Any parent or teacher will know that comprehensive education is under attack from New Labour – the emphasis these days is on tests, selection and league tables.
But Ken Loach’s 1969 film Kes takes you back to the days before comprehensives. All pupils were tested at the age of 11. Those who passed went to grammar schools, while the failures went to schools like that of Billy Casper, the central character of the film.
Billy’s school is a brutal place staffed by cynical and burnt-out teachers. The cane is used freely and quite arbitrarily, and relations between teachers and the taught have all but broken down. “They don’t bother about us and we don’t bother about them,” as Billy puts it.
Unsurprisingly, the result of this “education” is that Billy can barely read or write. He is a small lad and trouble seems to follow him around. He is bullied at home by his older brother Jud. His father has left home and his mother is powerless to help.
Things aren’t much better at school, where Billy is picked on by staff and pupils alike. But he has guts and gives as good as he gets. And he is resourceful and smart enough to survive by ducking and diving his way around the system – not always legally.
Billy is about to leave school, at the earliest opportunity, and all he knows is that he is not looking forward to working down the pit. “I don’t suppose I’ll like work any better than school, but at least I’ll get paid for not liking it,” says Billy at one point.
So Billy is no different from thousand of other working class boys who are told that they are useless throughout their lives, eventually come to believe it, and go on to get dead-end jobs, expecting little and getting even less.
But Billy has done something amazing. He has reared and trained a wild kestrel, as his one sympathetic teacher discovers.
The tranquillity and beauty of the scenes in the countryside when Billy is exercising his kestrel are in stark contrast to those set in his school or at home. This is when Billy is really alive – when we see the real Billy, not the “failure” he is branded as.
Ken Loach tells Billy’s story simply and without sentimentalising the boy or the kestrel. The scenes in the school are totally believable, with a pompous headmaster caning innocent children, and a gym teacher who thinks he is Bobby Charlton.
Everyone should go and see this film. It is a beautiful portrayal of a boy, an indictment of the education system as it was then – and a spur to fight for a better education and a better life for children today.
Kes will be screened on Tuesday 1 May, 8.30pm, at the Prince Charles Cinema, 7 Leicester Place, just off Leicester Square in central London.
It will be followed by a question and answer session with the director Ken Loach. Tickets cost £7.50 or £4.50 for concessions, with proceeds going to the Socialist Worker Appeal. To book go to www.swappeal.org.uk