A Kestral for a Knave: fifty years on

Barry Hines’s book A Kestrel for a Knave, which became the film Kes, was published fifty years ago this year. Colin Revolting argues it remains as relevant as ever. 

Kes, or A Kestral for a Knave as it was originally titled, was a firm feature in secondary school English classes of the 1970s and 80s. “The book that teenage boys would read” was just as well regarded as the Ken Loach film, which faithfully and beautifully transferred the story to high street cinemas.

Based on Barry Hines’ younger brother and his love of birds of prey, Kes is the story of Billy Casper, a boy in a Yorkshire mining community written off by everyone – except perhaps himself. Like so many others at school he is destined to follow his big brother down the pit – but he is determined not to. Billy’s school is a secondary modern, where the 75% of children who didn’t pass the 11 plus exam (and some that did) ended up. According to the Ministry of Education, pupils at secondary modern schools ‘were to be shielded from the stultifying effects of external examinations’, with students having no access to GCE O Levels or other external examinations. This resulted in a segregated, two-tier state education system, with ‘less gifted’ children given little opportunity to grow and develop.

Billy’s home is a bare council house. He lives with his mum and half brother, who are both too busy with work and their own problems to have much time for him. Billy is played brilliantly and totally convincingly by untrained first-time actor David Bradley.

Despite being bored and alienated at school, Billy has drive and a lively mind – which he puts to stealing sweets, cigs and comics from the newsagents and robbing milk from the milkman who gives him a lift on his float.

With his ‘broken home’, mum’s reputation and lack of money, Billy is looked down on, even by his peers. But when he climbs an abandoned tower and steals a baby kestrel from its nest, his life takes a turn. He struggles to read a big book about kestrels and begins to train the bird to fly and hunt – separating him further from his school friends, until one teacher, an advocate of progressive education in contrast to the blame-them-and-cane-them head teacher, is told about Billy’s kestrel.

Billy is more engaged than ever, as he explains to a spellbound class about how he “trained, not tamed” the bird. “It’s fierce, and it’s wild, an’ it’s not bothered about anybody, not even about me right. And that’s why it’s great,” Billy explains.

During his lunchtime, the teacher visits Billy flying the bird in a field and they can only watch in awe. Billy has given the young kestrel enough lee-way to learn and eventually free reign to really soar. We see the sheer beauty and majesty of the bird in flight and Billy’s achievement is acknowledged by at least one element of the school system.

Amidst all of this is a hilarious football match which carries so many painful truths about school life – almost all the kids are too fat or too thin, too vulnerable or too volatile to be like the perfect players they, and their bullying teacher, idolise.

The novel and film played a radical and significant cultural role in challenging the old ideas of the education system. From my current experience, both as a parent and an education worker, the message of Kes remains radical and is needed again. It is an inspiration and challenge to what has been called “the 1950s curriculum” of Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan.

I first saw the film of Kes when it came out, the year before I chose to go to a comprehensive school whilst some of my friends opted for the local grammar (thankfully secondary modern schools had been closed, in London at least). My old school is now an academy and is divided into two schools standing side-by-side, but completely apart. One is a grammar school in all but name, catering for the ‘gifted and talented’ pupils and the other is for the ‘others’ (the corporate explanation on their website is no more illuminating).

Meanwhile, the grammar school my friends chose, all that time ago, is now the comprehensive school my kids go to. But there is now immense pressure from the government, the council, the school management and governors for it to become an Academy. As businesses, there is an imperative for Academies to narrow their curriculum, focussing on English and Maths, becoming ‘exam factories’ to appear high in the league tables in their ambition to compete for customers against other local schools. Alongside existing grammar schools nearby, this could return us to a segregated state school system, like in Kes, where some pupils are offered a broad curriculum whilst the majority are stuck with ‘bog standard’ academies educating students in Functional Skills for the mundane, routine work that capitalism wants most of us to do.

Kes truly is important and influential (number 7 in the BFI’s best British films ever). But it’s by no means Barry Hines’ only work of note. Growing up, his books documented lives of the majority – teenage footballers in The Blinder, secondary school life in Kes, youth unemployment in Looks and Smiles, escaping to college as a mature student in Unfinished Business, the miners strike The Heart of It. All good reads indeed.

Fifty years on, Barry Hines’s inspirational and damning novel and film are needed again. Kestrel for a Knave lives and breathes with the potential of every child to be engaged in real education, allowed to follow their interests and learn for themselves in a world where that appears too much to ask for.


This article was first published at the time of Barry Hines’s death in 2016.


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