above me and never told this to anyone at home or at school. At every parents’ evening I would hear “Albert   is a very intelligent child and has the ability to do well, however he is very disruptive in class and does not get his work done.”

“Secondary school was worse. I had gained weight and I was no longer special in sport which had been the way I had gained respect from my classmates. I hardly did any work and I was more disruptive in the class than ever, and became the class clown. Because of my behaviour I clocked up a record number of   detentions which eventually lead to exclusions, by the end of   the first year in secondary school I was the talk of the staff room and teachers dreaded having me in the class rooms. I was put in a few bottom sets because of my behaviour and I was put in a few top sets to combat my boredom. Nothing really helped and I was sent to a psychiatrist on a weekly basis .It was finally decided that I was normal.”

“Every time a letter was sent home from school, it was almost certain that I was  ‘beaten,’ no questions asked. Therefore I could not talk to anyone at home about school. Because of my reputation in school I now did not have to do much to get into trouble as all eyes were on me in expectancy. I did not feel that I belonged to any group. I was not naughty but did not fit in with the bad children, I was smart but did not fit in with the smart ones. Half way through my third year at Secondary school I was excluded for a third time and that meant permanent exclusion. I remained out of school for three months before being referred to a Pupil Referral Unit.   This was a very strange experience as I only attended 3 hours a day. and it was full of drug users, others with criminal offences, teenage mothers, and many who were academically at a much lower level than I was. It was a shock and I knew that I did not belong there. And wanted to leave. I felt very isolated as my mother was fed up with me and did not talk to me, merfriends from school did not call or text.   Thankfully the staff saw that I did not belong there and they worked really hard to get me back into mainstream school. I had to work hard and prove myself to them and also to be an example to the other students. I was successful and was admitted into a good achieving school. I worked hard in the final two years and got into minimal trouble. I attained 7 GCE s A-c and two passes.   I had the support of the Staff of the unit who visited me weekly during the whole of the first year. And saw that I was achieving well.

My plan for the future is not only to maintain a family, and work hard at my career but to help to mentor children who are struggling in school as I did.”

This is a happy ending but we would have wished that his earlier struggles could have been prevented…


Arnold. E. ( 2012)   Working with families of African Caribbean origins. Understanding Issues around Immigration and Attachment   Jessica Kingsley Publishers. London and Philadelphia

Bryan, Beverley., Dadzie, Stella., Scafe, Suzanne. (1985, 1988) The Heart of the Race; Black women’s Lives in Britain. Virago Press, London

Coard Bernard (1971) How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Subnormal by the British School System. New Beacon Books, London

Driver, Geffrey (1979)           ‘Classroom Stress and School Achievement’ in Minority Families in Britain, Support and Stress. Ed. Verity Saifullah Khan   The Macmillan Press Limited London and Basingstoke.

Lord Swann (! 985)       Education for All. Report of the Committee of Enquiry of children from Ethnic Minority Groups HMSO 1985.