The GPI and Steve McQueen’s drama anthology Small Axe

February 10, 2021

The Golden Globe nominated Small Axe anthology comprises five docu-dramas directed by Oscar winner Steve McQueen. Each film tells a different story of the entrenched racism that the UK’s Caribbean communities fought between the 1960s and 1980s. Spring 2021 will see the broadcast of various TV documentaries and educational programmes continuing the same themes.

‘Education’, the last drama from the anthology, which aired on BBC 1 on 13 December 2020, follows the struggles of one family to secure a proper education for their son. It is the 1970s when low expectations for black school children resulted in an unofficial segregation policy. Mainstream schools marked some children as failures and transferred them to languish in special schools for the so-called ‘educationally subnormal’. This is where supplementary schools made a huge intervention; Steve McQueen actually developed his passion for art and learning from his own experience of black supplementary schools that he attended in Hammersmith and Acton (Lola Okolosie, ‘Discrimination at school: is a Black British history lesson repeating itself?’ The Guardian, 15 Nov. 2020).

The GPI holds important archival material on the issue of segregation in schools and worked closely with the producers of 'Education'. Sarah White, John La Rose’s partner and GPI Trustee, showed researchers the house that John and she moved into on 31 March 1969, when the campaign against banding in schools in Haringey was taking off. The early black education struggles became a backdrop to their life at the time, including the setting up of black supplementary schools from the late 1960s. Run by volunteers – teachers, community activists, parents – and often held in people’s homes, they supplemented the education pupils were receiving at state schools. John started one in his own house with his two early teenage sons and some friends at that time.

Archive collections at the GPI chronicle the campaigns of the early Black Education Movement and the fight to secure black children the education they deserved, which mainstream schools, through discriminatory practices, were denying them. The archives also provide background information on the publication of the ground-breaking How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System published in 1971 by New Beacon, the UK’s first black publisher.

‘Education’ remains available to view on BBC iPlayer for the next ten months along with the rest of the films in the Small Axe anthology: ‘Mangrove’, ‘Lovers Rock’, ‘Alex Wheatle’ and ‘Red, White and Blue’.

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Photo from Black Education Movement Archive
(c) George Padmore Institute