Uncovering Britain’s secret history of bussing ethnic minority children

Shabina Aslam was sent away to a remote school under a policy of dispersing non-white children in the 1960s and 1970s, which she now explores in a Bradford-based exhibition

Shabina Aslam was a seven-year-old in Bradford when she was placed on a bus and moved out to a white-majority suburban school, where she and her brother were placed in the special needs department.

This is despite the pair – whose family had migrated from Kenya as part of the exodus of Indians from east Africa – being fluent in several languages.

“We spoke English, Swahili and Punjabi,” Aslam recalls. “Nobody spoke to us or tested our language abilities.”

Aslam and her brother were part of the controversial “bussing out” policy from the 1960s, which transported primary schoolchildren from ethnic minority backgrounds to such schools. On the surface, its aim was to integrate the non-anglophone-speaking children of immigrants from former British colonies with south Asian, West Indian and African backgrounds.

Aslam recalls how the bus was painted with a yellow circle, and was deemed the “Paki bus” by white children.

It was only when she trained as a teacher in her thirties that she stumbled across an inconspicuous footnote in a book about the experience of black people in British education, when she realised others had also been bussed outside their city.

“One of the problems with bussing is that when it was happening, no records were kept,” she said. “There’s no real records of it other than in people’s memories.”

Shabina Aslam’s exhibition Bussing Out
Shabina Aslam’s exhibition Bussing Out at the Theatre in the Mill Bradford University reflects on Asian and African-Caribbean children being relocated to rural schools with large white pupil populations. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

After strong opposition over several years from a chorus of affected families, anti-racism groups and ethnic minority associations, the policy was eventually scrapped for being discriminatory, although when dispersal began and ended varied in each area.

Now, Aslam’s personal experience is the basis of an immersive art exhibition and archive she has created, Bussing Out, which is based on 21 oral history interviews she conducted with fellow Bradfordians.

The exhibition includes a purpose-built set of the top floor of a 1970s bus. Visitors are immersed in the experience of Aslam’s interviewees, where they can hear actors giving reconstructions of the interviews, as animations of the bus route are projected on the windows.

Bussing has mostly been associated with desegregation efforts in the US, but “also took place in Britain, encouraged through educational policies on ‘immigrant pupils’ ratios”, said Dr Shirin Hirsch, a senior lecturer in history at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Talk of the policy first came about in the autumn of 1963, when white parents organised protests in Southall against the arrival of immigrant children to Beaconsfield Road school.

Bussing Out exhibition
Bussing took place in many British cities yet is largely undocumented. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

After meeting some of the disgruntled parents, the Conservative minister for education at the time, Edward Boyle, declared in the House of Commons, that the school had become “irretrievably an immigrant school”.

“It is desirable on educational grounds that no one school should have more than about 30% of immigrants,” he said.

It was under Harold Wilson’s Labour government, elected in 1964, that the policy finally found a foothold in British schools. This was despite the fact that only a fraction of schools, 569 out of 26,000, accommodated more than one-third of immigrant children in 1971, according to Olivier Esteves, the author of The Desegregation of English Schools.

From 1964 to 1986, Blackburn, Bradford, Bristol, Ealing, Halifax, Hounslow, Huddersfield, Leicester, Luton, Walsall, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton opted to “desegregate” schools with a large intake of immigrant children.

“The racial suspicion towards such children was justified through a narrative that to truly integrate they would need to be spread out,” said Hirsch. “In reality the bussed ‘immigrant’ was selected far more on skin colour than on immigration status. It was only the ‘immigrant pupils’ who were ‘bussed out’ rather than white children ‘bussed in’.”

By the early 1970s, as word of bussing targeting only immigrant families began to spread, Usha Prashar of the Race Relations Board decided to lead the first investigation into bussing.

The Race Relations Act 1965 had been introduced to address racial discrimination, followed by the Race Relations Act 1968, which focused on eradicating discrimination in housing and employment.

It was under this legislation that the Race Relations Board’s investigation concluded that there was a “pattern of discrimination”.

“The impact was quite worrying on small children,” Prashar said. “Bussing meant a very long day for very small children who had to leave home at the crack of dawn to arrive late in the evening.”

She added: “They could have been taught English in their local areas. I think it was a response also to the comments when [Boyle] visited [Southall] that he got from the local community that, ‘Too many immigrants are coming in, our schools are becoming all Asian, it’s going to lower the standard of schools’, and so on.

“This investigation which was led by me, concluded that bussing was unlawful and detrimental for the children, and led to the dismantling of this policy.”

The Race Relations act was updated again and the Commission for Racial Equality created in 1976, a year that coincided with Gurdeep Singh Chaggar’s murder by a racist gang. “Nobody in this country, to this day, appreciates that bussing was taking place in the United Kingdom,” Prashar said.

  • The Bussing Out exhibition is on show at Theatre in the Mill in Bradford until April 2023.

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Aina J Khan Community affairs correspondent

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