John Oke – An Obituary

John Oke, inspiring ‘people person’ who founded pioneering organisations

Father-of-four tried to improve life chances for young black people failed by school system.

04 October, 2019 — By Angela Cobbinah

Source: Camden New Journal

JOHN Oke, who has died after a long illness aged 85, is remembered for dedicating himself to the frontline of grassroots politics in Camden for almost 40 years.

The two pioneering organisations he founded, Camden Black Parents and Teachers Association (CBPTA), and Odu Dua Housing Association, emerged out of the black self-help movement of the 1980s and from his own determination to make a difference.

Born in Oyo State, western Nigeria, in 1934, John Oluwole Oke arrived in Britain as a teenager in search of better opportunities.

After training as a civil engineer, he returned to Nigeria to work before making his way back to the UK during the 1970s and settling in Kentish Town, where he happily remained for the rest of his life.

As the father of four children, he realised that too many black youngsters were being failed by the schools system and leaving education without any qualifications with a damaged sense of self.

In response John set up the CBPTA in 1980, running it from the front room of his home before acquiring office premises.

The organisation spawned the Winnie Mandela supplementary school and Kuumba play centre, two Kentish Town-based schemes that emphasised African-centred education and activities through which hundreds of children passed.

In 1986, John established the Odu Dua Housing Association – named after a Yoruba deity – to initially tackle the high rate of homelessness among young black men in the borough before widening its remit to black and ethnic minority people living in Camden, Brent and Barnet.

Using short-life properties as its founding stock, at its peak it had a 300-strong portfolio, in­cluding flats and houses on the Lithos Road estate in West Hampstead.

John served as Odu Dua’s first chief executive and later its chairman, preventing it from being swallowed up by bigger housing associations in a mega merger.

He parted company with the organisation in 2015 but regarded it as his proudest achievement, his family said.

Gifted with great reserves of energy as well as a selfless determina­tion to improve the lives of those around him, over the years John was also a parent governor at Acland Burghley School and a governor at Edith Neville and St Michael’s CoE primary schools. He was also an active member of the Labour Party.

“Our father was a 100 per cent people person and was uninterested in accolades,” said his youngest daughter Alicia. “His work inspired so many lives and he was still in touch with young people he’d mentored along the way and who’d gone on to do well. They would always address him as Uncle John.”

A convert to Buddhism, John was diagnosed with cancer eight years ago but continued to be as active as possible, only stepping down as a trustee of the Camden Community Law Centre last year following more than three decades of service. He died peacefully at his home of 35 years in Leighton Road on September 13 surrounded by his family. He is survived by four children and two grandchildren.

John’s funeral took place yesterday (Wednesday) at Golders Green Crematorium.

I first met John when he attended the event in Euston that I had organised for my local Labour Party branch ‘Let’s Talk About Windrush’ last year. After the event, he came over to me and we spoke about colonialism and how it has affected but also brought together different BAME communities. I met him again at another event I co-chaired in Kentish Town ‘In Conversation With Nah and Angela’, two local Labour Party members who had contributed to the book New Daughters of Africa.

Since then, I learnt a lot more about John and the amazing work he had done over his lifetime as an activist for BAME issues. His legacy will live on through the people who worked closely with him on his projects and through the students whose lives he touched through the African-centred schools he founded.

Read more about the African-centred School John founded here:

Source: Guardian Website – Schools –

‘We shouldn’t learn we are black in the playground’

Supplementary schools build self-esteem and academic success for ethnic minority students

by Felicity Heywood, Tue 11 Oct 2005

An excerpt:

Back in 1980, a group of single mothers in Camden were concerned about the exclusions and suspensions from school that their children were experiencing. Classes started and for the next five years, around 10 parents taught their children supplementary lessons from their homes.

John Oke, one of the founders, now chairman of the CBPTA, says: “Unfortunately, around that time, you didn’t find black people in the banks, in schools, even in government. It is more common now. So the role models were the parents.” The low self-esteem of the children, society’s racism and the schools’ general misunderstanding of their needs as black parents were identified as the root cause of poor educational achievement.

When the group staged a sit-in for four weeks at the Kentish Town law centre because repeated applications for permanent premises were denied, Camden council offered them a short lease. Since then, they have their own rented council space, are awarded a core grant of £50,000 a year from Camden council and have a waiting list.

Today (2005) the Mandela school teaches children from four to 16 years and employs (and pays) eight teachers to lead one hour of English and maths a week and 50 minutes of black history. All are trained teachers, including two who are senior maths teachers at London secondary schools. The secondary pupils attend on Tuesdays after school hours, and the primary school-age pupils on Saturdays. With a focus on individual need, there is a maximum of 15 to a class. Boys outnumber girls almost three to one. Parents pay £35 each term to send their children. Camden Council stipulates that 75% of the pupils who attend must live in the borough.

Read full article here