▶︎ Education broadcasts on BBC One and iPlayer from 13 December 2020 and streams on Amazon Prime in the US.
Like many small boys, 12-year-old Kingsley dreams of the stars. Absorbed by astronomy and the careful drawing of rockets, he harbours dreams of becoming an astronaut. Yet his ambitions are routinely grounded by the fact that he lives on a dour estate in Haringey, North London, in the early 1970s, and his hardworking parents are in no position to support such lofty ambitions. And the cold reality is that, as a child of West Indian immigrants, Kingsley’s future prospects barely stretch to the end of the estate, let alone above the clouds.
Education, one of five films in Steve McQueen’s BBC series Small Axe depicting the experiences of London’s West Indian community between the 1960s and 1980s, is concerned with how the education policies of Haringey council (and others) wilfully disadvantaged non-white children such as Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy). A bright child whose struggles with literacy go unnoticed or ignored, Kingsley is often targeted by his teachers for behaviour overlooked in other children. His English teacher calls him a blockhead for struggling to read in class – from John Steinbeck’s problematic Of Mice and Men (1937), which contains offensive racist language – and his music teacher manhandles him out of the room for a minor infraction.
Summoned to the office of his tight-lipped headmaster, Kingsley and his mother (Sharlene Whyte) – who is continually exhausted and short-tempered from working several jobs – learn that Kingsley has scored low in an IQ test and will be bussed several miles away to a school for special needs children. Their protestations fall on deaf ears, and Kingsley is told to make the best of the situation. On arrival, Kingsley finds a poorly run institution with inept teachers who leave the children to their own devices. Unable to communicate his complaints to his mother, Kingsley resigns himself to spending his days bored, asleep or running riot. The light goes out of his eyes.
It’s a damning, semi-autobiographical portrait of a broken system, and McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddons (who also collaborated on two of the other films, Mangrove and Alex Wheatle) effectively distil the complexities of this huge issue through the experiences of this single family across a one-hour running time. On the surface are the dirty looks and explicit slurs, including a viciously racist remark by one of Kingsley’s own special needs teachers when he enquires as to how he should spend his lunch break. But these are only the tip of the iceberg.
While it’s clear that these shameful practices are a product of the institutionalised racism that defined much of England in the 1970s (and, let’s be frank, endures), Education goes further, to explore the painful realities of an ethnic community ill-equipped to protest against their treatment. As first-generation West Indian immigrants, Kingsley’s mother and father (a taciturn Daniel Francis) are driven by the desire to give their children a better life, but utterly stymied by their circumstances. They work all hours at menial jobs to put food on the table, and simply haven’t got the time to scrutinise or question what’s happening to their son. They have no choice but to trust that the system will care for their children.
And so, when local activists open Kingsley’s mother’s eyes to the realities of her son’s education, by way of the real-life 1971 booklet by Bernard Coard entitled How the West Indian Child Is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System, it’s a small but significant moment of revolution. Kingsley’s parents are initially unsure of their ability to take on this fight and, more than that, unwilling to rock the boat in a country where they remain outsiders. Yet the knowledge that Kingsley will be one of an entire lost generation, singled out for nothing more than his race, lights a fire under this household. (Tellingly, it’s Kingsley’s older sister, played by a vibrant Naomie Ackie, who helps persuade her parents – and, particularly, her reticent father – that they have the autonomy, and the right, to demand change.)
In line with the intimate narrative, the cinematographer Shabier Kirchner (who has shot all of the Small Axe films) keeps the focus contained, the colour muted. The hugely endearing Kenyah Sandy often fills the screen, his young features full of innocent joy or abject confusion about things he doesn’t understand. When, at film’s end, he joins a lively and passionate local Saturday school, full of kids like him, Kingsley begins to unfurl and fresh air rushes into the film.
“What do we know about our ancestors?,” asks the teacher. “That we were slaves,” is the answer. “That is what they want us to know,” she retorts, before launching into a lesson about ancient kings and queens in Africa. The message is clear; the teaching of Black history, as well as of Black children, has been woefully inadequate, and it is our collective responsibility to expand our education on this subject.
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