The historic significance of community-based collective action in decolonising education By Eve Doran

The discourse around decolonising education has been brought to the public stage in recent years. Activists, academics, educators, parents, and students alike have voiced their concerns about the whitewashing of British history and anti-Blackness in all levels of education.  

An important early initiative towards the decolonising the curriculum movement as we know it today that tackled anti-blackness and racism in schools was the ESN (Educationally Sub-Normal) campaign, spearheaded largely by Black mothers roused by Bernard Coard’s exposé ‘How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British Education System’. [1] Teacher prejudice placed Black children in specific schools for the so-called educationally sub-normal, the stories of these children have been brought to light in the recent BBC documentary ‘Subnormal: A British Scandal’. Western scientific theories about race and intelligence developed to justify the colonial subjugation of African peoples ensured that, for many Black children, going through the UK school system in the sixties was a traumatising experience. School textbooks compounded the negative stereotypes and racist beliefs held by many teachers and their low expectations for Black pupils affected pupils’ performance, reifying the misconceptions. Black parents’ anger towards these injustices fuelled a collective community response that gave rise to The Black Parents movement and the Black Supplementary School movement.[2] Radical book publishers Eric and Jessica Huntley formed the Black Parents Movement in 1975 following the assault and arrest of 17 year old Black schoolboy Cliff McDaniel. The Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association (CECWA), of which Eric and Jessica Huntley were founding members, was the first specialist Black education group to have been established in the UK. The Huntleys were key figures in the grassroots campaigns that fought for the British African-Caribbean community. They were also involved with a movement organised by the North London West Indian Association (NLWIA) that challenged Haringey Council’s plan to assess all pupils using IQ tests, which are now discredited.[3] Community action must always be centered in discussions about decolonisation, the mobilisation of the Black community provided young people with learning that would not only supplement their schooling but that would instil in them a sense of pride and identity.

Photo credit Jelvon Shadrache

For many reasons, the university has been the primary focal point in decolonisation efforts. The decolonising the university movement has a long transnational history visible in the Negritude movement of Aimé Césaire, Senghor and Damas, African diaspora students’ response to their encounters with racism in French educational institutions, inspired by the Harlem renaissance Negritude asserted Black identity through creative expression. Like the African-American students who during the Black Power era protested and occupied campus buildings in demand for reforms to racist institutional practices. Student activists centred Black experience and studied the knowledge produced by people of African descent in their own experimental universities.[4] Recent student-led campaigns denounce the colonial tradition being upheld by university institutions that retain pillaged treasures from colonised lands and commemorate imperialists and slave traders.[5] Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford addresses Oxford University’s colonial legacy on three levels: colonial iconography such as statues, the selective and Eurocentric narrative of traditional academia, and underrepresentation and lack of welfare support for “BAME” (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) staff and students.[6] The UCL Why is my Curriculum White campaign challenged the culturally homogenous curricula across UK universities. Movements advocating the decolonisation of the curriculum vary in the elements they address spanning across different curriculum areas and subjects, stages of education, empires, regions, elements of colonial tradition, there is also not consensus on just one conclusive definition of decolonisation.[7] These movements have been extremely influential and empowered many students to initiate similar campaigns in the universities they attend.

Photo credit Scottie Grills & Zoe Doran

Nakagawa[8] argues that we have located decolonisation within modern knowledge, standards, and norms that are based on colonial ideologies. Therefore, any real decolonising movement must seek to dismantle all colonial legacies, including structures and ideologies that sustain a belief in the superiority of Western knowledge. Lived-experience and community-based knowledge should not be minimised, we need to ask who we trust to tell our stories? The Free Black University maintains that we cannot ‘decolonise something that is built on colonisation itself’. The project offers a space that can produce decolonial knowledge, outside of the confines of the Western university. By providing free, decolonial, accessible education they seek to address the impact coloniality is having on Black mental health. BLAM offer school-based projects and Black history education that takes place within the community. Black narratives should not be additional or alternative, Black history is all of our histories. It is necessary to remember that decolonisation is an ongoing process and involves a deep collective unlearning[9] to divest from colonial practices and beliefs that invisibilise Black Britons contributions to this country and beyond. 

To learn more – 

Read: Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain by Beverley Ryan, Stella Dadzie & Suzanne Scafe – Book

Read: The Black Supplementary School is as Essential as Ever by Fiona Rutherford–black-supplementary-schools-movement – Article

Watch: Small Axe (TV mini-series 2020) by Steve McQueen. Episode 5: Education

Watch: Subnormal: A British Scandal (2021 documentary) directed by Lyttanya Shannon

Listen: Pluto Books podcast – Radicals in Conversation: Decolonising the University 



[1]Coard, B. (1971). How the West Indian child is made educationally subnormal in the British school system: the scandal of the black child in schools in Britain. London: New Beacon Books.

[2]Bryan, B., Dadzie, S., & Scafe, S. (1993). The heart of the race: black women’s lives in Britain. London, Virago Press.


[4]Pimblott, K. (2020) Decolonising the University: The Origins and Meanings of a Movement. The Political Quarterly. 91: 1, 210-216. 

[5]Bhambra, G. K., Gebrial, D. & Nisancioglu, K. (2018) Decolonising the University. London: Pluto Press.

[6]Peters, M. A. (2018)Why Is My Curriculum White? A Brief Genealogy of Resistance. In Arday, J. & Mirza, H. S. Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy. Cham: Palgrave MacMillan

[7]Bhambra, G. K., Gebrial, D. & Nisancioglu, K. (2018) Decolonising the University. London: Pluto Press.

[8]Nakagawa, S. (2021) Auto-decolonisation: Lifelong education for decolonization. INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL FOR LIFELONG EDUCATION. (ahead-of-print), 1-13. 

[9]Yancy, G. (2008) Black bodies, white gazes: the continuing significance of race. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Pub.

%d bloggers like this: