When Black Lives Matter protests swept the UK last year, Brother Nia Imara said his phone “went crazy”. Imara is the founder of the National Association of Black Supplementary Schools (Nabss), a network of Saturday or after-schools set up to tackle the underachievement of black children in mainstream education. “I was getting a lot of phone calls from parents saying, ‘I want my child to learn their history and their culture,’” he said.
The conversation in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder led many to discover the history of the black supplementary schools movement, which began in the 1970s when black communities set up weekend schools in response to racism within the mainstream school system.
Imara is hopeful that the renewed appetite for a wider curriculum will boost existing supplementary schools, but believes that above all a cash injection is needed for schools struggling to pay teaching resources and increased rents, often in gentrified areas. “Take Stormzy – it was very nice of him to fund scholarships for children to go to Cambridge, but why not pay fees to go to a Saturday school?” he said.
If the rapper doesn’t fancy it, perhaps more traditional grant givers will. One of the recommendations made in July by a commission established by Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton to investigate the lack of diversity in motorsport was to support Stem teaching in black supplementary schools.
Ayoade Wallace, a member of Future Foundations, a network for people of colour working in the UK philanthropic sector, argues that resourcing the supplementary education movement is part of resourcing racial justice.
“As well as running Saturday schools, [many groups] are also running surgeries for migrant parents, they’re also supporting people to access other services, they’re supporting families and communities in various ways – and a lot of those setups were structures that also supported people in the pandemic, such as food deliveries,” she said.
It was Ruth Ibegbuna’s experience of attending supplementary sessions in Bradford that inspired her to set up the “school of her dreams”. “It helped me with who I was and helped with the confidence when it was being knocked in my school,” the former headteacher and charity CEO said.
Two years ago, Ibegbuna finally put the idea she had been nurturing into action: a supplementary school for working-class children to reignite their love for learning. Rekindle, on the outskirts of Manchester’s Moss Side, will open its doors in January for 13-to-16-year-olds on weekdays after school, with Saturday morning sessions at the city’s Whitworth art gallery.
Rekindle is one of several new supplementary schools in the works, alongside a Birmingham-based venture by Prof Kehinde Andrews, author of Race, Inequality and the Black Supplementary School Movement, with the Harambee Organisation of Black Unity, and will join an established network of Manchester-based schools like the Louise Da-Cocodia Education Trust and MEaP.
Ibegbuna decided that the idea needed “young people at the heart” to work. She contacted eight 16-to-25-year-olds who would become the school’s trustees.
Although open to all teens from working-class communities, Rekindle is inspired by the 70s black supplementary movement. Moss Side, where the school is based, is often “unfairly stigmatised as a community characterised by crime”, explains Ibegbuna, so it was important to signify strength, but also get across that “without knowledge and critical thinking, the community cannot prevail”.
Mostly over video calls, the trustees, led by their 25-year-old chair, Jesse Williams, have designed the curriculum, governance structure and safeguarding policies, and raised £200,000 in funds that has allowed them to cover the cost of hiring Rekindle’s first teacher, Nika Muthra-Shah. Over a two-day residential meeting above a bar in Leeds during August, the team, alongside “elders” Ibegbuna, Theresa ‘T’ Olaniran and Darren Crosdale, hammered out some of the finer details of the project.
Jaiden Corfield, 19, has known Ibegbuna for eight years, initially through Reclaim, an award-winning charity she founded in 2007 to provide leadership skills for working-class children in Greater Manchester. The young Salfordian, the school’s finance and governance lead, describes his childhood as “growing up on council estates, sometimes homeless, growing up in hostels”, with his mother and siblings.
“My mum’s emphasis was on survival,” he said. As a result, he barely attended primary school, and after time in the care system, ended up living with his grandparents, who had a “militant” approach to schooling. He went from bottom sets to achieving a place at Oxford to study PPE, which he attributes to discovering a love of learning outside school and mentors such as Ibegbuna.
He left Oxford after a year – it was too much of a “massive cultural shift” for someone who was the first in his family to leave school with GCSEs, let alone go to university, he says – which has furthered his passion for ensuring that working-class kids feel as if they belong in education.
An essential aspect of Rekindle is that each pupil will receive a hot meal, as well as learning cooking skills from chefs and growing fruit and vegetables. “I grew up worried about food every single day,” said Corfield, determined that the school’s cohort would not be distracted from learning by hunger.
“There’s a really unhelpful distinction in this country between race and class,” Ibegbuna says. “The majority of people from Black and Asian backgrounds are working class, and yet we talk about the white working classes as if you can’t be black and brown and working class.”
Lisa Eigbadon, a 21-year-old law student, agrees. “When you’re from an area that’s constantly described as deprived, instantly within education, they don’t see you for your potential, they see you for your postcode.”
As a working-class black woman, Eigbadon wants Rekindle to be a space where “other young people that look like myself will know that they’re in a network of people that understand them, and won’t judge them or look at them any differently because of those things that are seen as factors or limiting”.
Described as a “soulful education”, Rekindle’s curriculum will focus on critical thinking, creativity, change-making and cultural education (the four Cs), as well as providing mentors and homework support. Pastoral support and safeguarding is also a key focus, which Cara Kennedy is leading on. The 18-year-old from Moss Side has just received two A*s and an A in her A-levels, but said at one point she was nearly kicked out of school after being “let down by safeguarding”, which led to her becoming “very angry and sad”.
Reclaim changed her life, she says, and taught her that she was “worthy of safety”. She says she wants to “pass that on” and foster a space where teenagers feel listened to. “When kids appear to be acting out, there’s usually a reason for it, and a lot of times in mainstream schools, they’re just labelled as a problem and put in isolation, instead of finding the root cause and addressing that,” Kennedy said.
The young pioneers are committed to benefiting the community in Moss Side, but they also have big dreams to expand the idea nationally and internationally. “I feel like I’m part of a revolutionary movement,” said one.