Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology centres on the experiences of London's West Indian community between the late 1960s and mid-1980s. The fifth and final film in the series follows the story of Kingsley, a schoolboy who is funnelled out of mainstream education and sent to a so-called "educationally sub-normal institution." This chapter of the anthology highlights the unofficial segregation policy at play in schools throughout the 1970s, and the efforts of a group of West Indian women who set out to ensure Black children received the education they deserved. But is Small Axe: Education based on a true story?
In a BBC press release, the film's executive producer, Tracey Scoffield, confirmed Education is based around a real-life and "very particular set of circumstances" which occurred in Haringey, London, 1971, when the local education authority acted on a report written by school Headmaster Alfred Doulton — which suggested West Indian children were "educationally subnormal" based on IQ tests that were commonly taken by primary school-aged children at that time.
What later became known as "The Doulton Report" led to the transfer of a disproportionate number of Black children to what became known as schools for the educationally subnormal (ESN), where children would receive a sub-par level of education and, therefore, diminished opportunities in later life.
“The reasons they failed those IQ tests were variously to do with the fact that they were not born and brought up in England and didn’t know the culture, along with the fact that English might be their second language," Scoffield explained. "Factors like these were not taken into account and a large number of West Indian children were simply bussed out to these educationally subnormal schools.”
In the BBC's Education, the character of Kingsley is transferred to such an institution, and discussing the inspiration behind the film, co-writer Alastair Siddons explained that, although the film is essentially fictional, "the scandalous plight of immigrant children in the British education system in the 1970s is most certainly not."
In a BBC press release, Siddons added that a combination of historical accuracy and first-hand testimony "were absolutely key" in the making of Education. Commenting on some of the research carried out prior to filming — which included interviews with individuals who had attended these educationally subnormal schools — Education's associate producer, Helen Bart, recalled the eye-opening process of uncovering what she believes to be an "untold British scandal.”
"I was introduced to the troubling circumstantial evidence around at the time that caused huge concern among Black parents and activist groups in the 60s and 70s." Bart continued: "what I was less prepared for was to read the actual evidence, the statistics and reports that branded and wrote off a whole generation of Black children as educationally sub-normal."
Newcomer Kenyah Sandy appears in the BBC film as the astronaut-obsessed schoolboy Kingsley, who stars opposite the likes of We Hunt Together's Sharlene Whyte, Once Upon A Time's Daniel Francis, The Long Song's Tamara Lawrance, the BAFTA-winning Naomi Ackie, among others.
Small Axe: Education airs on Sunday, Dec. 13 at 9 p.m. on BBC One.