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Why the British Education System Still Fails Black Students: My Story

Tamra Kaghembe discusses her experiences as a black student in the British education system, from the impact of prejudices on her and other students’ self-esteems, to finding hope for the future.

Image of author in primary school next to text reading the title

I can’t say I found it easy nor difficult when I emigrated to the UK with my mother and brother at the age of 4 to reunite with my father. What I can express is that each experience since then has impacted the shaping of my being.

My first day of school was shadowed with fear and endless tears, not only because I was promised I could carry my Barbie lunch box with me and instead was told I was having school meals, but because this was completely new territory for me. New faces and environments left me on edge and so my first day was spent mostly in the napping area. What I do remember very well was my teacher, who at the time was a short, old lady called Ms McDonald. It was her efforts to communicate with me, even with our language barriers, that allowed me to feel safer, it was an encounter from a foreign face that I will always treasure. She chose to speak the language that is universal to us all – love. 

“It became very clear to me that my future had already been foretold and the cloud of low self-esteem, inferiority and racial biases was constantly looming over me”

Why I bring to attention my first memories of the British education system is because, further along the line, they were less and less like my experience with Ms McDonald. It became very clear to me that my future had already been foretold and the cloud of low self-esteem, inferiority and racial biases was constantly looming over me.

Discourses around race throughout my time in primary and secondary education were too often disregarded. I have witnessed the cultural biases of this country come into play in black students’ everyday interactions at school – as well as my own. A country that prides itself on being accepting of different cultures has a way of making us feel rather inferior. One of these ways is through linguistic differences. English not being my first language meant that I was seen as a disadvantaged child and was very quickly supplied with Phoenix lessons that took place during my lesson time. In what can be seen as a method to bring me up to speed, it also highlights the struggle in relating to children, who like me, were from a foreign land.

“The British school system has a way of ignoring blackness whilst ensuring that we do not forget our racial differences”

In the same way, very few teachers made the effort to understand the ways in which different black students understood their surroundings and what was placed before them in terms of learning tasks. For example, my timidness was often misunderstood as an unwillingness to learn or understand, when I was in fact struggling with connecting with British teachers. What is clear is that English as a language is often mistaken as a measure of intelligence. Those who are fluent in English are deemed very ‘clever’ and those whose first language is not English are labeled ‘dull’. Whilst this was obviously complete rubbish, this was and still is used to measure how someone will be treated, resourced, and placed within the hierarchy of society.

Regarding the attitudes of British teachers, I will fast forward to my secondary education, where my experience of prejudice really escalated. A teacher plays a very vital part in the educational progression of any student – but specifically immigrant students. There is a very clear reason as to why racial biases surrounding the underperformance of black British students are so heavily imposed by what were often white, British, middle classed teachers. Simply because they worked. Consistent efforts from these teachers to belittle and patronise me, as well as any other student who looked like me, had long lasting effects on my confidence.

“When our identities are ridiculed and disregarded, we take away one’s opportunity to see ourselves and accept who we are”

I was often poorly spoken to and met with condescending racially-motivated comments. I was once told by a P.E. teacher that the way in which me and my black, female peers behaved might be acceptable where “we” are from but not here. I had many more experiences like this, and recall being met with shock by my teachers when I submitted coursework as they exclaimed that, I can “actually write very well”. If it wasn’t the sheer shock that I can, in fact, form sentences, it was interrogating me about whether I had copied and pasted my work. This constant underestimation of my abilities in some ways pushed me to work harder to achieve far more than what I had been predicted. It was clear that for teachers underpredicting grades meant far more praise for a teacher and is often used as a tactic to improve their data. Whilst this is a useful method in attaining pay rises by showcasing how students are able to surpass these predicted grades, it also instills long term self-doubt in a student about their abilities. I myself have a constant drive to prove myself and the fear of feeling as though I won’t measure up constantly looms over me. 

The truth was that for me and many like me, we were extremely aware of the low expectation’s teachers held for us: from predicted grades to moments of disbelief when we succeeded far beyond their limitations. In many ways, it was demotivating. I found myself questioning what point there was in really trying when I was unlikely to achieve high results. I look back in despair at the countless times I doubted my abilities and settled for what I could get knowing I was very much capable of more. Then I reflect on how those same experiences play a role in the ways I perceive the tasks before me now, and it appears to me that for the most part they’ve latched onto my very being.

“With barely any representation of people who look like you also doing great things, there accumulates this false narrative that those who look like you aren’t capable of being a part of such spaces or adoration”

The British school system has a way of ignoring blackness whilst ensuring that we do not forget our racial differences. The lack of effort from my secondary school to address race and cultural differences as essential learning, led to this underbelly of otherness and ignorance when approaching the topic. Of course, amongst black students there was a clear knowledge of where we stood and how we were perceived, but the lack of open conversation from white students and teaching staff created a layer of awkwardness. This ongoing inability to see blackness meant that, for some of us, we became uneasy about our skin, in what are too often predominantly black spaces. We avoided eye contact with white peers when such conversations surfaced, because somewhere we were made to internalise a sense of shame towards the connotations our skin holds. This results in a low self-image and little to no confidence in voicing our thoughts and emotions in what should be a safe place. It is crucial that one’s identity be granted the right to be seen and heard. When our identities are ridiculed and disregarded, we take away one’s opportunity to see ourselves and accept who we are.

When the topic of race is censored but teaching itself increasingly whitewashed, there comes a greater poisonous concoction for the black student within the British education system – self-hatred. When all the great men and women of history are white and all the dolls placed before children are also white, the black child is stripped of the pride and belonging we should maintain. With barely any representation of people who look like you also doing great things, there accumulates this false narrative that those who look like you aren’t capable of being a part of such spaces or adoration. I recall only ever learning about white authors, philosophers, creative geniuses, and historical heroes with their black counterparts left in the shadows of every classroom conversation.

“To take away an individual’s self-belief and instil a negative self-image is to keep an individual from their potential. It is to imprison us in a system that does in fact know of our abilities but refuses to nurture its growth”

I have been lucky enough to be exposed to far more diverse identities through my degree and it is now that I finally see an embrace of cultural differences. My experiences with racism and discrimination will never truly cease to occur but by seeing my neighbour as I see myself, I’ve been able to make a small but significant shift in my perspective. However, by not shying away from my past experiences I am able to look ahead, forgive and be better equipped for future purposes. 

There is still a lot to be done to prevent what many of us have endured at the hands of the education system. One thing that I can guarantee is that without bringing our voices to the forefront, change will remain a slow process and the long-term effects of these early experiences will haunt the futures of too many. To take away an individual’s self-belief and instil a negative self-image is to keep an individual from their potential. It is to imprison us in a system that does in fact know of our abilities but refuses to nurture its growth.

My hope is that future generations won’t relate to my past, that their stories will be filled with joy and dreams blossom into reality, but this won’t come without an unbiased and anti-racist school system. The white British population must one day recognise the favour their white privilege buys and be willing to address the need for reform. The discussion of how this will be put into action remains to be had but for black parents the conversation also starts with you. Talk to your children and truly listen, stay alert to the ways they speak about themselves and about school, because there’s a lot we can learn when we listen.

Born in Tanzania and raised mostly in Britain, Tamra Kaghembe is a Media and Communications student and writer. Her work aims to open conversations for those who, like herself, have felt silenced. She has previously worked with Grown Magazine and is currently participating in Belgrade’s first Media Academy.

“When we write, we inspire and each opportunity to write for me has been a memorable moment to connect and relate to those who can seem out of reach.” – Tamra Kaghembe

You can follow her on Instagram @Tdk_x and Twitter @MremboTdk, or read more of her work here.

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