The Education Reform Act and the Black child in Secondary School Revisited by Julie Pearn

The Education Reform Act (E.R.A.) of 1988 laid the foundations for the system which operates in (non-private) schools in England and Wales today and which embedded a number of procedures which have disadvantaged BAME and white working class students.

Key features were:

  • The introduction of SATs.  Low teacher expectations and cultural bias leading to poor results compounded by the publication of raw data.
  • Open enrolment.  Local Authorities could no longer limit the number of students accepted at any school.  SATs had an impact on perceptions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ schools, which in turn had a major impact on BAME students and communities (white flight etc).
  • Introduction of ‘The National Curriculum’  which was from its conception ethnocentric.  An early emphasis on the ability to read from ‘a range of cultures’ was deleted.  The history curriculum overtly aimed to foster and maintain British nationalism.
  • Local Management of Schools.  This took control away from Local Authorities and vastly increased the power of governors.  Whilst apparently democratic, this further empowered strong, powerful and articulate members of the community, often to the disadvantage of BAME parents and communities.

I think it could be useful to revisit this history to remind ourselves how the current system structures in disadvantage.

Maushami Roy and I were appointed by Sheffield Unified Multicultural Education Service (SUMES) to carry out a piece of research about the impact of the E.R.A. on the Black child and it was agreed we should do so at King Edward VII (KES) School. Our first proposal was to work with a self-selected teachers’ working party, as there were a number of teachers keen to work with us.  However, the Senior Management Team considered that, before we were ‘let loose’ on members of staff, which included some middle management, we should make very clear the conceptual basis on which we proposed to work with them.  It was agreed with SMT that we should carry out research with students and staff to support the working party and a report presented to SMT as the first stage in the process.

I believe the report was quite ground breaking in its use of student voice to identify issues in the school and that many of the students’ perceptions remain as relevant today.

“Section 11” referred to funding allocated to specifically support black and bilingual and other minority students.  Given the virtual absence of qualified BAME teachers, Section 11 staff generally had (lower) Teaching Assistant status and whilst (as in the case of KES) playing an invaluable role, were often left to their own devices with very little opportunity if any to effect change.

I also think the report is important in what it reveals about the roles of Senior and Middle management and their capacity to effect or block change.

The Head of Lower School was given responsibility for explaining to staff and facilitating our work in the school.  In the end this comprised putting paper copies of the framework we had devised for face-to-face interviews in every member of staff’s pigeonhole.  These were unaccompanied by any verbal or written explanation, or invitation or encouragement to work with us.  As a result there were no responses from staff.  From this point of view it is an example on many levels of how not to effect change.  There were no doubt lessons for us to learn too.

Our recent SHARE discussions have referred to the importance of student voice and the sense of deja vu that some of us have that in the nearly 50 years since Bernard Coard wrote ‘How the West Indian Child is made educationally subnormal in the British school system’ that change has been largely token, outcomes similar and here we are again facing the same problems and having to reinvent the wheel.

The second part of the project, needless to say, never got off the ground. If there are lessons to be learned, maybe this research can offer one or two spokes to that wheel.

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