Education (Small Axe) (Review)

The final chapter of McQueen’s Small Axe begins and ends with footage of space – specifically evoking space exploration. It is such a potent symbol: synonymous with potential, achievement, hope and the future. This, and other aspects, allow Education to speak beyond itself – in subtle ways. It is a perfectly composed period piece, one that so clearly presents a specific moment in time, but that also speaks beyond this – the issues here persist, and perhaps have grown.

The heart of Education is a story about institutionalised racism in the education system. We follow Kingsley, a teenager pushed into a ‘special’ school – after having been profoundly let down by the mainstream school system – who is left to devolve and flounder in what is obviously a sink school. This is paired with powerful conversations around educational issues, aided by the introduction of a charitable organisation who are trying to remove Black children from spirals of enforced underachievement through purposeful education.

Though the two previous instalments felt constrained by a limited length, this works because of it. There is a purposeful concision here, with an abrupt end that gives hope but not closure. Again, the point is clear, these period problems are not just problems of the period: the struggle continues. To paraphrase Bob Marley, as Steve McQueen has done with this series, these institutional issues are the big tree and that small axe needs to keep cutting, always sharp and ready.

The limited length here also allows so much to go unsaid, and keeps this brilliantly natural. The most overt strength of this instalment is how perfectly it captures family dynamics. We see a lot of family moments here, everyday stuff: brothers acting like brothers, sisters like sisters and so on. The representation of family relationships is so strong the the film becomes effortlessly evocative, and can therefore use subtle shorthand. The most perfect scenes in this are defined by what is not said: the issues the mother never raises; the devastating conversation between the daughter and the father about spirals of underachievement where the father has a moment of profound realisation, and this is shown through him not talking about it – knowing his role is now to step back. It is bold and confident storytelling that evokes the symbolic and the political through the natural.

The film also manages its tone perfectly, matching the devastating with the hopeful. This understands that education (as it exists) is the problem but, vitally, education is also the cure – or can be. The balance is perfect here, the critique – revealed through presenting reality not through polemics – is incisive and uncompromising, but this is also incredibly hopeful (but not in a naïve way). it is also very funny, but mostly because of how perfectly it evokes a recognisable reality.

The issues faced by Kingsley here echoed, for me, the issues brought up in Akala’s book Natives, about his experience as a Black teen in the British education system; the schools shown looked just like the schools that I attended (decades after when this was set), observations like this making it depressingly clear, to me, how so little has changed. I was also, on a deeply personal level, reminded of the school I work in (as an English teacher) and the students I see everyday – and of the colonial structure of the British education system that still limits our students. The first lesson we see in this film is so perfectly crafted: opening with students reading Of Mice and Men. A book I have had to teach every year since being a teacher; a perennial staple of the British curriculum – and McQueen and co. know this, it is another subtle reminder that these issues of the past are not just of the past.

This film affected me deeply because of my positioning, and a desire to not be complicit in an issue I know persists – and to try to be a force for change – but this only hits home because the filmmaking is so good. Steve McQueen and his crew have made something brilliant with this Small Axe series, where top tier filmmaking shows us realities we need to confront and work on changing. Education is the perfect coda to this, it lives in the past and this past is recognisable, too much so, and the need for change is pronounced. So many big trees exist, this Small Axe is a start, but it is a rallying cry. And, like the implement it is named after, the brilliance of this series is that, yes, it is accessible, but it still cuts so deep.

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