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Discussion of the racism of ESN – “educationally subnormal” – schools (‘Black kids were written off’: the scandal of the children sent to ‘dustbin schools’, 19 May) stirs up deeply uncomfortable memories of my own racism as a teacher in a mainstream school.

For three years in the early 1970s I taught art in an inner London girls’ comprehensive. I had no teacher training – having a degree in your subject licensed you to teach it. Two weeks before I left, I found myself dreading a class with two particularly disruptive black girls. At the last minute I cobbled together a still life and prayed that would keep them quiet. And it did. The drawings that the two disruptive girls did were well observed, delicate and powerful; I can still picture one of them in my mind’s eye, nearly 50 years later.

The girls had been bored stiff – their undoubted creative talents unrecognised and unchallenged. In my ignorance, my unthinking racism, I had set up a vicious spiral in which, as their boredom drove them to disruption, their behaviour drove me to dumbing down what I set the class. By the time they drew the still life, I had reduced the class to doing little more than colouring in. I still remember my shock when I saw their drawings, and my heart-sinking realisation that over the two years I had had them in my class, I had wasted their time and their talent.

This, replicated and magnified so many times, has led to the waste of lives, not just those documented in the ESN schools, but in the day-to-day experience of pupils like the ones I failed.

Alison Williams


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