Babylon by Bus: Bussing in Southall in Context, 1963-1981 

By Dr. Olivier Esteves  (University of Lille)

Photo of Dr. Olivier Esteves

Dr. Olivier Esteves gave a talk entitled ‘Babylon by Bus: Bussing in Southall, Schooling, Segregation and Urban Space’ as part of the Ealing Local History Centre talks programme, on Tuesday 18 October 2016, in the Green Room, Ealing Central Library. Dr. Esteves has visited Ealing Local History Centre several times to carry out research on bussing (the controversial policy of the transportation of Asian children from Southall to schools elsewhere in the London Borough of Ealing from the 1960s). He is a professor of British history at Lille University (France), and also teaches at Sciences-Po Lille. He works on ethnicity, immigration and integration issues in Britain since 1945, and on British intellectuals (George Orwell, Bertrand Russell). This post explains his latest project, a study of bussing in Great Britain, between 1960 and 1980.  


This is an explanatory blog post about my latest book project, Babylon By Bus? The ‘Desegregation’ of English Schools, Asians and Urban Space (1960-1980), forthcoming with Manchester University Press, 2018. After a few years rummaging through archives from Bradford to Ealing, from LSE and Kew to West Bromwich, from Birmingham to Manchester, Huddersfield and Blackburn, now is the time to share what this is all about and to hopefully generate interest among people who were affected by bussing in one way or another. 

Photo showing an Anti-Bussing demostration in Southall, 1978

                                    Above: Anti-bussing demo in Southall (1978) 

English Bussing 

Bussing itself was a form of social engineering initiated in about a dozen Local Education Authorities, whereby (mostly) Asian pupils from primary school age were bussed to predominantly white suburban schools. The aim was twofold: first, to make sure those nonAnglophone Asians “integrate”, i. e. that they internalise the British / English way of life and above all learn enough English to get by first. Until the articulation of what was to become a very influential multicultural definition of “integration” by Roy Jenkins in 1966, the word was broadly understood in assimilationist terms by political elites. Secondly, and originally, the goal behind bussing was to placate white fears of an immigrant takeover in areas such as Southall where the number of Asians had dramatically soared in a few years. 

Photo of Pro-bussing demostration in Southall, 1975

                                         Above: Sydney Bidwell (MP for Southall from
                                                     1966-1992) debating with two Southall
                                                      elderly ladies (mid-1970s)

Despite the proverbial exceptions that proved the rule, bussing was a failure. One reason was that dispersed, marooned and unwelcome Asian youths faced racist bullying in schools far away from their neighbourhoods. It also confirmed to many Asians that they were lesser breeds without the law, since bussing white kids to the multi-racial inner-cities was never an option. 

Newspaper picture of BNP candidate in Southall local elections, 1963

                                 Above: The B.N.P targetting Southall in local elections,
                                             with their 'Keep Southall British' slogan.
                                             (Middlesex County Times & Gazette, 27. 04. 1963) 


The genesis of this project was really when I interviewed Riaz Ahmed, a Bradfordian originating from Kashmir, who confided having been ‘bussed out’ to an overwhelmingly white school as a kid in the mid-1960s. I had never heard of such a thing as ‘bussing’ in England. It came as something of a shock since at that time (2008) I had a hazy notion that bussing was really an American thing. 

Photo of Riaz Ahmed

                                                         Above: Riaz Ahmed 

Riaz’s interview is partly reproduced in my book De l’invisibilité à l’islamophobie (Paris : Presses de Sciences-Po, 2011) and like many Asians Riaz laments the double standards in bussing, besides the obvious fact that racism in white schools was very rife on the playgrounds, almost a way of life: 

                   “It was a failure primarily because it was a one-way traffic, not a two- 
way traffic, I remember it was a couple of lads like me going to
                    white schools, there were ten or twelve of us, and I remember we got
                    bullied it was terrible, and these are your formative years, you see,
                    very important for your mental development […] There should be
                    bussing, but it has to be a two-way traffic, otherwise it will fail.”  

                   Riaz Ahmed, interview, 15. 05. 2008, quoted in Olivier Esteves,
                   'De l’invisibilité à l’islamophobie, les musulmans britanniques,
Paris : Presses de Sciences-Po, 2011, p. 83. 

Almost straight away I wanted to discover more, and it was then that I realized  there had never been a book written on this one issue (as opposed to the number of books on American bussing), that I became aware there was really book material in this. So here we are, a few years later and slightly the wiser on a complex, controversial question. 


Alternatively, the words 'bussing' or 'dispersal' were used from the early 1960s to the early 1980s to refer to the subject of this book. Clarifications about the two words are needed. First of all, the two terms are not strictly synonymous. Indeed, technically, “bussing” is only one form of “dispersal”. In January 1964, West Bromwich introduced a measure of dispersal, “first for children walking to school and later by bus”. In 1967, Denis Howell, Labour MP for Small Heath and Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Education and Science, was scathing about Birmingham’s adamant refusal of dispersal and insisted that there were almost wholly white schools not far from the city’s northern segregated ethnic enclaves (Handsworth, Soho, Rotton Row) as well as from its southern ones (Small Heath, Sparkbrook, Balsall Heath). Consequently, in order to desegregate schools in these places, a form of dispersal without resorting to bussing was possible and desirable according to Denis Howell and Roy Hattersley, who was then Labour MP for Sparkbrook.

For all these nuances, dispersal and bussing were mostly understood as synonyms in the 1960s and 1970s. However, their connotations were different. “Dispersal” is a fairly abstract concept mobilised by local and national authorities who endorse or promote a policy of encouraged or forced desegregation. By using “dispersal”, policy-makers could always convey a feeling of protectiveness towards South-Asian pupils deficient in English and cultural integration. After all, wasn’t the evacuation of British children from Blitz-torn London in World War II sometimes called “dispersal”? Such terminological associations, however indirect, did play a part among political authorities who in the 1960s had all been through the traumatic experience of war. 

On the contrary, “bussing” is a concrete term which was used by critics of dispersal at grassroots level, i.e. multicultural or anti-racist associations, Asian parents, community relation bodies, politicians, etc. Bussing refers directly to the experience of being herded away from a neighbourhood school where one feels one naturally belongs, it is about a quantity of human bodies being shovelled into seemingly or actually unwelcoming places.

Whilst many Asians either had fun with their peers on the buses or were simply dozing, many, as we will see, experienced daily racist bullying in predominantly white schools, and this is what “bussing” encapsulates. Likewise, “bussing” is fraught with controversy, particularly when one thinks of the American struggle against it. “Busing” was what thousands of white American families rallied against in impressive and often violent demonstrations avidly reported by the mainstream media. Matthew F. Delmont argues that these families had no objection to busing as such “until and unless it was linked to desegregation. Put more starkly, then, school buses were fine for the majority of white families; ‘busing’ was not”. Although it took a radically different form in Southall or Bradford, “bussing” was likewise made, by those who fought against it and the media, into a red-button concept, a sort of boo word. 

Screenshot of web article 'Why Bussing Failed' by Matthew F. Delmont

These lexical nuances were not lost on some public actors. During a 1975 interview for the London Broadcasting Corporation, an Asian conciliator for the Race Relations Board, Usha Prashar, was asked by anchorman Tony Tucker:

                     “Where are they being bussed to? It’s an unfortunate expression that  
                       - bussed - I think because it conjures up so many other attitudes,
                      but I mean where are they being taken?”

In the same way, faced with mounting criticism of bussing, Ealing Council issued a press release on December 4 1974 which ran:

                    “After careful review of these changed circumstances, the Council
                     accepts that the best interests of all children in the borough would now
                     be met by bringing dispersal as we prefer to call it - to an end as soon
                     as is practicable”

These hesitations around a word inevitably betray a self-consciousness among authorities, who knew full well dispersal was no panacea, was certainly a makeshift, “short-lived” solution to a much larger problem over which local authorities had little control. This selfconsciousness is also illustrated by the fact that other words, phrases and metaphors were used in order to validate the policy recommendations made in circular 7/65. For one thing, the circular itself mentioned “spreading the children” besides “dispersal”, the National Union of Teachers (N.U.T) promoted “distribution schemes”, Nicholas Hawkes in his Immigrant Children in British Schools refers to “spreading” and “purposeful distribution”, Sheila Patterson of a “benign quota” policy, Maurice Kogan talks repeatedly of “coaching” and, in 1965, a Birmingham consultative document entitled ‘A First Report on the Educational and Social problems of the Coloured Immigrants’, upheld dispersal by calling it “unscrambling the omelette”. 

As opposed to these motley circumlocutions, Asians and whites who mobilised against dispersal in Bradford and Southall always singled out one enemy which they generally called plain “bussing”. This is important since in the 1960s even more than today, immigrants and ethnic minorities tended to be objects rather than subjects of public discourse. Hence, the bulk of words and concepts used in the debate on immigration and integration were often none of their choosing. Algerian sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad, in line with the concept of “symbolical violence” by Pierre Bourdieu (with whom Sayad worked), insists on how immigrants are frequently deceived into using the very concepts which in public debate are exploited in order to question their citizenship, deny their integration, suggest their backwardness, etc. If anything then, the choice of “bussing” is a telling sign of lexical agency from among the Asian minority, whose low-profile has too often been exaggerated in classic historiography.

One last comment on this lexical ambivalence, for the more practical purposes of the book. Both “bussing” and “dispersal” will be used, depending in most cases on whether the focus is more top-down or bottom-up.

Where Exactly? 

Unlike today, the English educational system was very little centralized back in the 1960s. After the 1965 circular issued by the Department of Education and Science (circular 7/65) which promoted the implementation of dispersal in areas which had more than 30% of immigrant children, Local Education Authorities were quite free to interpret “dispersal” how they saw fit, but also to introduce dispersal or not. As it turned out, the four LEAs with the largest number of immigrant children - the Inner London Education Authority, Birmingham, Brent, Haringey - refrained from doing so, with a degree of ambiguity as regards Birmingham. But what is key in terms of archival sources available is how the Department of Education and Science never really carried out a national enquiry into the bussing system. Pamela Fox, a D.E.S civil servant, candidly said in 1976 that “We have never made a survey to find out how many districts were dispersing or how many children were involved”. 

Photo of Grove School, Handsworth

                                 Above: Photo of Grove School, Handsworth (Birmingham).
                                             The Guardian, 11. 02. 1967.

Despite the local furore against a potential coloured take-over in certain schools, bussing was never introduced in the city of Birmingham.

The upshot of all this is clear. It is well-neigh impossible to tell with any degree of certainty how many LEAs dispersed, as well as when dispersal began and ended in LEAs which operated it. In Southall, bussing lasted from 1963 to 1981, in Bradford from 1964 to 1980. Beyond this it is all guesswork, since in LEAs where bussing was low-key local archives are very sparse and local newspapers quite often don’t cover it, unless some controversy is sparked by it. Just as worryingly, most studies of dispersal, which generally take up a few pages, prudently baulk at giving an exhaustive list of dispersing LEAs, often referring to the two notorious cases (Ealing, Bradford) next to convenient words or phrases like “including” or “among others”. A compilation of all the available sources looked into for this book suggests that between 1964 and 1981, 12 LEAs opted for dispersal in order to desegregate some schools with a large intake of immigrant children (30% quite often). These are, in alphabetical order : Blackburn, Bradford, Bristol, Ealing (Southall), Halifax, Hounslow, Huddersfield, Leicester, Luton, Walsall, West Bromwich, Wolverhampton. Embarrassingly, even some details in this list might be proven wrong. Dispersal took many different forms, especially in places like Bristol or Leicester, which are not, unlike Bradford and Ealing, at the heart of this study. It is also important to keep in mind that one single word could easily cover distinct realities. 

1973 Inner London Education Authority report

As is implicit in this title to a 1973 Inner London Education Authority report, London never envisaged the introduction of bussing, stressing instead the necessity for neighbourhood schools, and the need for all pupils to be treated equally.

Why Bussing Matters Today 

Here I want to make two points. First that bussing as a historical object of study does matter. Secondly that it does matter a lot today.

In a talk given at Huddersfield University in 2016, one of the participants in the debate, historian Paul Ward, remarked that the disturbing thing about bussing was its apparent normality. This view is important: many thousands of pupils have indeed been bussed up and down the country, in urban and rural areas, in the 1960s just as today. In the United States too, White anti-busing militants rallied around the “tradition” of “neighbourhood schools” but the truth suggested otherwise: there too there was a normality about busing, since by 1970 nearly half of all American public school students had to ride buses to school. 

On top of all this, there is a “racial form of normality” involved. A 1988 Commission for Racial Equality report entitled Learning In Terror insists on how shockingly normal racial bullying, racist violence and name-calling was in British playgrounds. “British” is in order here rather than “English”, for a study of the Scottish situation in the mid-1980s revealed that “Asian children face a daily barrage of abuse and physical attacks in Glasgow’s multi-racial schools”. Therefore, when reading these lines, some South-Asian people from Tower Hamlets, Manchester or Sheffield could logically cry out : “Well, I was never bussed, but I too was called a Paki and given a very rough time at school for years!”. 

With all this background in mind, what is different - albeit seemingly “normal” - about bussing is that many thousands of Asian pupils were forcefully transported to faraway schools, especially in Ealing and Bradford, that their parents had little or no say in it, or did not know they could have a say, and that most of these children were of primary school age. In Ealing in particular, thousands were bussed from 2 to 7 miles away from the age of 4-5 to the age of 11. Bussing was an outright denial of “parental choice” as promoted by the Education Act of 1944 (section 76). Ironically, in order to become like others, in order to be integrated and learn some English, Asian pupils had to go through a long phase, in their crucially formative years, during which they were less equal than others, different, “the Pakis on the bus” as they were sometimes called.

That bussing does matter as a historical object also needs to be proved for demographic reasons. We already know that it was a minority practice targeting an ethnic minority deficient in English and “integration”, and that the suggestion to disperse cut no ice with the four LEAs having the largest number of immigrants in the 1960s. However, regardless of whether bussing was introduced in LEAs with a large intake of immigrant children, the concept of dispersal was passionately debated in many places and this sheds light on issues of integration, assimilation, ghettoisation and desegregation which were to shape multicultural politics in the decades that followed. 

Whether militants, academics or politicians, many of those who were pivotal race-relation actors in the 1960s and 1970s had something to say about bussing and often said it loud. To give a random list: E. J. B. Rose and Nicholas Deakin, sociologist John Rex, Labour party stalwarts Maurice Foley, Roy Hattersley, Denis Howell, race relation expert Anthony Lester, the co-founder of the Runnymede Trust, educationalist Maurice Kogan, but also West Indian militants like Bernard Coard and Jeff Crawford, and of course conservative headmaster Ray Honeyford, who was to become an English national martyr of the assimilationist right in the 1980s. Not to mention that it is also very likely that in his “Rivers of Blood” speech, when saying that his constituents “found their wives unable to obtain hospital beds in childbirth, their children unable to obtain school places”, Enoch Powell himself was actually referring to Birmingham and some of the major West-Midland towns where pressure had been mounting for a few years to introduce dispersal. Lastly, it was often the experience of being bussed that sharpened the political consciousness of some of the Asian youths in Southall and Bradford. And it is no coincidence that much of the 1970s-1980s Asian militantism, from the “Bradford-12” case to the Southall Youth Movement, actually originated from these two places.

Bussing’s long episode in the 1960s and 1970s also illuminates some highly topical debates on class, ethnic and religious segregation in British schools. In Bradford, thirty years after the last nail had been hammered into dispersal’s coffin, the city erupted into riots the like of which had not been seen since 1981 in London (Brixton). Just after the events, Muhamad Ajeeb, the former Lord Mayor of Bradford who had campaigned against bussing, travelled to London and consulted with Lord Falconer, then minister of local government. He suggested that locally a 70% limit to the number of Asians in schools should be set, and that a two-way process type of bussing ought to be ushered in because, he claims, “my argument has always been that we should make a mutual effort; if we want to understand each other, we should make those sacrifices, even if it’s a very explosive issue. We should really think about the long-term consequences rather than the short-term benefits”. The point developed here is given imprimatur by Elizabeth Anderson in The Imperative of Integration: “Students who attend more racially integrated schools lead more racially integrated lives after graduation: they have more racially diverse co-workers, neighbours, and friends than do students who attend less diverse schools”. Against this belief in “integrationism”, Veit Bader states that “whether the effects of interaction are beneficial depends partly on the voluntariness of interaction and on contextual variables such as (the absence of) threats, (patterns of) discrimination, socio-economic inequalities and negative-sum games”. This issue will be further developed in conclusion, but among the “sacrifices” evoked by Mr Ajeeb, there was the looming threat of white-bashing (or “gore-bashing”) by Asian youths in schools where they make up a huge majority, a kind of historical revenge of the Bradford bussing years.

Muhamad Ajeeb was aware he was probably fighting a losing battle: on the English education market, “parental choice” was by 2001 an unshakable guiding principle, and is now even more so as this book goes to press. In addition, the events of 9/11 and then 7/7 did generate a massive, knee-jerk type of Islamophobia, especially in West Yorkshire. More importantly, which white middle-class parents from the outskirts of Bradford would want their children to be educated in ailing schools of run-down Manningham? In an English school system which has been more and more compartmentalized, based on a fierce competition reliant on table leagues (introduced under John Major in 1993), and with the even fiercer job competition in the offing, being sent to “ghetto schools” in Bradford or elsewhere would unleash a deterring storm of litigation.

Photo of Tong High School, Bradford

                        Above: A view of Tong High school (Bradford) 

Today, in the Holme Wood and Bierley estates around Bradford, five double-decker buses drive daily to Tong High School. Most of those who ride these buses are Asian students who do not live in the vicinity of these predominantly white housing estates. On the face of it, the situation is extraordinarily alike that of the 1960s-1970s, but in the present case those who take the bus do it on a voluntary basis, which changes just about everything. What this (and, to be sure, analogous situations around the country) highlights is that the provision of unequal education facilities will inevitably get the bus going for many years, the only difference being that, as opposed to fifty years ago, carbon emission is now an element of the debate. 

Photo of Sir Peter Lampl, philanthropist

                                               Above: Sir Peter Lampl, philanthropist 

In June 2016, the chairman of the Sutton Trust charity, Sir Peter Lampl, came up with the suggestion that children in run-down areas ought to be bussed out to “good” schools in an effort to improve their education. Beyond the fact that this further confirms, for England, Jefferson Cowie’s American point on moving people rather than money and resources, it is fairly obvious that the indefatigable philanthropist is not cognizant of the shady side of bussing’s history in England. This book, then, is also for him. 

Uncharted historical territory 

Monographs by American scholars on busing do exist, with the latest by Matthew Delmont (Why Busing Failed…) probably being the best (not least because it covers the history of bussing nationally) whereas this is the very first book about bussing in England, despite the substantial number of essays on race and schooling. Notice that in 2015, American historian Brett Bebber published a great article on the history of bussing in Ealing: “‘We Were Just Unwanted’, Bussing, Migrant Dispersal and South Asians in London”, Journal of Social History, vol. 48 no. 3 (2015). 

Unsurprisingly then, librarians and archivists contacted across England in areas which operated bussing were often unaware of the very existence of this policy in their own town. The only two places where I did not have to describe what English bussing was have been Ealing (Southall) and Bradford, the two English areas where it was widespread.

With hindsight, what is also astonishing is that for at least ten years after the introduction of dispersal in 1963, the racist name-calling and bullying which many young Asians went through on an almost daily basis was publically invisible. The papers did not report it, education experts (Maurice Kogan, for one) did not lay stress on it, and policy-makers were apparently blissfully unaware of what went on. One of the early official acknowledgments of the dire side-effects of bussing was in the Swann Report (1985), wherein one Asian former pupil recollects: 

                    “… I attended a middle school where approximately 90 per cent of the
                     pupils were white. The results of this situation were terrifying. The
                     group of black children were bussed to the school and then isolated
                     from their neighbourhood. At home they were again isolated from any
                     school contacts. During the four years I spent in that school, not one
                     person attended any after-school activities for fear of walking through
                     the neighbourhood where about ninety-two per cent of the population
                     were white. It would be literally true to say that there was a physical
                     barrier between our homes and our school and the only way in or out
                     was on the coach. At school the situation was the same. The Asians
                     were constantly in fear of being attacked by the several gangs of white
                     boys. As we ran towards the staff room a teacher would come out and
                     disperse the white gang, throw us back into the playground and then
                     walk back in as if nothing had happened. The teachers had no idea
                     what we were experiencing.”

                     Former Asian pupil, Southall, quoted in Education for All 
(“Swann”) Report, London, HMSO, 1985, p. 34. 

It is this also in this sense that the history of English bussing is almost uncharted territory: hundreds, indeed thousands of individual memories need to be told, and the book hopes to unearth as many of these as possible. 

Newspaper picture of asian kids getting on bus

                                   Above: The Telegraph and Argus (Bradford), 12. 11. 1972

This picture of smiling Asians, like so many others, tends to gloss over racist bullying within the schools, even in articles which do not endorse bussing. 

TV shot of asian kids on bus

                       Above: BBC (Southall, 1970)

The very few T.V. clips about English bussing generally show Asians on buses, not in the (white) schools: they are often dozy, having a good time among friends, etc. 


Obviously, a substantial part of the project is about interviews with people who themselves were bussed as kids in the 1960s and 1970s, or people who are elderly today and whose kids themselves were bussed, or anybody that had dealings with or were part of the administration of bussing, in particular in the Southall area or Bradford. In all other LEAs bussing was too low-key for me to expect, today, to get any oral feedback.

My email : 

My phone : 00 33 6 22 16 77 94

We can talk on the phone, skype, and I come to England a few times a year. In any event actual meetings are prioritized over phone / skype conversations. 

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