Brixton figures in BBC Black history course

With no end to lockdown and home schooling in sight, Ruby Gregory looks at a BBC Black history learning programme that features two prominent Brixtonians – Alex Wheatle and Darcus Howe

school exam sheet
Exam board summary of Small Axe episodes. Click image for larger version.

Small Axe, the acclaimed TV mini-series based on the experiences of Black Britons, is the basis for a BBC Teach online learning programme.

It allows GCSE history students to understand Black British history in a new and engaging way.

The Pearson Edexcel exam board recently created a new study topic on migration (Migrants in Britain c800 – present day) for its GCSE history specification. The BBC programme will complement this.

Teachers can access educational videos based upon each Small Axeepisode, MangroveLovers RockRed, White and BlueAlex Wheatle and Education.

Topics in a teaching guide for class discussion include racism, police brutality, the West Indian diaspora and Black British culture. 

Small Axe director Steve McQueen said: “I am so happy that Small Axe is now accessible and part of the curriculum for young people.

‘’This is what art can sometimes do, shine a light on history where it has been overlooked. I just hope young people will be encouraged by these stories.”

Small Axe premiered on BBC One in December and was a television first for Oscar winner Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years A Slave.

It portrays significant moments experienced by the West Indian community who settled in Britain after World War Two. 

Mangrove recalls the events of the Mangrove Nine trial, which featured another prominent Brixton resident, the late Darcus Howe.

Lovers Rock pays tribute to blues parties, with a special nod to Janet Kay’s iconic Silly Games

scene from TV show
Sheyi Cole, who plays the title role, and Khali Best in the Alex Wheatle episode of Small Axe.

Brixton poet and author, Alex Wheatle, whose life is portrayed in the fourth film, Alex Wheatle, told the Brixton Blog he is overjoyed about the new teaching package from the BBC.

“I feel very proud that, as part of the Steve McQueen Small Axe legacy, there will be a history teaching source where students in the UK and beyond can learn about the real life stories and true historic events that help shape race relations in this country,” he said.

Alex was born in Brixton in 1963 but grew up in Shirley Oaks children’s home in Croydon.

As a teenager, he moved back to Brixton at the end of the 1970s and lived in a youth hostel.  

Robin Bunce, a Cambridge University lecturer in politics and joint author of a biography of Darcus Howe, worked as a historical advisor for Mangrove and has supported the exam board Pearson Edexcel in the past.

Pearson will be adding Migration to Britain from 800 to present day as an option to teach in GCSE history from September.

Part of the module will focus on 20th century Black British history, with Notting Hill from 1948 to 1970 as a key historic case study. 

A Pearson spokesperson said: “Diversity, inclusion and belonging matter, young people need to be able to see themselves represented in what they are studying.

“The past year has rightly generated a new focus on what history is taught to our young people and the sector needs to keep challenging itself.”

A sample exam paper showing possible assessment in June 2022 is available online and is awaiting approval by the government’s exam regulator Ofqual.