Subnormal : A British Scandal

Subnormal reveals how black children in the 1960s & 70s were disproportionately sent to schools for the so-called ‘educationally subnormal’.

Steve McQueen talks about Subnormal: A British Scandal, a BBC One documentary about why black children in the 1960s and 1970s were disproportionately sent to schools for the so called ‘educationally subnormal’.

Examining one of the biggest scandals in the history of British education, Subnormal reveals how black children in the 1960s & 70s were disproportionately sent to schools for the so-called ‘educationally subnormal’.

This gripping documentary tells the story of how black parents, teachers and activists banded together to expose the injustice and force the education system to change. It explores the controversial debates on race and intelligence that led to the scandal and the devastating impact it had on the children affected. The film discusses the IQ testing that took place and shows why it was heavily biased against black migrant children.

Subnormal also describes the events surrounding a leaked school report which revealed the or misconception of teachers that black children have lower IQs than their English contemporaries. The explicit racism of the report galvanised the community into action and led to the publication of Bernard Coard’s seminal book How The West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System. Featuring first-hand interviews with key participants in these events, the film charts the ensuing media storm and the persistence of black parents and organisers which ultimately led to The Race Relations Act being amended to prevent racial bias in education.

Though these special schools were eventually phased out, this documentary also features several ESN students who talk for the first time about their education and what it is like to live in the shadow of an ‘Educationally Subnormal’ label.

Drawing on a rich array of personal testimony, documents and archive footage, the film captures this high-stakes battle between black parents and the British education system to drive fair and equal treatment for black children in today’s society.


When I look at the notes I made when I was studying education at university in the mid 80s, I find that I was being taught as a fact that black kids had lower IQs than whites, and this was for both genetic and cultural reasons. I hadn’t noticed the racism at the time because the words came out of the lecturer’s mouth and into our notebooks without going through our minds.

White kids were not at the top of the tree. We were told that Oriental kids did best. This surprised me. In our area when I was a child, there were no black kids but there were British Chinese children whose parents were refugees from Chairman Mao. They were almost invariably put in the hut for ESN children presumably because the teachers couldn’t be bothered to give them the extra attention they needed to acclimatize.

I didn’t think anything of it. I just took for granted that Oriental people belonged in the ESN hut, and when I went to university I was surprised to find Oriental people there who had been through the British school system.

Shouldn’t the authors of the framework used to assess kids be held accountable? This shouldn’t just be another story, but an act to change things and make people accountable for their actions.

Unfortunately racism and other stereotyping was common in the education system of the 60’s and 70’s. I was sent to a ESN school in the early 70’s due to poor hand writing skills (I was made to sit on my dominant left hand) and poor ability when it came to reading (my teachers thought I was memorising the contents of my reading books!). My family and I didn’t realise at the time that being black was also a factor behind the decision to have me ejected from main stream education.

I survived my ESN schooling but was left with long-term psychological scaring due to what I had experienced there.

Maybe the educational establishment and the government should be held accountable for these historic/herstroic wrong doings and more; as people are still suffering from the affects of being forced into these schools of non-learning.

I am one of the more fortunate survivors who was able to eventually go on to college then university and get the education I was denied in childhood, however there are many who did not due to the trauma they went through because of being labelled Educationally Sub Normal.

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