This is the fifth and final film in Steve McQueen’s anthology and the most personal. He has spoken about his own experience in his secondary school in Ealing and how he felt he was wrongly placed in a class for underachieving students. This has been a problem for many Black students. The school he attended, a former grammar school which became a comprehensive and is now one of those schools celebrated for its results, had a headteacher who admitted in the 2000s that it had been ‘institutionally racist’. Still dealing with the historical period when McQueen might have been a very young boy (he was born in in 1969), the script (co-written by McQueen and Alastair Siddons) for Education focuses on 12 year-old Kingsley Smith. The film opens with Kingsley enjoying a trip to a planetarium. (Is this meant to be the planetarium next to Madame Tussauds on Baker Street?) Whether he is actually on a visit from school or whether he is dreaming is not clear but Kingsley is a bright lad who is interested in space exploration.
When we get to see Kingsley in the classroom we can see that he isn’t engaged. In what follows, there are two important narrative developments. The first is that there is a growing trend in which Black children are increasingly being taken out of mainstream schooling and sent to ESN schools. ‘ESN’ means ‘Educationally Sub-normal’, a term disguised at the time by the euphemism ‘Special School’. The term isn’t used today but Black children are still disproportionately ‘excluded’ from schools and sent to ‘referral units’. McQueen uses the controversy generated by the publication in 1971 of a booklet written by the Grenadian Bernard Coard entitled ‘How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System: The Scandal of the Black Child in Schools in Britain’ and based on his experience teaching in the UK. McQueen presents the campaign by the West Indian community in London to expose the procedure and to provide ‘supplementary education’ classes in the form of Saturday schools for West Indian children. Education had been highly prized in the West Indies and there were many experienced educationalists in the community in London. Again McQueen draws on his own family memories and presents us with a Saturday school set up by a Grenadian mother that Kingsley attends along with his older sister. Fully engaged, his passion for rocketry re-emerges.
Several reviewers comment on how Education resembles a television play. It runs for just 63 minutes and McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner opted for a format that recreates the look of the TV plays of the 1970s. Education was shot on Super 16mm film, which was then processed to produce a 1:1.66 aspect ratio – not quite the 4:3 of standard television in the 1970s but squarer than the modern TV ratio of 16:9. The casting means that there are some familiar faces in smaller roles including Josette Simon (a well-known actor on UK TV) as Lydia the woman who leads the campaign against the ESN schools and, as an older man who never learned to read, Trevor Laird, whose roles go right back to the films Quadrophenia (1979) and Babylon (1980) – one of the seminal Black British films, even if directed by the Italian Franco Rosso. The Scottish actor Kate Dickie plays one of the teachers at the ESN school. At least one critic refers to the BBC’s Play for Today and the work of the director Alan Clarke as models for McQueen’s film. I’m more inclined to think of an ITV drama ‘series’, the four film/plays written by David Leland and collectively titled Tales Out of School (UK 1982-3). The last of these was R.H.I.N.O (Really Her in Name Only) which dealt with a Black teenage girl who regularly truanted by turning up for registration and then disappearing from school – a form of self-imposed ‘exclusion’.
What struck me most forcibly about Education was the depiction of Kingsley’s mother played by Sharlene Whyte. She is the epitome of the West Indian mother of the period, working as a nurse but always concerned about the welfare of her children and in particular their educational achievement. She knows her son is bright but she is led to believe that the ‘special’ school to which Kingsley is sent is a school that will improve his education possibilities rather than simply keeping him quiet and out of the way. Of the five films in the anthology, this is the one in which the women come to the fore with the campaigners and the mothers striving to overcome the threat of exclusion for Black children. In some ways I enjoyed this film the most out of the five. Partly this is because ‘education’ interests me as a subject, but also because of the simplicity of the approach here which enables the single issue to be explored in a satisfying way.
Re-watching the film/play I noticed several aspects of the script that I hadn’t thought too much about the first time round. The first is the time period which is marked by a number of references, not all of which add up. Kingsley at one point suggests that he wants to grow up to be an astronaut like Neil Armstrong. Although he had been an astronaut for several years, Armstrong became famous because of the Moon landing in July 1969. Later on, the importance of the Bernard Coard pamphlet, first published in 1971, puts the date as around 1972 and this seems to be confirmed by the reference to Margaret Thatcher as the Secretary of State for Education (1970-March ’74 when the Tories lost the General Election). This is possibly contradicted by the TV animation that Kingsley watches, Roobarb, which was first broadcast later in 1974. This precise timing doesn’t really matter but it does mean that McQueen is not going back to his own direct experience, which would have seen Kingsley at secondary school in the early 1980s, and instead the director returns us to a period ten years earlier, not long after the Mangrove trial. (Note that Kingsley’s older sister Stephanie’s objective is to get herself into Chelsea School of Art, which McQueen himself managed in the late 1980s.) The Small Axe anthology is mainly presented chronologically and perhaps this should have been No. 2?
Compared to the other films in the anthology, we are now in a different part of London. It could be Ealing or another Outer London Borough. Kingsley’s parents have done well to presumably buy this semi-detached suburban house. They are both working full-time and represent an emerging Black lower middle-class, at least in housing terms. But there is tension between the parents. Kingsley’s father believes Kingsley needs a to learn a trade. It’s interesting to compare the breakfast scene at the start of Education with a similar scene at the start of Horace Ové’s Pressure (1974/6). Ove’s family are still in inner city West London and the feel of the scene is quite different. Does it really matter where the Smith household is located? I think it does in terms of the narrative in the sense that Kingsley’s family is a stable family with a strong educational push from Mrs Smith. They are in no way ‘disadvantaged’ and assumptions are being made about Kingsley by the school staff that seem very suspicious. The teachers should recognise that he has a specific learning difficulty but is otherwise a bright, intelligent child. This is supported by Hazel, the psychologist and proved in practice by Kingsley’s progress in the Saturday supplementary school. Coard’s pamphlet demonstrates how this failure to diagnose becomes institutionalised and is impacting West Indian children disproportionately. These are difficult issues to discuss. All teachers are faced with children who appear to be behaving in a way that makes them ‘difficult’, but most teachers will try to understand why this behaviour arises. If the the majority of the class seem to be suffering from poor living conditions and difficult family circumstances, teachers clearly face problems, but that isn’t the situation in Kingsley’s school.
Most of the adults Kingsley meets at school look down on him but I noted a nice little human touch when the bus driver who takes Kingsley to the ‘special’ school recognises the hurt the boy feels and helps him avoid facing his old schoolmates. I’ve seen several comments that Education is a ‘slight’ narrative and presents a ‘tailing off’ of the energy generated in the first four films. I hope I’ve shown why I think that is not really the case. This is an important story that still resonates strongly today. There are many Kingsleys still struggling in English schools and we still need to change the system.