Shabina Aslam was seven years old in Bradford when she was placed on a bus and moved to a predominantly white suburban school, where she and her brother were placed in the special needs department.
This despite the fact that the couple – whose family had migrated from Kenya as part of the East African Indian exodus – are fluent in several languages.
“We spoke English, Swahili and Punjabi,” recalls Aslam. “No one spoke to us or tested our language skills.”
Aslam and his brother were part of the controversial “busing out” policy of the 1960s, which transported primary school children from ethnic minorities to these schools. On the surface, its aim was to integrate non-English speaking children of immigrants from former British colonies of South Asian, Caribbean and African descent.
Aslam recalls that the bus was painted with a yellow circle and was considered the “Paki bus” by white children.
It wasn’t until she was training as a teacher in her 30s that she came across a quiet footnote in a book about the black experience of British education, when she realized that others had also been bussed out of their town.
“One of the problems with the buses is that when it happened, no records were kept,” she said. “There are no real traces of this other than in people’s memory.”
After strong opposition for several years from a chorus of affected families, anti-racist groups and ethnic minority associations, the policy was eventually dropped for being discriminatory, although the start and end of the dispersal varied in each area.
Today, Aslam’s personal experience is the basis of an immersive art exhibition and archive she has created, Bus tripwhich is based on 21 oral history interviews she conducted with other Bradford residents.
The exhibition includes a purpose-built set of the top floor of a 1970s bus. Visitors are immersed in the interviewee experience of Aslam, where they can hear actors re-enact the interviews, while animations of the bus routes are projected onto the windows.
The bus has been primarily associated with desegregation efforts in the United States, but “has also taken place in Britain, encouraged by educational policies on ‘immigrant student’ ratios”, said Dr Shirin Hirsch, master lectures in history at Manchester Metropolitan University.
The first discussions of this policy took place in the autumn of 1963, when white parents staged demonstrations in Southall against the arrival of immigrant children at the Beaconsfield Road school.
“It is desirable, for educational reasons, that no school have more than 30% immigrants,” he said.
It was under the Labor government of Harold Wilson, elected one year later, that politics has finally found a foothold in British schools. And this despite the fact that only a fraction of schools, 569 out of 26,000, welcomed more than a 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 chose to “desegregate” schools with large numbers of immigrant children.
“The racial suspicion toward these children was justified by a narrative that in order to truly fit in, they would have to be dispersed,” Hirsch said. “In reality, the “immigrant” transported by bus was selected much more on the color of his skin than on his immigration status. Only the ‘immigrant students’ were ‘busted out’ rather than the white children ‘busted in’.
In the early 1970s, as rumors of buses targeting only immigrant families began to spread, Usha Prashar of Race Relations Board decided to conduct the first bus survey.
A year later, the Race Relations Act 1965 was introduced to combat racial discrimination, followed by the Race Relations Act 1968, which sought to eradicate discrimination in housing and employment.
It was under this legislation that the investigation concluded that there was a “pattern of discrimination”.
“The impact was quite worrying on young children,” Prashar said. “The bus meant a very long day for very young children who had to leave home at dawn to arrive late in the evening.”
She added: “They could have learned English in their area. I think it was also a response to the comments when [Boyle] visited [Southall] that he obtained from the local community that “too many immigrants are coming, our schools are all becoming Asian, it will lower the standard of the schools”, and so on.
“This investigation, which I conducted, concluded that buses were illegal and harmful to children, and led to the dismantling of this policy.”
The Race Relations Act was again updated and the Commission for Racial Equality was created in 1976a year that coincided with Murder of Gurdeep Singh Chaggar by a racist gang. “No one in this country, to this day, appreciates buses taking place in the UK,” Prashar said.