In my review of Mangrove, I stated that if the next four instalments in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology series could maintain the level of quality the first one boasted, viewers were in for something very special. In hindsight, it was going to be very tough for any other entries to reach the standards set by a piece which I consider to be the best film of the year so far. I pondered whether the BBC ought to have aired Mangrove as the concluding chapter in the anthology, as the shorter length and more personally-driven stories of the others were potentially going to make them feel “slight” in comparison. However, upon watching Education, the last film in Small Axe, I am glad this one was saved until the end, as it serves as a profound and deeply poignant illumination of the systemic flaws which have hindered the academic progress of young West Indian immigrants in London.
Very few pieces of mainstream cinema and television have shone a light on the issues revolved around the education system. The fourth season of The Wire was notable for its examination of how certain children are marginalised as a result of the policies created and applied by people involved in the institution, in that case a city school in West Baltimore. The cultural context of Steve McQueen’s picture is drastically different, taking place in 1970’s West London, but it stands alongside David Simon’s HBO drama as one of the most scathing indictments of the organisations responsible for failing numerous students. The film is not based on a specific individual like other instalments in Small Axe, but McQueen has taken inspiration from his own educational experience which parallels the journey Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy), the 12-year-old protagonist, is forced to go on. An aspiring astronaut with an aptitude for maths, he has difficulties when it comes to reading and writing, a challenge his teachers do not seem to be sympathetic to. After an altercation with one of them, Kingsley is informed by his headteacher that a “special school” has been identified which would be more suitable for him to attend. It quickly becomes apparent that this “special school” is in fact an “educationally subnormal school” (ESN), where Kingsley finds himself surrounded by other Black children as well as students with various learning difficulties.
The strategy employed by the headteacher in Kingsley’s comprehensive school is a reflection of the institutional racism which has prevented Black children from fulfilling their potential. It has been fuelled by a desire to reach certain academic targets and a misguided belief that these students are obstructing schools from hitting such targets, with IQ tests used as an excuse to justify their transfer to ESN’s. The cynicism displayed by people with administrative posts in education towards them is strikingly captured by McQueen throughout the film. While I levelled some criticism at the slightly heavy-handed way instances in Red, White and Blue and Alex Wheatle highlighted prejudice from those in positions of power, Education conveys the sense of isolation Kingsley is dealing with in an understated but incredibly complex manner. The first scene of Kingsley in a classroom sees him and the other students taking it in turns to recite extracts from Of Mice and Men. When Kingsley’s teacher asks him to continue reading the passage aloud, he does not know where the previous classmate left off, and when he finally identifies the section, he encounters problems pronouncing numerous words. Many of the students laugh at Kingsley and his teacher does not offer any assistance whatsoever; Kingsley is allowed to become the subject of mockery. Furthermore, his class in the ESN is often left to run amok due to their teacher’s frequent absence. When he does eventually show up, his signature moment comes when he delivers a shoddy rendition of The Animals’ ‘House of the Rising Sun’. McQueen has a tendency to deliver elongated scenes of discomfort. However, this sequence is simultaneously hysterical and excruciating to watch unfold, with the teacher’s indulgence in expressing his musical “skills” countered by the shots of his students slouched in their seats wearing looks of exhaustion and apathy. There is hardly any valuable support being offered to these children; their education is left in the hands of individuals who have little interest in laying the foundations for them to flourish academically. Even the school curriculum fails them, as any texts which could help inform children like Kingsley of their cultural heritage are virtually absent. This depiction of the neglect endured by children from marginalised communities from those in these institutions is raw and very damning.
The characterisation in Education is just as layered. From the outset, we recognise that Kingsley is not necessarily the best-behaved pupil (he is not afraid to talk back to people), but we are sympathetic to his plight because is not just undervalued by his peers and teachers, but his parents. His father emphasises opportunities in carpentry that Kingsley could pursue, despite his son’s lack of interest. He even extends an offer to Kingsley to work with him once he leaves school, not even entertaining the idea of the protagonist achieving his hopes to enter the field of astronomy. Kingsley’s mother Agnes (Sharlene Whyte) is similarly pessimistic towards the child’s academic progress, and does not hesitate to avail of the chance to send Kingsley to this “special school”. The protagonist is conscious of how his attendance at the ESN will look to his friends, culminating in a devastating sequence when they wait for him to depart the bus that takes him back to the comprehensive school at the end of the day. In fear of having countless questions posed to him about his time there by them, Kingsley, with the driver’s consent, hides on the bus until his friends have left the scene. The level of awareness displayed by a character of Kingsley’s age is deeply emotionally resonant in showcasing how a child can be consumed by a fallacious sentiment of shame.
Agnes, however, is the character whose arc is arguably the most affecting in Education. Whenever she appears in the opening half-hour of this 63-minute feature, she is often presented as an intimidating presence, disgruntled at Kingsley’s actions in school and drawing his attention to the long working hours she has to complete as a nurse to support the working-class family. As the film unfolds, the lack of attention she has paid to her son’s academic challenges is brought into sharp focus, particularly through the emergence of a group of West Indian education campaigners. One of them, Hazel Lewis (Naomi Ackie), first encounters Kingsley in the ESN when she briefly deputises for his absent teacher. The benignity she exudes during her interaction with Kingsley and subsequently the rest of the class is a marked shift from the ambivalence shown by the other members of staff, as she demonstrates an ability to explain the complicated nature of her work as a psychologist in relatable and comprehensible terms. A colleague of Hazel’s ends up meeting Agnes, describing to Kingsley’s mother how discriminatory ESN’s are towards her son and many other Black British people, culminating in former handing Agnes a pamphlet titled ‘How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System’, written by Bernard Coard, and extending an invitation to Kingsley to attend a Saturday school. Reading this document marks a turning point for Agnes in how invested she is in her son’s upbringing, recognising that the path Kingsley is currently on will waste his talents. When she goes to a group meeting held by Hazel and her fellow campaigner Lydia Thomas (Josette Simon) with many Black parents present, she realises the extent of the manipulation from those responsible for many children’s academic deficiencies. Sharlene Whyte does a remarkable job of expressing Agnes’s gradual understanding that not only has she been misled, but that this dishonesty, along with her family’s perilous position in wider society, has fractured her relationship with Kingsley, who has felt resistant from fully opening up to her about his dissatisfaction with school life.
The final chapter of Small Axe is not as notable of a technical achievement as other entries such as Lovers Rock, but the script by McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddons boasts an efficacy in its treatment of so many issues related to education through a specific cultural lens that many scenes do not require flashy cinematography or elaborate camera work to heighten the drama. The measured approach McQueen takes to telling this particular story is appropriate, as it allows the power of the dialogue and various character dynamics to absorb viewers. I do not want to reveal aspects of their content, but I could potentially write a piece on the final 15 minutes of this film alone, which feature a number of moments which will both break and warm your heart. The importance of legacy has been spotlighted throughout this anthology series, from Altheia Jones-LeCointe’s impassioned monologue in Mangrove to a speech from one attendee of the group meeting run by Lewis and Thomas in Education which emphasises the importance of allowing future generations of Black British people to learn about the genuine history of their ancestors which has been erased or appropriated by the school curriculum. Therefore, my main takeaway as Small Axe concludes is that I hope aspiring filmmakers are encouraged by Steve McQueen’s masterful work to bring similar stories to the screen and that production companies and studios embrace them, because they need to be told.
And a film like this needs to be shown in schools, make no mistake.
To finish off, I would like to highlight a small extract from a piece written Alex Wheatle, titled ‘My Not So Literary Education’, which is one of a number of excellent articles featured on Vanity Fair revolved around Small Axe. The following is a fitting encapsulation of the themes explored in Education which continue to resonate today:
“In the fall of 1980, there was a young Black boy living on my road. I guessed he was about 12 or 13 years old. The son of Rastafarian parents, he wore infant dreadlocks. His name was Asher. On this autumn day, he looked troubled and upset. I asked him what was the matter as he passed my home. He explained that his history teacher had insisted that Christopher Columbus had discovered Jamaica in the late fifteenth century. Asher had raised his hand to challenge his tutor. He argued that Christopher Columbus could not have ‘found’ Jamaica because the Arawak people and others were already there. He had heard the reggae singer, Burning Spear, singing about it on his latest album. An argument ensued which resulted in Asher being given detention and a warning to behave in the future. As Asher marched home, he paused to glance over his shoulder at me and said, ‘Aren’t the Arawaks considered important too?’ My exchange with Asher made me consider my own education”.
Education is currently available to stream on the BBC iPlayer and will be released on Amazon Prime in the US on Friday December 18th.
The entire Small Axe series will be available on DVD from December 21st and is available to pre-order now.