Gender, community and education: cultures of resistance in Socialist Sunday Schools and Black Supplementary Schools

I started the historical research that is the basis for my article in the upcoming Gender and Education issue (23:6) in 2007. At this time, New Labour’s policy emphasis on ‘empowerment’ through community cohesion, regeneration and community-oriented schools, had attracted significant critique within research literature. Examining New Labour’s policy paradigm, and the schooling practices promoted by their policy ensemble, many had demonstrated the tendency to privilege middle-class modes of educational agency. Concurrently, despite being the specific target of a proliferation of policies, working-class children and parents have been routinely constructed as perpetually lacking. Spurred on by this, when starting my research, my primary interest lay in uncovering – and better understanding – the history of working-class educational agency that had appeared to be lost in dominant policy discourse. Interestingly, whilst completing my research, New Labour came to the end of its 13-year rule, and in swept the Conservative/Liberal Democratic Coalition, bringing with it a new (though perhaps not radically reformulated) reiteration of community ‘empowerment’. With David Cameron’s heralding of the ‘Big Society’ and Michael Gove’s ‘free schools’, community participation appears to continue to have significant rhetorical utility in contemporary education policy.

In distinction to these market-based choice models put forward by Cameron and Gove, the history of working-class community education reveals very different forms of educational agency. In my upcoming article, the historical research I have undertaken centres on two important, but often glossed over educational movements: Socialist Sunday Schools and Black Supplementary Schools. These school movements reflect two very different attempts to reclaim educational opportunity. At the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, Socialist Sunday Schools attempted to instil a socialist ethic in children and introduce them to a breadth of knowledge not available in state schooling. Seventy years later in the 1960s and 1970s Black Supplementary Schools emerged across England in reclamation of Black identity, and in resistance to the Black community’s class positioning in Britain, and high proportions of Black students placed in schools for the ‘Educationally Subnormal’. In contrast to the ‘Big Society’ and ‘free schools’ these two movements created educational communities that challenged not only dominant presumptions of working-class and Black deficiency, but also the very structure of state schooling that enabled such representations.

Focusing on their practices in the first few years of their operation, I investigated how parents and community members in these very different social contexts instantiated their own educational authority to define, and pass on, “really useful knowledge”. Working with the documentary and oral history archives of these movements, and interviews I conducted with ex- and current Black Supplementary School teachers, I examined the claim to educational authority and opportunity within these two communities.  As I outline in this article, in asserting their claim to education these communities also repositioned traditional gender norms surrounding childhood and women’s work. With high numbers of women involved in these two school movements, the challenge to mainstream educational practices and corresponding creation of alternative educational cultures blurred the boundaries between the contemporaneous private and public spheres. Signifying community spaces of collective parenting and education, these movements fought to bring children and family concerns into the political domain, whilst also defending spaces for childhood in their communities. Struggling against assumed incapability, and early entry into the workforce (as with the case of Socialist Sunday Schools) or significant levels of criminalisation and harassment (as with children and young people at the time of the Black Supplementary Schools), the men and women teachers of these schools created diverse spaces of educational agency. Moving between active campaigning for children’s educational and social rights, and their dedicated program of weekly alternative education, on the edges of the public sphere Black Supplementary Schools and Socialist Sunday Schools worked to centre traditional women’s work as a central community concern. Re-creating gender roles within their respective assertion of socialist and Black knowledge-authority, these school movements highlight a counter-history of community-based working-class educational agency.

Jessica Gerrard

Jessica is the author of the article Gender, community and education: cultures of resistance in Socialist Sunday Schools and Black Supplementary Schools, which will appear in Gender and Education 23.6, published in October 2011.




Leave a Reply