Literacy and the class divide in documentary 'H is for Harry'

06 Mar 2019 BY Steven Ryder in Film Features

4 mins
HisforHarry
HisforHarry

This prescient, observational film documents two years in the life of Harry, a charismatic, working class eleven-year-old struggling with academia, as he and his fellow students get to grips with British secondary education.

The opening salvo of H is for Harry is a sobering reminder of the ever-increasing class divide in the United Kingdom and its effect on the younger generation. First, a quote from one of fiction's greatest educators, Albus Dumbledore, who remarks "Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic", quickly followed by Tony Blair's "Education, Education, Education" speech, still ringing through the halls of parliament. Lastly, statistics which claim that social mobility has stalled in the world's richest countries, with the U.K. at the forefront of this inexcusable problem. There is maybe nowhere better to explore this complicated issue than Reach Academy in the London borough of Hounslow, which specialises in taking on under-privileged students who may need an extra hand if they are to make their way to the ‘promised land' of University.

Whilst there are moments of sincere reflection on the problematic state of educational needs in British schools, co-directors Edward Owles and Jaime Taylor make sure to imbue the film with a sense of positivity as well, eager to highlight the fact that hope is not lost for each and every student in this classroom. Taylor, herself both an ex-teacher and a working-class filmmaker, maybe sums up the film's ethos in saying "The most debilitating effect of poverty on young people is the poverty of aspiration.", which is evident in Harry's answer to where he sees himself in 15 years ("Trying to stay alive"). In choosing Harry as a needlepoint focus for an issue this widespread, it enables us to see the effects that a financially unstable environment and social standing can have on an individual child's self-worth and identity.

Harry himself is a charming, talkative eleven-year-old with a rather unique, if distorted, take on the world around him. He finds it easy to make friends, gets along with his teachers for the most part and has a particular interest in football and video games. Yet Harry seems to have had somewhat of a slow development in terms of his academic skills, particularly literacy, falling behind in his ability to read or write. The film gently parses out both the systematic and personal reasons that Harry has found himself in this position, allowing audiences time to reflect on his familial history and current predicament. The fact that Harry's father, also illiterate due to a poor education, is supportive and concerned about his son's future is a welcome change to the narrative that usually places blame on the parents. Here, the film does not condemn Harry's home life but merely presents it as a reality.

The real hero in this story though is Sophie, the teacher in charge of Harry's class. Her patience, faith and dedication are unwavering and infectious, a silver lining in the academic maturation of all the students at Reach Academy and particularly Harry. Their relationship, whilst sometimes fraught, is based on a mutual understanding and an almost desperate need to improve. Educators across the country will most likely empathise with Sophie and the various teachers who strive to break through the self-imposed boundaries that Harry has inflicted on himself. It is the small instants of personal connection in H is for Harry that give it an emotional strength and one particular scene in which Ana, a Latvian immigrant, describes her home life and her struggles with her younger, autistic brother to her classroom teacher stands out as a very genuine and moving moment.

Documentaries exploring the relationship between education and social mobility have been quite prominent in American cinema in the last couple of decades but are few and far between in Britain. U.S. productions such as the widely acclaimed Hoop Dreams, the race-focused American Promise and The Cartel have all been vocal in their criticism of the education system but, in the U.K., school-focused docs have primarily been found on television. British audiences may be more familiar with this sort of socially conscious narrative in fictional films such as Ken Loach's realist classic Kes or the Sidney Poitier-led To Sir, With Love but in documenting this captivating subject, H is for Harry authentically highlights the gulf between the 4.1 million British children living in poverty and a system which does not support their needs.

H is for Harry is released into cinemas on 7 March to coincide with World Book Day, in support of the importance of literacy in schools.

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Steven Ryder, Curation Officer (Learning)

Steven has an MA in Film Studies, Programming and Curation from the National Film and Television School. He has previously worked for various exhibitors around England and currently freelances as a film critic/podcaster.

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