Education: what the final Small Axe film teaches us about an education system fraught with racial bias

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After four different narratives showcasing the Black British experience, the final episode of Small Axe reminds us to always question systematic bias.

Steve McQueen’s critically acclaimed mini series, Small Axe, has come to its conclusion in the final episode, Education. An emotional story of racial injustice through a child’s eyes in 1970s Britain, it painfully shows the feeling of powerlessness that engulfs you when decisions are being made based on racial discrimination.

Perhaps the most personal film in the anthology for McQueen, it reflects some of his own experiences of schooling going to a mixed comprehensive school in west London. “You were left to your own devices. There was no interest,” he told The Guardian.

At the start of Education, we meet twelve-year-old Kingsley Smith (played by newcomer Kenyah Sandy) on a school trip. He’s a bright and lively young boy fascinated with space and has high hopes of becoming an astronaut. In other words, a dream not too dissimilar from many other children. But the joy is drained out of him in a lesson when he’s told to read from a book out loud in class.

The camera glides from two Caucasian children effortlessly reading from their pages to a boy of South Asian descent who also manages to read from the book, albeit stuttering and mispronouncing the word ‘sculptured’. Kingsley is up next and falls silent, which results in him being called a ‘big blockhead’ by his teacher. The fear and stifling shame he feels in the classroom sets the tone for the rest of the episode. There’s no guidance or praise. This episode reveals how we’ve been exposed to a system designed to effectively help young Black children fail. He is regarded as, and treated as, a lost cause.

Small Axe: Kingsley Smith (played by Kenyah Sandy) and his peers in class

Herein lies the main systematic failure: despite his clear aptitude, Kingsley isn’t given any confidence in his academic abilities which in turn gave teachers an exuse to label students like him – usually from West Indian backgrounds – as having ‘special educational needs’.

When Kingsley causes a disruption in his music class, he is sent to the principal’s office where it’s revealed that he will be sent to what is shocking called an ‘educationally subnormal school’, meant for those with learning disabilities. It’s what’s set to be a life-altering move for Kingsley; those who attended these schools typically had limited access to jobs or opportunities to advance.

Small Axe: Kingsley Smith getting chaperoned to the principal's office

The teachers at Kingsley’s new school are clearly uninvested in their pupils education and believe them to be failures  from the offset – which the children can’t help but absorb. The students are often left unattended in class. This is exactly how a Black female psychologist new to the school, Hazel Lewis (Star Wars and End of the F***ing World actor Naomi Ackie) finds the children.

Hazel is outraged and makes it her mission to confront the problem head on – visiting Kingsley’s mother, Agnes Smith, at home and awakening her to the fact the school is not the place for her son. Hazel goes on to create a Saturday school programme to teach their children what mainstream education doesn’t seem to want to. She also provides an education of sorts for Agnes who writes to then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to change the unconscious bias is in the schooling system (this took the form of the Education Reform Act which was passed 15 years later). 

Experiencing faith in his abilities from another adult repositions Kingsley’s trajectory. He comes alive in these Saturday school classes. Likening the limitlessness of times tables in maths to a rocket shooting out into space – his dreams and imagination are reignited. 

Small Axe: Kenyah Sandy as Kingsley Smith

Education quietly yet powerfully highlights the inequality and conscious attempt to control not just the education, but the future of children from West Indian backgrounds in British schooling. But critically, it sheds light on how school, is in fact, a microcosm of society. That the treatment Black children receive is replicated and in this case, encouraged to continue on in the wider world. 

Watch the entire Small Axe series on BBC iPlayer.

Images: BBC

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