The History of Saturday Schools

By Michelle Aboagye

Black Saturday schools have been in existence for as long as there has been a significant Black presence in the UK.

Saturday schools, also referred to as supplementary schools, have had a long history in the UK. They were first associated with Irish migrants in the late 19th century, but since the 1940s post-war period migrants from around the world have established these community-led Saturday schools. This was the case for newly arrived African and Caribbean immigrants of this period who established their own Saturday schools. In fact, Black Saturday schools have been in existence for as long as there has been a significant Black presence in the UK. But what prompted the emergence of these schools?

In 1960s Britain, many children of West Indian immigrants were deemed to be “educationally subnormal” (ESN) by their teachers. As a result of this, they were expected to fail, had no prospects of taking the then O-Level exams, and were placed in classes with other children who fit this criteria. It is worth noting that there were disproportionate numbers of West Indian children who were placed in these classes. In addition to this, West Indian children also experienced rampant racism in schools from their peers and their teachers.

West Indian parents, determined to create safe learning spaces for their children, banded together to take matters into their own hands. Within their communities, they endeavoured to create their own learning spaces for their children to correct the gaps that their children experienced in mainstream schooling, and the Supplementary School Movement was born. Black Saturday schools began to emerge across England.

Children in a mainstream primary school in Brixton, London. Source: BBC.

These schools were not only a testament to the power of community action, but they were also a response to racism in the educational system. Black parents were determined to not let their children slip through the educational cracks as a result of racism and discrimination. They felt as though mainstream schools did not have attainment targets for their Black students due to them being classed as ESN. Black Saturday schools challenged the inherent racism of the mainstream schooling system and rejected the presumed inevitable underachievement of Black children that mainstream schools imposed on them. 

A community effort, Black Saturday schools were staffed by volunteers and took place in community spaces such as churches and community centres, they even took place in people’s front rooms. For the most part, they relied on parental contributions and community donations to operate, and were present in London boroughs where there was a high African and Caribbean population, such as Lambeth, Hackney, Lewisham, and more. These schools operated outside of normal school hours, such as in the evenings or during weekends (particularly on Saturdays), and although they taught National Curriculum subjects such as maths, English, and science, they also helped to teach pupils cultural values and uphold the heritage and traditions of their countries of origin.

Black Saturdays schools created nurturing and supportive environments for their students. Pupils who attended Black Saturday schools spoke of understanding topics better, helping them when they returned to their mainstream classes. These schools also helped students to develop positive attitudes towards education – attitudes which would have been greatly impacted as a result of their experiences at mainstream schools. Pupils were reported to be more focused, more attentive, and more confident to ask and answer questions as a result of their engagement with Saturday schools.

John La Rose with schoolchildren at a supplementary school. Source: George Padmore Institute

In addition to this, staff believed that their schools were effective in helping pupils to be more engaged and capable, especially pupils who had been excluded from mainstream education, or were on the verge of exclusion. Black supplementary schools provided a nurturing approach to education as they fostered environments of ambition, confidence and curiosity. In these spaces, Black students were encouraged to be ambitious, pushed to achieve their full potential, and had their abilities validated – these were interactions they did not experience in mainstream education. In Saturday schools, they were encouraged to aspire, improve their self-esteem and also feel a sense of belonging. In contrast, in mainstream schools Black children often felt marginalised and their cultures and backgrounds were ignored and not taken into consideration. 

Certainly, it is clear to see why they were regarded as lifelines for many African and Caribbean families. Saturday schools were essentially organisations for Black students staffed by Black teachers, which allowed students to relate to staff and vice-versa. Teachers understood the societal inequalities and obstacles that Black children were likely to face – particularly when they had no academic qualifications. 

Today, Black Saturday schools place a large focus on Black history and Black Studies alongside core subjects such as maths, science and English. They can be found across England, from London to the Midlands, and even Scotland! There is also a National Association of Black Supplementary Schools (NABSS) in the UK, which provides a directory of Black Saturday schools.

The Supplementary School Movement and the emergence of Black Saturday schools were a clear example of the power of community action, particularly as a response to racism and discrimination. As a result of this, Black students were able to have their identities affirmed, build their confidence, and focus on their development in a nurturing and positive environment. They are an important part of Black British history and culture, and should never be allowed to die out!

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