A Brief Reminiscence of Racism in Scottish Education — 2 July 2020

by Brian Quail

Aeons ago, or in the early 1980s, when I was a teacher in a Scottish school, there took place an incident that seems particularly pertinent to present concerns. I was sitting at the table supervising an exam when a colleague came in, and put a sheet of paper on the table with a cheery, “This will help pass the time.” (I’ll call him Dave to spare feelings.)

I read it with incredulity and growing revulsion. I said nothing to Dave, but as soon as the supervision was finished, I went straight to the school office and surreptitiously ran off several copies (this was in the days before personal photocopiers). I distributed these among my more progressive colleagues.

A few days later, the Rector summoned Dave to the office and told him, “I have received a letter from the director of Education about racist material being circulated in this school, and I’d like you to investigate.”

“You need look no further,” Dave retorted, courageously enough. Later that day he came to me in the staff room and rather nervously explained; “One of ‘them’ gave it to me. It’s just a joke. Even ‘they’ found it funny, and etc. But I want you to destroy it.”

“Okay,” I said non-committedly but, acting dumb, didn’t move. He kept insisting till eventually we trailed along to my classroom. There I solemnly opened the filing cabinet, took out the few remaining copies and tore them up in front of his eyes. But the matter was not closed. It had already gone viral, as they say nowadays.

It is an indication of how attitudes have changed that Dave thought it would be amusing to circulate what was, in all probability, material from the fascist British National Party.

Here is a short, and typical, sample of the contents:


Address (please give town street, house, room, bed and shift number. West Indians may give minibus or car number).………………… Degree of suntan: light, medium, dark, very dark, matches Ace of Spades………………… Are you visible after sunset? Yes…….. No……..

PARENTS Name of mother…………………… Name of father (if known. West Indians should list all possibilities on a separate sheet)…………… Father’s occupation: Peat cutter, bus conductor, lavatory attendant, underground guard (tick as applicable)​ Marital status: Single, shacked up, common law marriage, informal screwing

On another occasion, during a staff meeting the head teacher read out a letter from the Education department on the topic of combating racism in society. At the end he remarked, rather smugly, “Since we only have four of them in the school, it’s hardly a problem for us.”

I found myself on my feet explaining that the implication that the presence of black people was the cause of racism was itself a racist assumption. Racism exists in the heart of the racist, not because of the presence of its victim. I added that this attitude blatantly contradicted the Catholic ethos of our school (it was what is coyly referred to as “transferred”). My contribution was met with a hostile silence, and all eye contact was avoided as I made a lonely departure.

I do not know if attitudes have changed in schools today. I can only hope they have.

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