Saturday Supplementary schools or Saturday Schools as they are more commonly called date back to the late 1960s and were initiated by Caribbean communities to counter the negative effects of the education system on children. The main issue of concern was that large numbers of children were being wrongly placed in schools for ‘Educationally Sub-Normal’ (ESN). The post World War II migrants had arrived for economic reasons and to help rebuild Britain but for many, education also formed part of their decisions to leave their homelands. In that era, education in the Caribbean was still available to the few and not the many; the prospect of children receiving a good, free education was an added attraction of the opportunity to migrate. The migrants viewed the education system in Britain as superior and therefore it was difficult for them to come to terms with a situation in which their children were underachieving. This placed children at a disadvantage in the job market and they were not able to obtain some of the higher status jobs that eluded their parents. After all, education should be about progress and it was feared the children’s lack of advancement could pose problems for the very sustainability of the Caribbean communities in this country. The mission of the Saturday school, therefore, was to emphasise academic achievement and further, to reinforce positive perceptions of the children, their history and their place within a multiracial society.
Achieving these objectives was not an easy task. The early Saturday school pioneers had to contend with an array of problems, most notably, a lack of suitable premises because local authorities were hostile to the very concept of supplementary schooling. As a result, many of these sessions took place in people’s front rooms. The Saturday School though must be seen within its wider political context. Agitation for the abolition of the ESN schools became a political campaign alongside other poignant issues related to the state of race relations and police brutality against the black community.
Amidst these tensions, the Saturday School thrived since its mission reached far beyond just basic education and academic achievement. It supplemented what children learned in school and tried to foster in children a love of learning and creativity underpinned by a desire to foster black cultural heritage.
In considering the contemporary Saturday School now, it bears much in common with its 1960s’ counterpart. The Caribbean migrants responded to a problem in the education system that had a negative impact on their children and now decades later, the same arguments are being used where parents continue to express their dissatisfaction with children’s education in mainstream schools. It is evident that though great strides have been made in terms of children’s education, government statistics stubbornly show that African Caribbean children are still a low achieving group and they are more likely to be excluded from school. Thus, there is much continuity between then and now.
However, in other ways today’s Saturday School is far removed from its previous incarnation, especially structurally. In the beginning, most schools were free, surviving on voluntary contribution from parents, teachers and activists. Money was also raised from organising community events, for example, dances and parties. Now, Saturday Schools range from those which receive local authority funding to the totally self funded model. In the latter case, parents stand the costs of this provision. It is perhaps recognition that the Saturday School has outgrown its old status and that in today’s market oriented society, market solutions now play a greater role.
Dr Beverley Goring