We have made progress on tackling racism in the education system, but we must do more
A new APPG for Race Equality in Education is launching | Alamy
When Diane Abbott was in school, the idea of a Black girl performing well shocked her teachers. Now, she is launching the APPG for Race Equality in Education to ensure progress continues
The debate about race in the mass media is often about issues like policing, immigration, and public order. More recently it has been about the Royal Family. But that is an article for another day. One of the issues that is closest to the hearts of the Black community is the sense that the education system has too often failed their children. It is an issue that I have been passionate about for nearly two decades as an MP. And that is why I am so pleased to chair the new APPG for Race Equality in Education.
Some people might be surprised to learn how strongly most Black people feel about educational achievement. But for the Windrush generation, who came to this country in the 1950s and 60s, they knew life would be tough for them as Black migrants. They pinned their hopes on life being better for their children and they believed education was the key to that. So, the challenges they experienced trying to shepherd their children through the school system were an unexpected blow.
I remember at primary school, that I was not some teachers favourite pupil. I didn’t link the facts at the time but, because my intrepid father had relocated his little family from the heart of the Caribbean community in Paddington to what was then the all-white suburb of Harrow, my brother and I were the only Black children at our primary school. But I was the undisputed queen of writing stories. My stories were routinely pinned up in the classroom and I nearly always got an A grade.
Then I moved up to Harrow County Grammar School for Girls. Imagine my shock when, in only my second English lesson, my grade was not read out at all. At the end of the lesson I ventured to ask the teacher about my grade. I will never forget what happened next. She gave me a chilly look and held up my essay between her thumb and forefinger. “Where” she demanded to know “did you copy this?”
She was in absolutely no doubt. The chubby bespectacled Black girl in front of her could not possibly have written an essay of that standard. It was crushing. But I made my way up the school and eventually got a place to read history at Cambridge at a time when working class Oxbridge undergraduates were even more unusual than they are now, and Black working-class ones were unheard of.
As an MP I have worked on the issues around race and education for nearly twenty years. In 1999, concerned about educational underachievement amongst Black children in Hackney, I organised a conference entitled Hackney Schools and the Black Child. I had no budget and I relied on volunteers to staff it and educationalists I knew to speak. We planned on 200 attendees. But to my astonishment over 400 hundred Black parents turned up on the day, some from as far afield as Manchester. This occurred even though the title clearly spoke about Hackney schools. That was when I first realised how strongly the Black community felt about the issue and how much they wanted to share their experiences and search for answers.
Over the years I held a series of conferences first in Hackney and then London wide. I learnt a great many things including: you can’t generalise about the experiences of Black, Asian and Minority ethnic children in education; different cohorts will perform differently; the key role that parents play; the importance of recruiting more BAME teachers; the significance of the disproportionate number of exclusions of Black children; and, despite everything, the huge talent and potential of many of our children. One of the things I also did in the years before I joined the Labour Party front bench in Parliament, was organise a series of awards ceremonies celebrating brilliant BAME children.
There has been progress since I first began working on this issue. More and more Black children are excelling educationally. But there is still more to do if all our children are to achieve their educational potential. I look forward to working with colleagues in all parties on the new APPG to help children, whatever their colour, be the very best that they can be.
Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and APPG for Race Equality in Education.
If you would like to engage with the work of the All-Party Parliamentary Group, please do follow on Instagram or Twitter at @appg_reie, email email@example.com, or visit www.raceequalityineducationappg.org for further details on how you can get involved.