The Education Experience of Black Immigrant Children: a Historical Overview

The Education Experience of Black Immigrant Children: a Historical Overview
Elaine Arnold MPhil (Social Studies) PhD | 2016 - January to February | United Kingdom
Elaine discusses the educational experiences of Black Immigrant Children

Education has always been important to African–Caribbean people; 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, although the quality varied on some of the islands. Those able to afford school fees sent their children to secondary grammar type schools with the hope that they would obtain the few scholarships 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 became professionals, mainly in Law, Medicine, Higher Education, Banking, Journalism and Business. 

When large scale immigration to England allowed people from the working classes to migrate, many regarded this as an opportunity to improve their economic status, which would enable them to pay for higher education for their children. Unfortunately for some people, their dreams of economic success in the UK failed to materialize. Children, whose parents had left them behind in the Caribbean, were sent for as grandparents were ageing, and the extended family were unable to care for them. Some parents envisaged their children would be well placed to receive an English education (which was regarded as the best in the Western world) and then 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 immigration only few children accompanied their parents, and so in some schools, especially in areas out of the inner cities, there were few black children. Speaking to adults now of their school days, they recall feelings of isolation, of being different, and of some of the racism leveled at them. Others were fortunate to attend schools where they were welcome and their ability respected. One of my interviewees 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 early in the days when only few black students were getting through to tertiary level of education.

Some teachers in inner cities schools experienced classroom stress where the bulk of the migrants settled were not prepared for the children with their various accents and use of words or patois of the countries from which they came. Some even felt threatened by the children who persisted in using a language which they did not understand, so their attitude and behaviour towards the children were influenced negatively by this. 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 this was interpreted by the teachers as bad manners, or of  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, acted out at school in what was considered disruptive behaviour, and a high proportion of them experienced harsh discipline or were excluded. Some withdrew from participating in the classroom, and as some teachers did not have high expectations of the children‘s abilities, they were simply 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. 

Miss D, a white teacher, was considered a 'good teacher' by some families whom I knew. 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 realized 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 coming to work and felt resentful, but because she loved teaching she persevered. 

In discussing the problems of ‘Classroom Stress and School Achievement,’ Driver, (1979) observed that the effectiveness of the teachers was limited, and suggested that pupils were exposed to considerable personal insecurities and difficulties which arose from their teachers’ confusion, lack of appropriate training, historical development, principles of education and attitudes in the new situation of multi-cultural /racial class rooms. 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. Driver concluded that the alleviation of the difficulties was in the hands of the teachers and policy makers.