Racism in education suspensions

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 1 – November/December 1979

The case of the young Rastafarian in Leeds is but one example of the vicious intolerance of the teaching profession and its desperate need to keep control and discipline over the pupils.

In June 1979 there was a public meeting instigated by the United Black Women's Action Group to tackle the immediate problems affecting black children in Haringey schools. Within the last year, and within the London Education Authority alone, black parents have met in Camden, Hackney and Brixton to organise their protests against the treatment their children are receiving from the schools. At a recent meeting of the Islington Committee for Community Relations a speaker from the Caribbean Teachers' Association described school common-rooms as 'citadels of prejudice' and urged action on racism in schools.

For the first time an organised and determined section of the working class is demanding justice and accountability from the teaching profession. For the first time pupils, victims of a second-rate education system, are insisting that their needs be met and their demands heard by teachers. It is from within the black community (and its supporters) that this independent and class-conscious move is being made. It is in response to this independence that the institutional forms of punishment, expulsion, the ESN school, Special Units for Disruptive Pupils and especially informal Suspension are being brought to bear.

In the case of black and working class children, Suspension is being used more and more as a convenient method of getting rid of unwanted pupils, of harassing them and threatening them. There have been numerous cases within the last ten years of black children being suspended for an indefinite length of time, for Afro-hair style (Haringey 1975) for wearing a 'Free Angela Davis' badge (South London 1971) for wearing a woolly hat or Tam (Islington 1976). In the well-documented case of Ladbrooke School in West London a black girl was threatened with Suspension for plaiting her hair because it was thought to be a sign of rebellion. The following day all the girls, black and white turned up with their hair in plaits to demonstrate their solidarity. In Haringey in 1979 a newly-appointed Head suspended around 20 youths at one go, all of them black. Only 5 of these pupils were suspended officially and even the Governors of the school were not informed about the incident.

The most recent forms that discipline of ‘recalcitrant' pupils has taken within the schools are Suspensions and reference to Special Units for Disruptive pupils. These are the preferred punishments at this time.

The use of expulsion as a method of ridding the schools of difficult and unwanted pupils has been found unsatisfactory by the Authorities. Under the 1944 Education Act all children must be provided with educational facilities for at least four hours a day. The expulsion of pupils merely pushes children into other schools, shifting the ‘problem' about and resulting in bargaining and deals between Head teachers. The pupils still have to be catered for within the school system.

Another institutional method that has been developed to control and punish pupils has been the setting-up of Special Units for Disruptive pupils. These are usually attached to a Comprehensive School and they have been created with a lot of talk about catering for difficult and anti-school children. It was the same language of ‘concern' that surrounded the development of the ESN (Educationally Sub-Normal) schools over ten years ago when Caribbean pupils in particular were forced into an inferior status by anti-working class and racist methods. The ESN schools that remain still have a high percentage of black children, often as much as 75070. They are, however, being phased out, largely as a result of a massive onslaught by the black community. Where they still exist they are being transformed into schools for difficult and disruptive children. The present situation is one of severe cut-backs in educational expenditure introduced by the Conservative Government in 1973 with a £182m cut, speeded up under Labour in 1976 with a £1030m cut and continued again under the present government with a planned £115m cut. The Authorities have had to slow down the introduction of the Special Units as a result of this loss of finance. Since these `sin-bins', as they are commonly called, have a low teacher/pupil ratio, schools are now finding difficulty in placing unwanted pupils.

Expulsion has been found to have only a limited effect in removing pressure from the schools since the LEA must find an alternative place for the child — ESN schools are being phased out because their racist basis has made them unacceptable to the black community—there are only sufficient places for the present 4000 pupils in the Special Units. This leaves one useful method of repression against pupils not wanted in the schools — Suspension.

While DES (Department of Education and Science) regulations say nothing definite about the length of Suspensions, no child should be out of school for more than a few days without provision being made for his or her education. In September 1978 an 11 year old black child was suspended from a Haringey school and despite the efforts of his mother, over 6 months later no alternative provision had been made for his education. The ploy of leaving his name on the register while not allowing him to attend school was a clear abuse of the intended use of Suspension as a short-term measure to arrange alternative teaching. In yet other cases, Suspension is used to banish pupils from the school premises for shorter periods ranging from one to three weeks, but repeatedly. In one Islington school at least 3 black pupils have been suspended for intervals which have added up to the loss of approximately two term's work out of the nine terms of the first three years of Secondary School.

We can see why Suspension is such a convenient tool for the discipline of pupils. It is easy to do in a situation where the Head is accountable only to the same Governing body that appointed him. It is overwhelmingly supported by teachers who see control as a matter of punishment. It is cheap. Finally, it is difficult to fight in that fellow pupils often do not know for some time that a pupil has been removed from the school.

In looking at this pattern of institutional violence directed at young people at school, the question we must ask is why are black children at the forefront of oppression by teachers?

Since its beginnings, the secretive middle-class education sector has covered-up for the second-rate education service the state provides for the working class. The anger aroused within the black community has changed all that. They want to know about the school system and what it is doing to their children. Teachers cannot tolerate much criticism of their authority but at the same time black pupils and their parents will not tolerate their second-rate treatment within the schools. They fight back.

The price that black school children are paying for their struggle against a repressive education system is a heavy one. The Authorities have deliberately and cynically ignored the rights of pupils of access to education. In their anxiety to defend and cover up for the system, the provision of appeal, notification, consultation with parents have all been swept aside. In the need to bludgeon all opposition, Suspension is being used for the racist oppression of school children. Nonetheless, there are and have been substantial victories in the struggle. The Leeds case is one example. It shows how Suspension can be fought against by a consistent campaign. Black parents and their children will defend their right to a decent education. They are in the vanguard of the struggle against the capitalist education system and in supporting this struggle we support the demand for a proper education system for the working class as a whole.

Sue Davidson


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