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Celebrating inspirational black educational figures

One of the key issues highlighted by the Black Lives Matter protests in the UK is the teaching of black history in the national curriculum - specifically, how little it is covered.

It is essential for all of us to educate ourselves, share stories and celebrate each culture in education. Over the last 80 years many black people have spearheaded education in the UK. To mark Black History Month, here are a few of those who I feel have been most influential in the teaching world.

Dame Jocelyn Barrow

Dame Jocelyn Barrow had an enormous impact on British public life, but she began her career as a teacher. She initially taught in several schools in Hackney, before becoming a teacher-trainer at Furzedown College.

It was in these education settings that she observed the huge differences in funding and resources between middle class, mainly white schools, and working class, mainly black schools. Looking to correct this imbalance, she pioneered multicultural education which stressed the needs of different ethnic groups in the UK. This was the first step in a process which is taken for granted in schools today.

Malorie Blackman

Author Malorie Blackman has written novels, short stories, and TV and radio scripts for children and young adults.

Her seminal Noughts & Crosses series of books for young adults examined themes of racism and racial segregation, with the novels winning multiple industry awards.

She was Children’s Laureate between 2013 and 2015, where she promoted a wide range of literature (including comics and graphic novels), campaigned for more books about the experiences of British black and minority ethnic children, and created the first ever Young Adult Literature Convention.

Bernard Coard

A controversial figure, Bernard Coard was born in Grenada in 1945. While spending much of his life in his home country (where he was later imprisoned for his part in a coup), Coard lived in the UK between 1967 and 1972 to complete an economics PhD at the University of Sussex. While studying, he also ran evening classes for children who were placed at schools for the ‘educationally subnormal’ (ESN).

It was through these classes that Coard observed the racial stereotyping which led to ESN schools becoming “dumping grounds” for black pupils of all abilities – particularly those of West Indian origin – and destroying their chances of a good education. It led him to publish the pamphlet How the West Indian Child Is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System: The Scandal of the Black Child in Schools in Britain in 1971.

The pamphlet highlighted how a combination of policies and practices geared only towards white children, racism within the curriculum and low teacher expectations were destroying the self-image and self-belief of black pupils. Coard’s articulation of these issues forced a change in how teachers and education authorities viewed and treated black pupils.

Len Garrison

In Black History Month, it is only right to talk about the pioneer of teaching black history in the UK schools.

In the late 1970s, inner city teachers and authorities had no resources which described the history and background of pupils with African and Caribbean heritage. Enter Len Garrison, who founded the African-Caribbean Educational Resource (ACER) and created education packs for pupils, with the first pack used by Lambeth’s Dick Sheppard school.

ACER’s resources were eventually used in schools across the UK and helped teachers to understand the discrimination the black community faced, as well as helping to break down racial barriers between pupils.

Gus John

Gus John has been an active participant in the education community since the 1960s, focusing on education policy and the role of schooling and education in promoting social justice.

His dedication to improving educational outcomes for black children in inner city areas saw him rise through the ranks at local education authorities. In 1989 he became Director of Education in Hackney, the first black person to hold an education role of this seniority in Britain.

He focused on the mantra that achievement was the key factor to address issues around equal opportunities, and succeeded in improving exam results across the borough. Following his role in Hackney, Gus now runs an education consultancy and has advised both national and local government in the UK.

Linton Kwesi Johnson

Linton Kwesi Johnson combined reggae and poetry – known as dub poetry - to make political and cultural statements. Johnson’s performances would see him recite his own verse in Jamaican patois over dub-reggae.

His most famous work critiqued the treatment of young black men in the 1980s. Such was its impact that in 2002, publisher Penguin made him the first black poet, and only the second living poet, to be published in its Penguin Modern Classics series.

His invention of dub poetry has inspired a generation of writers.

Tony O’Connor

A former RAF Sergeant who served in World War Two, Tony O’Connor was appointed Headteacher at Bearwood Primary School in Smethwick in 1967. He is thought to have been the first black headteacher in the UK.

The Smethwick area suffered greatly from racial tensions, with O’Connor’s appointment greeted by the school’s walls being daubed with racist slurs and swastikas. Threats against him became so great that he moved his young family away from home for their own protection.

Undeterred, he remained in his position for 16 years and is remembered fondly by the school’s pupils and those who worked with him.


These are just some of the black pioneers who I value for changing education in the UK, it’s not an exclusive list. One thing we most remember this Black History Month – we must continue the great work to educate and inform students to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself and each culture across the UK is valued.

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