Steve McQueen’s film Education revisits the 1970s, when many working-class, particularly Black, children were treated as ‘educationally subnormal’ in UK schools. How much has changed?
Period dramas usually open with an orchestral score and the vista of a stately home. Aired to neutralise the impending gloom of short, dark days, they drip with nostalgia for a long-gone British greatness. They’ve shied away from the less comforting aspects of our history.
But, as internet memes keep reminding us, 2020 is the year that keeps up the surprises. The BBC is doing period drama differently this winter, with the Small Axe series from artist and film-maker Steve McQueen. The anthology of five films forces us to confront the entrenched racism London’s Afro-Caribbean communities fought against from the 1960s to 1980s.
The final film in the series, Education, follows the struggles of one family to secure a proper education for their son, Kingsley. The film opens within 12-year-old Kingsley’s reverie. He daydreams of space and interstellar travel. In his world, possibilities are endless. This is as it should be; he is a child with all of life before him. But the film quickly reveals how, at school, Kingsley has already been marked out as a failure.
Struggling to read, and engaged in low-level misbehaviour as a result, Kingsley’s teachers disavow their duty to teach, opting instead to bully and belittle. Soon, his family are caught in the dragnet of the school’s low expectation for their son. In a meeting with the headteacher, Kingsley’s mother is misled into believing that the offer to send her son to a “special school” is a “great opportunity”. Their local schools have been funnelling Black children out of mainstream education and into schools for the “educationally subnormal”(ESN). Kingsley’s mother learns this only after the intervention of Black parents galvanised by the work of Grenadian educationalist Bernard Coard.
When we speak over the phone, Steve McQueen begins by asking me what age group I teach. I tell him secondary. Without hesitation he says that for him that period of his education was “hell” and speaks of being made to feel “powerless”. It is clear he felt compelled to revisit those experiences; the words flow forth as he speaks of combining his “own narrative within that time in the early 70s and the [issue of] educationally subnormal schools”. McQueen himself attended a mixed comprehensive and says that as working-class pupils, his peers already understood that the system was designed to ensure their failure. “Even though we were from different backgrounds and races… we all knew we were being fucked over”. Despite having dyslexia, he continues, “there was no help… you were left to your own devices…there was no interest.”
Born in west London to Grenadian and Trinidadian parents, McQueen tells me that he got some of his passion for art and learning from Black supplementary schools he attended in Hammersmith and Acton. There he learned that “there is a problem and the problem isn’t you”. School had set him on a trajectory to leave early – “at 13 years old, you are marked, you are dead, that’s your future” – and, at best, go on to begin manual work. But the Saturday school instilled a sense of pride and fostered “my love of art” which “opened my world”. What saddens him is the memory of Black boys with “amazing, talented, beautiful minds… who didn’t get the opportunity to fulfil their potential.”
In 2000, when McQueen returned to his comprehensive to hand out achievement awards, 15 years after leaving, the school’s new head conceded it had been institutionally racist. Another 20 years on, McQueen tells me a story involving old school friends who bumped into their former deputy headteacher. The deputy spoke of having attempted to tackle Black underachievement at the school when they were there, only to be rebuffed by the then head who was concerned any improvements on the issue would only attract more Black pupils to the school. For Steve McQueen, the anecdote makes plain that his school was “investing in Black failure”. During the filming of Education, McQueen says, “the strangest thing happened.” The mother of a cast member approached him to say she had been in the year above McQueen and she had experienced the same endemic racism. She now home-schools both her Black boys.
When I ask about the moments of camaraderie between the children at the ESN school that the film depicts, McQueen tells me that it was true to his experience of being in “shitty classes” where no one cared. Systemic disregard led to “a real us and them” feeling, McQueen says. “The only defiance we had was in defiance, the way that we were rude to the teachers… it was all we had.”
In 1971, Coard wrote How the West Indian Child Is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System: the Scandal of the Black Child in Schools in Britain, aiming his analysis squarely at Black parents. The problem was widespread, and resonated. Within a year, Coard, who struggled to find a mainstream publisher, sold all 10,000 copies of the polemic through New Beacon Books, the UK’s first Black publisher. Its success led to the flourishing of Black supplementary schools across the country, set up by Black parents, teachers and volunteers who had a total lack of faith in the system.
Alastair Siddons, who co-wrote Education with McQueen, describes the practice of sending predominantly Afro-Caribbean children to ESN schools as a “shameful episode in our history”. For Siddons, the stories that stuck from his research were of “teachers who used to show up for the first 10 minutes of the day and then wouldn’t set any work, would just… basically leave the kids alone for the day”. Damning Black children to no education and therefore to a low social and economic status as adults solidified what their parents already knew – that they were, to quote Coard in 1971, living in a “generally hostile environment”.
The film depicts the hurt of a community that Grenadian-born educationalist Professor Gus John describes as “being low in means but high in aspiration”. The Windrush generation, answering a call for help from the mother country and hoping to secure its much touted first-class schooling for their children, considered education the bedrock of social mobility. They were instead faced with a system that worked to reproduce inequalities. By 1970, 17% of pupils in London’s mainstream schools were from ethnic minorities, yet in ESN schools that figure was 34%, with Black Caribbean children accounting for three quarters of the figure.
Ziggy Moore, 36, is a teacher and founder of Black supplementary school Moore Education, which opened in 2016. He is also a member of the grassroots group No More Exclusions. Moore tells me that Coard’s pamphlet speaks to the experiences of his own father, who came to Britain from Jamaica in 1963, aged nine. By the time he was 16, he had been excluded. “He and his peers were all made out to be educationally subnormal,” Moore says. “We are in 2020 and every single thing in [Coard’s] book is relevant today.”
During the 1990s, Moore himself began to encounter the racism that removed his father from mainstream education. When he was nine, his mother was told his school could no longer teach him. He was facing permanent exclusion. “I spent extended periods, especially in year four – that’s when it reached a peak – outside, looking into the classroom, because if I moved in my chair incorrectly, it was: ‘Just get out.’” Moore punctuates the memory with a dry laugh. “If I moved this from here to here,” he says, demonstrating with a cup, “and it might clatter with something, it would be like: ‘Just go outside’. And increasingly, if I wasn’t outside my classroom I’d be spending a lot of my time by the desk outside the headteacher’s office.” Moore says that he remembers feeling “victimised, unable to articulate” himself, and that it led to “complete disengagement which reflected as disrespect”. Moore sees the experiences both he and his father had as typical of the racial discrimination Black children continue to face.
Today, nearly 40% of Black children achieve five good GCSEs, and yet Afro-Caribbean boys are three times as likely as other pupils to be permanently excluded. The problem is even worse when considering working-class pupils as a whole: children eligible for free school meals – both Black and white – account for 40% of permanent exclusions.When we consider that 30% of Black children are living in poverty and are twice as likely to be identified with special educational needs, it is hard to believe that inclusivity lies at the heart of a comprehensive education.
Professor John, who in 1968 opened Birmingham’s first Black supplementary school, believes that the 70s practice of labelling Black children as “educationally subnormal” and excluding them from mainstream education has been replaced by alternative provision (AP) and pupil referral units (PRU). Alternative provision is a catch-all term referring to education taking place outside of mainstream and special needs schools. Schools or local authorities arrange AP for children who have been excluded, have complex needs as the result of an impairment, challenging behaviour, are school refusers or are experiencing short- or long-term illness. England’s 349 pupil referral units are maintained by local authorities. Given their proportion of the school population nationally, Black Caribbean children are educated within PRUs at almost four times the expected rate.
John believes education currently operates as a two-tier system, with mainstream schools for those who are “better off”. The figures support him. Between 2006 and 2012, the rate of permanent exclusions had almost halved, yet by 2019, a long-awaited government report on school exclusions warned that this had changed. The 2019 Timpson Review, by former children’s minister Edward Timpson, stated that “following many years of decline in use, rates of both fixed period and permanent exclusions have risen since 2013”. Evidence on the scandal of increasing exclusion given to the education select committee suggests that slashed school budgets and government encouragement that schools have a “zero tolerance” approach to unruly behaviour have played a role.
In a voice stripped of any emotion, 17-year-old Daniel* tells me school was “too easy” and left him disengaged. His disruptive behaviour at 13, in year 9, resulted in the school giving his mother an ultimatum: accept 21 weeks of Daniel’s isolation from regular classes (what schools call an internal exclusion), or permanent exclusion and a PRU. His mother chose the former. Within weeks, the school permanently excluded him anyway. When his local authority, Southwark, attempted to send him to a PRU, Daniel’s mother resisted. She was too fearful of the adverse influence it could have on him.
In 2018 a group of London students launched the Education Not Exclusion campaign, replacing tube maps on London’s Northern line with their own alternative entitled “school to prison”. First stop: sent out of class; then detention, isolation, temporary exclusion, permanent exclusion, PRU and, finally, prison.
An alternative provision was found for Daniel, but the council refused to fund it, citing squeezed budgets. Daniel’s family would not hear from the council again. He spent the next two years at home, completing worksheets sent by his former school.
In 2010, Michael Gove, the then education secretary, wrote in a white paper that he desired “private sector organisations to offer high-quality education for disruptive and excluded children and others without a mainstream school place”. Despite costing the taxpayer £2.1bn each year, only 1.5% of pupils in PRUs or similar alternative provision will go on to gain five good GCSEs.
Every day, 41 pupils are excluded from an English school. Those sent to alternative provision are twice as likely to be taught by unqualified or supply teachers once they get there. Gavin Williamson, secretary of state for education, states that “a society that writes children and young people off as a problem to be managed, often before they’ve become teenagers, is not solving anything”. Nonetheless, the government is seeking to expand alternative provision.
Initially created to provide a temporary, short-term release from mainstream school, APs are now a significant part of the school system. As Gove had hoped, many are run by private providers. Disproportionately meted out to Black Caribbean boys, the rise in exclusions suggests little progress over 50 years.
Teacher and author Jeffrey Boayke says that schools merely reflect wider society. What we see in education, and the disproportionate rates of exclusion for Black Caribbean boys, is “symptomatic of a failure of society to integrate marginalised communities”, and adds: “All of society’s institutions and structures are struggling to reconcile historical injustice and prejudices.” Rather than accept this, however, as in the decades before the focus on a lack of role models, or on the Black family, merely looks to blame Black children and their parents for the continued prevalence of institutional racism.
Timpson, in his 2019 review on the literature around school exclusions, wrote: “The extent to which pupils felt they ‘belonged’ in a school was identified as critical in some of the research. This included feeling valued as an individual, having good relationships with peers and teachers, and feeling that their needs were understood and addressed.”
That sense of belonging can be hindered when your teachers look nothing like you and the curriculum doesn’t reflect the contributions of your community. Calls for increased representation in the classroom, as well as in leadership positions, and the push to diversify the curriculum must be viewed in light of what their absence means for Black children who are vulnerable to being excluded.
I listen to Abi, mother of 15-year-old Michael, explain why her son was excluded from school. His hair was the problem. I ask Abi to send me a picture and blink in disbelief when the images arrive: they show Michael, his face obscured, from the front, back and side. His hair is short, no more than two centimetres long at the top, tapering down and cut close to the skin at the nape. Call it a fade or short back and sides, it is a popular haircut among Black men and boys. Their school, an academy in central London with a large cohort of Black pupils, included a new rule to its uniform policy: hair couldn’t be cut lower than a grade two. Anything shorter would, the headteacher insisted, look “unprofessional”. Even Barack Obama would have fallen foul.
Emmanuel Awoyelu is a teacher and Senco (specialist educational needs coordinator) at New Rush Hall, a special school for children with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs, which has two PRUs attached. With the same weary tone as Abi, he tells me that now: “I go into school with the same haircut that I wasn’t allowed to have at 14.” Given his first exclusion was at aged 10, Awoyelu says: “School failed me, so I failed school.”
When parents at Abi’s school complained that such a policy discriminated against Black boys who cut their hair short in order to easily maintain it, the head pushed back. He argued that short hair did not prepare his pupils for a world of work in which they needed to be presentable. The implication being that he, rather than the Black parents complaining, was an objective arbiter of what professionalism looks like. Two years on, I ask Abi what it was like to have her son excluded for something so minor. It was “a very traumatic experience”, she says.