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Young people against racism in 1980s London schools

By Erika Delbecque, on 9 January 2023

This post was written by Dr Shirin Hirsch, who was one of the 2022 UCL RIC Visiting Fellows.

Bengali lives are at risk whilst they are at Morpeth – we are punched, kicked and spat on. Enough is enough.

On a Monday morning in January 1986 one hundred Bengali students walked out of their secondary school in Bethnal Green, Tower Hamlets. That weekend they had drawn up a poster calling on all children to strike with them until their demands were met. In Oxford House just off Bethnal Green Road they set up an anti-racist alternative school. Three days later, the students returned to Morpeth with the school management agreeing to their demands. The strike was partially won. Young people, in taking action on their own behalf, had forced a change in the school.

Just over a decade later, I attended the same school. Bengali students were now a large part of the student intake and the school had new management. There were brief institutional histories given on dark days when fascists had attempted to organise and build their ranks inside the school. Then a new head teacher was brought in and it was said that he had transformed the school, later knighted for his efforts. But nowhere in these official histories were the actions of the students themselves remembered. Years later, when I stumbled upon a news report covering the strike, I was full of questions. Why did the students walk out of their school? Was the action connected to other strikes? What impact did the strike have on the school? And why had the students been forgotten for so long? I wanted to dig into the history of my old school, from a year before I was born, to try and find out more about where I was from and how young people had transformed their environment.

There are many challenges in researching the resistance of young people. For one thing, their lives are often remembered in words, documents or collections owned by adults. What is seen as ‘significant’ by older people might be different to young people’s views and experiences. Protests by young people are often against powerful institutions or people who can make decisions about what is and isn’t recorded. This was certainly the case in the Morpeth school strike, with the school management inviting ILEA press officers to the school to ensure the story was tightly controlled. Thames TV entered the school on the day the students returned from their strike but they were only able to interview selected staff and not students. That does not mean young people’s actions have been entirely erased. The local press did report on the Morpeth strike and documents from the strike were kept by a member of ILEA, which have since been donated to Tower Hamlets Archive.

1980s leaflet about the Campaign Against Racism in Schools

Rally against racism in schools. Papers of Ken Jones KJ/4/1, UCL Special Collections, IOE Library and Archives, London.

Morpeth was not the only school where young people were struggling against racism. For my UCL Special Collections fellowship here, I have been spending time with two collections: the Marina Foster (MF) and Ken Jones (KJ) papers. Marina Foster was a Black teacher who had left South Africa as a refugee in the 1960s and in London became an advisory teacher at the ILEA for many years, focusing on multi-ethnic education and tackling institutional racism. Ken Jones was from the 1970s until 1990 a teacher in London secondary schools and active in the politics of education and in issues of curriculum, pedagogy and trade unionism. Both collections illuminate the debates, policies and projects on multicultural and anti-racist education taking place in London schools. There are documents that show imaginative ways of creating an anti-racist classroom, with teacher organisations like Campaign against racism in education (CARE) All London Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (ALCARF) as well as documents from ILEA (Inner London Education Authority).

The collections also illuminate the serious racism that existed in London schools. Daneford school, nearby to Morpeth, in Tower Hamlets, was the most publicised example of this and there are a number of documents on this in UCL special collections. The Guardian reported in 1986 that three quarters of the students at Daneford were of Asian origin and there had been a spate of racist attacks inside the school. The school gates were plastered with National Front stickers and posters, and a 12 year old Bangladeshi student had been viscously attacked with a razor blade by four white students. Another time, twenty white young people at a football match ‘spilled over into the school’ shouting viscous racist abuse. One teacher, Norma Hundleby, told the press: ‘Boys were coming out of all the classrooms to join them. It was totally out of control.’ Kumar Murshid, Chairperson of Campaign against racism in schools (CARS) explained that only ‘the dedication of the anti-racist teachers and pupils who have organised themselves against these attacks’ had helped to ease the tensions at Daneford. The racism, alongside the resistance, would receive national attention following the arrest of Daneford teachers and a school student who were protesting outside the Tower Hamlets ILEA office over the refusal of ILEA to take serious action against racism at Daneford school.

The reports at both Daneford and Morpeth schools challenged a version of schooling which saw young people as passive objects, who should simply ‘do what they are told’. Sajid, 18 years old, summed up the feeling when he explained to the press in 1986:

If we can’t go to school peacefully and study in safety, then we have to fight back. We have as much right as any white kid to go to school.

Front cover of the first issue of Black Parents Special, 1985

Black Parents Special no 1 (1985). Papers of Marina Foster MF/8/39, UCL Special Collections, IOE Library and Archives, London.

The voices of young people are sometimes hard to hear within these collections, but that does not mean they are completely silenced. In the Marina Foster collection there is a ‘Black Youth Annual Penmanship Awards’ with records of Black children’s writings from 1981, with essays on ‘What is means to be Black and British’ and ‘Being without Employment in Britain today’. The winning essay questioned the very nature of the school system, the student directly asking ‘does it prepare me or help me tackle the blatant and insidious forms of racism that, I am afraid to say, I will invariably encounter?’ The frustration at the school system, as well as wider society, was powerfully expressed by many of these young Black authors.

Front cover of a publication by John Gus from the Black Parents Movement, entitled The Black Working Class Movement in Education and Schooling.

Gus, John (1986). The Black Working Class Movement in Education and Schooling. Papers of Marina Foster MF/8/63, UCL Special Collections, IOE Library and Archives, London.

The resistance at Morpeth secondary school in 1986 emerged out of this context and was not an isolated act. The Miners’ Strike had ended in March the previous year, a bitter defeat not just for the miners but for the whole of the labour movement. The year following the strike the numbers of days lost to strike action in Britain was at its lowest since 1967. However, school student strikes were not included in these figures. In April 1985 there was a national school student strike in response to the government’s attempts to make the Youth Training Scheme compulsorily for 16-17 year olds and to take unemployment benefits away from any young people refusing to participate. Alongside these strikes, the British government were openly attacking ‘hard left education authorities and extremist teachers’, as Thatcher put it. Parents were also resisting, and the Black Parents Movement, born in the 1970s, had begun to win serious changes in the schools. In 1981 and 1985 uprisings involving young people against the police had taken place in inner cities across England. Meanwhile teachers in 1985-6 entered disputes over cuts to schools and pay agreements. Gus John, a key activist and founder of the Black Parents Movement, in a speech he gave to teachers in 1986 which was later published as a pamphlet (M/8/63), explained:

The struggles waged by the black community outside of school and in relation to what was going on inside the school, gave school students the confidence to exercise their own power within the school. The school became for them the site of struggle against racism and against the treatment they were subjected to because of their class.

That relationship between students, community groups, teachers and wider political shifts is what I am interested in further exploring. This fellowship has given me the resources and time to piece together archival material and to explore these topics. I now hope to speak to some of the participants themselves. I am gradually trying to recover the resistance of young people against racism so as to remember and learn from their struggles.

Gavin’s book of witches

By Sarah S Pipkin, on 29 October 2021

Hidden in the Institute of Education’s Baines Archives is a small book entitled Gavin’s book of witches (BA/1/9/78).

A book cover decorated with crayons which reads Gavin's book of witches

The Baines Archives includes items related to the work of George and Judith Baines, who pioneered new teaching methods in the 1960s-1980s. The archive includes examples of student work from Eynsham County Primary School where George Baines worked as the headteacher. There are a number of small books written, illustrated, and bound by the students. One former pupil described the process:

‘A prominent memory that I have is of the book binding which not only completed a study but also became a feature. The technique is a cherished memory: the meticulous scraping of the lino block, the roller thick with sticky paint, the binding and the glue oozing out in all the wrong places, the pride of producing a book contained within a hardback.’

Gavin’s book of witches is one such example of student work. It was produced by a young pupil, probably named Gavin, who was probably still learning to write. The teacher has written the text for Gavin to copy underneath. It was then illustrated with original drawings.

Two pages. One has children's writing and is decorated with red and black crayon. The other is a drawing of a group of witches.

The book is very short – just six pages in total. A transcription of it follows:

A children's drawing of a witch on a broom with a cat.

 

 

 

My witch is flying. She is going to the witches party.

 

 

 

A children's drawing of a group of witches.

 

 

She gets there first then all these come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A group of witches sat at a table.

 

The witches are singing and eating at their party.

 

 

 

 

 

Gavin’s book of witches is the perfect Halloween story.

If you’d like to see more examples of workbooks from the Baines collection, ‘A Book of Bones’ and ‘My Book about the Potato’ are both featured in our online exhibition ‘Word as Art: Beauty in the Archives.’

‘Special Collections Presents…’ Returns!

By Vicky A Price, on 14 May 2019

Have you ever wondered whether our Rare Books team have favourite items, or with what kind of mysteries our archivists are grappling? Or perhaps you’ve hoped to catch a glimpse of one of our unique and beautiful manuscripts? Then Special Collections Presents… is the event for you!

We are pleased to announce that UCL Special Collections will be running our annual ‘open day’, Special Collections Presents…, as part of UCL’s Festival of Culture on June 5th 2019. This popular event is free and open to all.

We will be presenting a wide selection of items from the collections in half hour slots.  Visitors can choose an area of interest and book a free slot.

Visitors will be able to choose between a varied programme of displays that showcase many areas of interest and research:

  • Geography textbooks from the 18th and 19th century from the UCL Institute of Education Library
  • Works from the fascinating Ogden collection, whose recent cataloguing has revealed a wealth of hidden detail lurking behind their respectable titles (these item were part of Charles Kay Ogden’s private library, described in his own words as presenting “semantics, meaning, word magic…sign systems, symbol systems and non-verbal notations…universal language, translation and simplification”)
  • Items displaying UCL’s own students’ voices from the past; student magazines, debating society minutes, petitions and more from the College Archive
  • Treasures of print, including some famous publications; a rare and very early King James I Bible (1612), Hooke’s Micrographia (1667) and Chertsey’s The crafte to lyve well and to dye well (published in 1505 by Wynkyn de Worde who was known for his work with William Caxton)
  • Marking the launch of a new online catalogue, items from the recently catalogued Alex Comfort Papers will be on display (Comfort was a writer, Director of research in Gerontology in the Zoology department at UCL in the 1960s and ‘70s, an activist in many areas including nuclear disarmament – perhaps best known as the author of the cult publication The Joy of Sex).
  • Items exploring alternative youth movements from the Forest School Camp and the Woodcraft Folk archives, held at UCL Institute of Education
  • A collection of archival items from the Huguenot Library that provide unique insight into the lives of Huguenot immigrants and refugees in the 17th and 18th
  • Autograph letters from 19th and 20th century writers; tales of success, failure and domestic life.  Among others, this will include Dickens, Orwell, T S Eliot, Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, Radclyffe Hall.

 

This event is open to all – but especially the curious…

Book your free ticket.

UCL Special Collections Lates: The Colour of Spring

By Helen Biggs, on 12 April 2019

Our first Late was a sold-out success, so we’re very pleased to be able to announce the next event in our evening programme.

Inspired by the seasonal burst of many-hued blossoms outside our windows, we’d like to invite you to join us for The Colour of Spring, featuring a talk on how coloured light can reveal hidden secrets in Mediaeval manuscripts, a history of the educational movement the Woodcraft Folk, and displays of original material from UCL Special Collections.

Get your ticket now!

Flyer for UCL Special Collections Late event, The Colour of Spring

The Colour of Spring

Date: Tuesday, 7th May, 6.15-8pm
Venue: UCL Haldane Room, Wilkins Building, Gower Street, WC1E 6BT

A Colourful Heritage: Multispectral Imaging Manuscripts and Rare Books from UCL Special Collections

Multispectral imaging involves capturing images of an object illuminated in ultraviolet, visible and infrared light. Capturing images in different colours, including light that is invisible to the human eye, can reveal features on the books which cannot usually be seen. This talk by Cerys Jones, final-year PhD student in Medical Physics at UCL, will present a brief introduction to multispectral imaging in heritage and show several examples of recovering lost features on manuscripts and rare books in UCL Special Collections.

Politics and Pedagogy: How I made use of the Woodcraft Folk Archive.

Rich Palser, a retired Further Education lecturer, is currently writing a book on the history of the Woodcraft Folk in the inter-war years which draws heavily on the organisation’s archives now held at UCL Institute Of Education. He will be talking about the archive’s relevance to his own interest in the relationship between politics and pedagogy, but also suggesting ways in which the archive may be relevant to the research of others.

Guests will be able to view a number of items for UCL Special Collections, including medieval manuscript fragments, material from the newly acquired Woodcraft Folk Archive, and an emblem book once belonging to Ben Jonson. There will be a brief colourful interlude, courtesy of our conservation team, and there will be plenty of time to enjoy a glass of wine (or soft drink) and nibbles, included with your £5 ticket. Click here to book your place now!

Three French hens

By Christopher J Fripp, on 5 December 2018

Not quite three French hens, but one French lesson, at the Open Air School in Regent’s Park, c1919. Schools like this were opened to promote better health in children – all lessons took place outdoors whatever the weather, to give students maximum exposure to fresh air.

IOE Archives, reference LFB/24