Kenyah Sandy in Small Axe

Dave Lister reflects on Small Axe‘s episode on education

The brilliant Small Axe series, written and directed by Steve McQueen, hit our screens in December. It highlighted, among other things, not only institutional racism but overt racism in the Metropolitan Police Force in the 1970s and 80s. The fifth episode, ‘Education’, focused on the experiences of a young boy of Afro-Caribbean heritage in the education system in inner London and was based on a true story. The boy was, seemingly unjustly, sent to an ESN school. (ESN stands for ‘Educationally Sub-normal’.) Conditions at this special school were chaotic with children running riot and extremely bad teaching.

The boy’s salvation was a weekend school run by women from the Black community where his reading improved enormously. It was alleged by these women that the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) was deliberately downgrading Black pupils in order to prepare them for low-skilled jobs in the workforce. Reference was made to a pamphlet by 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’. Also of relevance is Steve McQueen’s own experience as a Black child in the British education system, which was not positive.

Those of us who taught in inner London at this time would probably have found this drama somewhat worrying. We remember that there was plenty of Left activism among London teachers then. An organisation, All London Teachers Against Racism and Fascism (ALTARF), was set up. Yet a disproportionate number of Black boys in particular were being failed by the system, being excluded from school and sent to special schools. How could this be?

One factor was surely the racism in the society outside the school. Experience of this could lead Black pupils to feel alienated from white authority as exhibited in the school. Of course, there were some Black and Asian teachers, but most teachers were white and certainly the overwhelming majority of those in senior positions were. Another factor was probably the curriculum – particularly in subjects like History and English, where the emphasis was on the British and European past, with the exception maybe of Year 7 History lessons on Ancient Egypt and perhaps Mesopotamia. Topics like slavery and colonialism were at most slightly touched upon. Over time things began to change. For example, Key Stage 3 of the National Curriculum included the optional topic, ‘Black People in America’, which focused mainly on slavery but could include slave revolts and the civil rights movement. Courses such as the Hampstead School World History syllabus were developed. The Hampstead course could include coverage of the Amritsar Massacre and/or the Sharpeville shootings and/or the Vietnam War. This made a change from the focus on Hitler and the Nazis in previous 20th century courses.

Unfortunately, the issue of disproportionate numbers of boys of Afro-Caribbean origin being excluded from school has not gone away. Contributing to this must be the regressive Gove reforms of the last decade, with their emphasis on British history and British authors, a stifling narrowing of the curriculum, encouraging ‘teaching to the test’.

Perhaps we should also consider the efficacy of exclusion as a sanction. It is clearly an improvement on caning, which was phased out in the 1980s. However, it can lead to children roaming the streets or being sent to Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) of variable quality – some very good, some less so. PRUs are also believed to be a major recruiting ground for gangs. In my view, internal exclusion, if applied reasonably, i.e. not for excessively long periods of time, is a more effective sanction. It means working alone or in a small group under the constant supervision of a teacher and not being allowed to join your mates at break or lunchtime. More positively, we need to consider how to avoid the need for such sanctions in the first place.

Finding ways to better interest and stimulate these children with effective, creative and inclusive teaching would be a useful first step. To achieve this, we need a Labour government to reverse the Gove nightmare measures in favour of a more creative, child-centred approach. There are currently moves by the Socialist Education Association to push Labour’s shadow education team into being more proactive in criticising the Government’s disastrous handling of the education system during the pandemic, and also for them to positively support radical educational reforms.

There is also the issue of special schools. There is no way that categorising children as educationally sub-normal would be acceptable today and Coard was undoubtedly right to challenge this at the time. However, the very negative image of special schools portrayed by McQueen, whilst presumably true of the one to which the boy was sent, does not fairly represent every special school at that time. Whether or not their existence is seen as a form of segregation, as some people claim, there was undoubtedly some excellent teaching in special schools. It is also worth remembering that Blair Peach (the murdered anti-fascist activist) was a special school teacher.

Finally, there is the role of the ILEA, which was Labour-run at the time. I find it difficult to believe that there was a deliberate attempt by Ashley Bramall and his colleagues to make Black children fail. The outcomes of what we deliver are not always what was planned though. There may well have been a failure to fully appreciate the need to address this issue but it is not credible that the great majority of London teachers and Labour politicians at this time consciously wanted Black children to fail.

Not everything in recent educational times has been bad, and there is now more of a focus on closing the attainment gap and looking at how different categories of pupils are faring and taking remedial measures where appropriate. We need to shape an education system which delivers for all our children. Kate Green please note.


Small Axe is available in the UK on BBC iPlayer until December 2021.

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