Artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen’s epic Year 3 project brings together more than 3000 class portraits from over 1500 primary schools to commemorate a most formative time in a child’s educational life. The result, says our writer Shamini Sriskandarajah, is at once illuminating and moving.
Back in the halcyon days of January 2020, I ended my visit to the William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain with a walk around Steve McQueen’s Year 3. I was so excited when I first heard about his unifying photography project, I couldn’t have left the Tate without seeing this free show in the heart of the building.
There are more than 3000 class portraits from over 1500 primary schools, featuring approximately 76,000 children. McQueen’s aim was to capture every single Year 3 pupil in London, and while the project fell short of this, it’s still an astonishing achievement. He first thought of the idea twenty years ago, after recalling a school trip to an art gallery and realising that he would not have gone if it wasn’t for the school organising such an outing.
As I walked into the grand Duveen Galleries, the size of the project became apparent. The first room is massive; originally designed to display sculpture, the floor is now bare for visitors to walk through. There are enough school portraits to fill it more than ten feet high, which is less than half the height of the room but still imposing as you stand in front of them. I thought that was all of the photographs at first, and it seemed like thousands. But as I walked along, I saw there were more portraits in the back rooms of the galleries.
The sense of awe might have been similar to walking into a new school for the first time as a child – how vast the buildings and grounds appear, compared to everything else in the child’s small world. Even now as a forty-something, when I’ve walked into a new school as a counsellor, I feel a familiar lurch in my stomach when I look at the sprawling, rabbit-warren buildings and think: how on earth am I going to find my way around here?! For the children in the portraits who did or will visit the exhibition with their schools or families, I wonder if there’s a similar feeling of awe as they walk into the grand, neo-classical rooms. Perhaps in years to come, some of these children will admire the work of earlier British artists such as Turner, Blake, Millais or Hogarth; or recent ones like Hepworth, Himid and McQueen himself and they will think back to this time. Their portraits were on display in the same gallery as these giants!
When glancing at each portrait it was hard for me not to be curious about which school is which, just as it was hard not to make assumptions based on each photo – the style or lack of uniform, the background, the size of the class. But the children’s identities are protected – there’s nothing to identify the school and Tate staff will only disclose this information to families of the children in the photos. And while you can take photos of the exhibition, you cannot take close ups of individual portraits. The child protection measures included having the photos printed and framed in the Tate itself.
Seventy percent of London borough primary schools took part, which of course means thirty percent did not. I was sad when I looked at the huge display of the names of schools that took part to see my first primary school – a large school that had a bad reputation but where I was mostly happy until my last year – was not included in the list. However, the smaller school where I went for the last two years of primary education was included. If this project had happened when I was in Year 3 (or first year juniors, as we called ourselves back then), I wouldn’t have been able to take part. That game of chance, depending on which school you happen to attend, reflects so many of the factors that are beyond the control of a child.
When you walk through the galleries small details, such as colour or uniform design, catch your eye. Initially, there appears to be a lot of black and grey, blue and white, with flashes of red. But stop and look closer and you see other colours: yellow, green, even pink. A photo of children in blue and grey uniforms stands out because of a child wearing bright pink knee-high socks on one side and another wearing bright pink trainers on the other. This colour is at once playful and controversial (so much so it had an entire exhibition at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York two years ago entitled Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color). These tiny acts of anarchy by the child in the pink knee-highs and the child in the pink trainers made me smile.
In one photograph, there is a class of children wearing dark blazers with bright red lapels to match the school crest. After looking at this portrait, I wondered how the children feel about wearing this uniform when they’re on the bus or walking past other children their age wearing sweatshirts or less formal and distinctive uniforms.
In another portrait, one teacher wears a bright red top to match the red sweatshirts and hoodies of the pupils. Her choice to conform with the children feels like an act of solidarity, acknowledging that the children have no choice but to follow the school’s policy on uniform. That was my interpretation; of course, it could be that the teacher was asked to wear red to conform with the school or to make this exclusive photo more aesthetically pleasing.
Some portraits show nearly all the children smiling or even laughing. Others show them appearing more straight-faced or frowning. In one photo, the children at the back are smiling, whereas those near the teacher in the middle are not. I wonder what kind of teacher evokes seriousness and even fear, or inspires joy or carefreeness. Naturally, I thought of my own teachers, remembering the nurturers, the ones who loved children and wanted them to learn and grow and develop as individuals. I remembered the unhappy teachers who got a hard time from pupils who had no idea how to react to them. And I remembered the ones who weren’t quite Miss Trunchbull-level sadists, but who seemed to have become teachers solely to exercise power over less powerful people.
It’s not just the staff, children and uniforms that you notice as you walk around the exhibition. It’s the backdrops to the photos – sports halls, libraries, bare walls, walls covered in school work on display. There are groups of photos scattered about that have the same interior. You wonder whether one school has several Year 3 classes or if others weren’t able to take the photo on their premises, and needed to go somewhere external set up by the Tate staff. Looking back through the lens of the pandemic, these various backgrounds make me think of video calls, and how people’s backdrops disclosed something about them and their lifestyle.
Some of the photos were hung higher up and required a stepladder to look at closely (and I believe this is only provided if the visitor is a child in the photo). Tilting my head backwards to get a better view, I wondered if these class portraits were from schools where consent was less forthcoming. It’s a fantastic honour to know your child’s class portrait is going to hang in the country’s national collection, but where does that sit with privacy, safeguarding, and ownership (the former of which are always concerns for primary and secondary education)? It’s understandable, therefore, that some parents would have refused permission, and I wondered if others only gave permission on the condition that their child’s portrait would be hung out of the eyeline of casual visitors. I don’t know the answer – but this is the sort of project that raises questions and has you thinking about it long after you walk out.
The portraits of schools for children with special needs stand out. There are far fewer children, sometimes only a handful. And, more noticeably, there are more adults, who are usually one-to-one with each child. Some teachers are holding their charge or sitting on the floor with them. Some are waving with or for them. As the sister of an autistic person with lifelong, severe learning disabilities, I was brought to tears by these photos.
Looking at the photographs of schools that cater for children with special educational needs made me think of McQueen’s own learning difficulties and past experience of school. At the time of promoting his film 12 Years a Slave, McQueen disclosed his dyslexia in interviews. It seemed even harder and more shameful for him to talk about than the racism and class prejudice which had existed at his secondary school. The children were segregated into different sets, according to their perceived ability and the teachers’ predictions for them; McQueen was put in the bottom set. “They assumed I wasn’t capable academically,” he says of that time. As McQueen’s career has progressed, his work has become increasingly personal. His film Education (as part of his “Small Axe” series on BBC1) is set in the 1970s and focuses on a working class, Black boy called Kingsley. Although he daydreams about space travel, Kingsley’s real world is constricted by prejudice. After being told Kingsley has been disruptive in class, the head teacher sends him to a special needs school, also known at the time as a school for the “educationally subnormal”. (This phrase makes me flinch as much as other terms for learning disabilities, which were used when my sibling was first diagnosed in the 1980s). When McQueen himself was at secondary school, receiving no support to help him with his dyslexia, it was Saturday classes at what was known as “Black supplementary school” that inspired confidence in him, paving the way for his career in art.
McQueen’s own school portrait, which he generously includes in the exhibition, shows him at the age of seven and appears quite formal. Taken at Little Ealing Primary School, one of the schools that took part in the Year 3 Project, the children sit cross-legged with their teacher. The artist recalls his throat hurting that day and realises it was because his mother had done up the top button of his shirt to smarten him up for the class photo.
Unlike the sets that divide children of the same age in the same school, or special needs classes that segregate children from their peers, Year 3 gives us a bird’s-eye view of these children, imagining what it would be like if they were all together. This project aimed to include all children in London boroughs in Year 3 from state schools, private schools, faith schools, special needs schools, pupil referral units, and children who are home-schooled. There is no denying that there continues to be huge inequality that affects these children, giving some of them opportunities early on in life that others are deprived of. I don’t believe this exhibition is a romantic, rose-tinted view of childhood, as if to simply say: Look at these innocent children, who are all the same deep down! I believe it is giving us a rare opportunity to look carefully at these 7-9 year olds all together – as a whole, as classes, as individuals – and ask ourselves and each other difficult questions about assumptions, prejudice, opportunity and values. And the word that evokes such emotional, divisive responses: privilege. Of this particular aspect of the show, McQueen has spoken directly: “I think 7 years old is a very pivotal age in a child’s development. It’s at that age that I feel people are taking on board race and gender and class. And unfortunately, a lot of those shape their idea of the world. Or fortunately”.
Some of these portraits have been turned into billboards, with six hundred gigantic images spread across London’s thirty-three boroughs. There was a project called Art Everywhere a few years ago that aimed to make art accessible to everyone in everyday situations. There were billboards on roads and at train stations, posters at bus stops and shopping centres. The Year 3 Project has done the same thing, but the biggest thrill will probably belong to the subjects of the billboards rather than the artist who created them.
Maria Balshaw, director of Tate, was keen for this project to bring in and engage children, believing it to be one of the Tate’s roles as the national collection. As she says, “Private schools place a premium on a rich cultural education for their pupils while many state schools are starved of the resources to support access to culture and creativity for their pupils. We need a level playing field for children because we want and need visually literate adults.”
I hope the legacy of this project continues long after the exhibition finishes.
Steve McQueen Year 3 is free and on display at Tate Britain until 31 January 2021. Click here for more information.