Sir Geoff Palmer OBE: award-winning chemist, Professor Emeritus in School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.
Sir Geoff began his presentation on the UK’s approach to the education of Black students with his recollection of being considered, along with other Black students, as “educationally subnormal.” Black parents were considered by the educational establishment to have “unrealistic expectations” if they wanted their children to become doctors or other such professionals, because those children spoke patois and therefore could not understand complex concepts.
Sir Geoff wrote a number of articles in the Times Educational Supplement in the 1960s challenging this narrative as slavery-derived, in light of research carried out by Hans Eysenck that argued that Black people were genetically inferior to whites in terms of IQ. Sir Geoff believes that these “slavery-derived” attitudes still linger in education today, and that context frames our interactions with the system as a community.
How do we then address this? Sir Geoff made the following points:
Although ingrained prejudices are difficult to challenge, we need to interrogate the reasons for any underachievement by Black pupils at school. We need to speak with those in positions of power in order to really effect change ‐ another feature of navigating the system is ensuring that we do not fall into the trap of only communicating with those without institutional influence as the system often leads us to do.
• Decolonising the curriculum: Slavery must be taught (it should not be optional) and taught properly. For example, William Wilberforce’s role in abolishing the slave trade is well known. However, Henry Dundas’s role in delaying that process is practically unheard of despite there being a large statue of him in Edinburgh (the plaque for which Sir Geoff has successfully lobbied to have amended). White teachers also need to be taught about history properly, so we do not pass down racism to another generation.
• Statutory funding for working Black parents: The community would benefit from funding for community-based initiatives and structures that address immediate needs for Black children and support Black parents in providing for their children so they can focus on their education.