Those who saw Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s masterful series of standalone dramas, will no doubt remember the powerful final episode. Education told the story of a 12-year-old boy, Kingsley, who has trouble reading and is sent to a “special school”. It wass part of an unofficial segregation policy in the 1960s, which saw hundreds of black children labelled “educationally subnormal” and moved out of mainstream schools by the state. Subnormal: A British Scandal (BBC One) is a crystal-clear documentary by Lyttanya Shannon (McQueen is executive producer), which shares the true story. Its subtitle is damning. It was indeed a scandal.
Early in the film, Shannon explains that getting people who were put into “ESN” schools to talk on camera is proving difficult, even now. She records one phone conversation (with consent), and plays it back, the voice distorted, in which an ex-pupil explains the lasting stigma of being labelled “slow” and “backwards”, and who says their family doesn’t even know they went to an ESN school. But she does find people who feel able to talk, and carefully draws out the many aspects of their stories.
Noel Gordon is 54. His parents came to the UK from Jamaica in the early 60s. When he was six, his life was altered completely by what was meant to be a routine dental appointment. The story is nightmarish and complex, but culminates in a sickle cell anaemia diagnosis, and a recommendation that he be sent to a state-run ESN boarding school. There, he found himself among children with learning and physical disabilities, although he had neither. They didn’t have proper lessons. (One woman who was also sent to an ESN school recalls being asked to wash the younger children.) He thought he was stupid, he says. He never learned how to be “normal”. He goes to visit his mother, Theda, now 93, who talks about the importance of education. It is one of many quietly excoriating scenes in this deeply affecting film: she trusted the British education system, and it let her and her son down in every conceivable way. Crushingly, the euphemistic term “special school” was taken literally by many parents, who thought it meant that their children were being given a better, higher education.
Gordon’s story is by no means a one-off. This is a chronicle of systemic racism, which led to an unofficial but known policy of educational segregation that ruined people’s lives. The activists, academics and psychologists here all talk with a sense of steady fury about what was allowed to happen. Waveney Bushell, the former educational psychologist who contributed to the 1981 Rampton report revealing widespread racism in the teaching profession, recalls testing black children to ascertain their IQs. Some could not identify a tap by name, which surprised her. But she realised that in some parts of the Caribbean, a tap is called a pipe, and when she pointed to one in the room, the children knew exactly what it was.
There are many more stories like this. South Asian children who spoke Punjabi or Gujarati were given extra help with language, but Caribbean children who spoke patois or creole were considered to be using “inferior English” and were not offered support. Shannon touches on the trauma of immigration being mistaken for “bad behaviour”. Prof Sally Tomlinson, a specialist in race, ethnicity and education, recalls gathering accounts from teachers and headteachers, to attempt to identify why there were lower academic expectations of black pupils. These accounts were shockingly racist.
But it is naive of me to think it shocking. Shannon’s approach to this film is meticulous and, as well as the first-person accounts from people put into ESN schools because of their race, she presents archive news and talkshow footage from the 60s and 70s that show how casual and widespread racism was. A union rep talks of a “completely undesirable” imagined future where there are more immigrant children in schools than white children. White parents talk about their children being “held back”. Anne-Marie Simpson came to England from Jamaica when she was nine, and was put in an ESN school for “bad behaviour” when really she was traumatised by the upheaval. She asks the devastating question: “Who was in my corner?”
The activists, campaigners and community workers who worked hard to expose the scandal were in her corner. Many of them are interviewed here. They were tenacious, and they remain inspirational. But much like the episode of Small Axe, there is no “happy” ending. The term “educationally subnormal” was abolished in 1981, but its legacy lingers today, not only in the pupils with direct experience of segregation, but in attitudes and differential treatment towards black pupils, who are still disproportionately removed from mainstream schools. This is a sobering story, told with skill and compassion, and it is a compelling and devastating account.