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Exposing and challenging racism in the British education system, an oral history

15 May 2022

The BPS has published an oral history with Waveney Bushell, often regarded as the first Black female educational psychologist, charting her career and instrumental role in exposing racism in the British education system.

The oral history, published to mark National Children’s Day, explores Waveney’s early career and studies and how she worked with colleagues to highlight the racism and inequality in the British education system, including the use of IQ tests that led to many Black children being placed in schools for the ‘educationally subnormal’.

The film also highlights the role of psychology and some educational psychologists in not challenging the discriminatory attitudes at the time, and explores, with Dr Melernie Meheux from the BPS’ Division of Educational Psychology, how the profession and its role working with children and in education has changed.

Speaking in the film, Waveney, who previously appeared in the BBC documentary Subnormal: A British Scandal, says:

“From the moment I was exposed to tests, I realised our children wouldn’t be able to cope with this.

In the pre-school days, education was centred around learning not how to abstract and relate what you have learned to the work you are doing, but just repeating what you heard.

Our children, when they came here, found it was different. I’m sure that they felt insecure when questions were asked of them which had never been asked before.

I was disappointed that nobody, for example the school’s psychological service, seemed to be interested in the fact these tests meant our children didn’t do as well as they could.”

Dr Melernie Meheux, vice-chair of the DECP, added:

“It has been fantastic to explore Waveney’s life and career and shine a spotlight on the impact she had on the education system.

We have come a long way as educational psychologists, but we still have much to learn and as Waveney says, we need to understand all the influences on children, (good and bad), and how this impacts on their learning.

Still now challenges are faced by young Black boys in education, with exclusion rates for black Caribbean students in English schools up to six times higher than those of their white peers in some local authorities.

We must learn from our history and ensure as a profession we challenge and call out discriminatory practices, and think beyond what is produced in the classroom, and look at the child as a whole.”

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