Sixteen: Class of 2021 review – what it’s really like to be a teen today

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J ust about any documentary set in a school, among the scramble of children bulging this way and that and the tensile network of teachers arching protectively over them, is emotionally exhausting. If you have the slightest bit of imagination, empathy or compassion – the slightest bit of sentience, really – you cannot fail to sit back at the end of every one, exhale deeply and exclaim: “I don’t know how they do it.”

Add Covid and a focus on the GCSE years to that little lot – as Sixteen: Class of 2021 (Channel 4) does – and you can expect to be pulverised. This is the first of a series of four films in which we follow the year 11s of the Link Academy in Dudley, in the West Midlands, as they return to school in September 2020, after the first lockdown. The previous year group had their exams scrapped, and grades given on the basis of mock results. As such, we learn that the year 11 mocks have been brought forward, in an attempt to mitigate disaster in the event of another lockdown.

Student Callum wants to be a professional footballer, but is beginning to admit that it might be as well to have a plan B, based on academic qualifications. The trouble is that revision is very, very boring and mates and girls are very, very interesting. Aaminah wants to be an architect and has her revision sheets stuck up on her bedroom wall. She is friends with Callum. “Some might call her a nerd,” he says, considering. “But fair play – I’d love to be academically gifted.” Sade, whose charisma and ebullience leap out of the screen, wants to be a prison psychologist. She is best friends (“She’s loud and annoying and irritating but I love her”) with Kara. “Everyone’s been trying to put me into hair and beauty and everything,” says Kara. “But I want to be a mechanic. I just don’t think there’s a lot of opportunities for us Dudley people.”

Comments like that, the terrible perspicacity of the young, is always what does the pulverising, and it comes to the fore in this film more frequently than is typical. Elsewhere, Sade confides to the camera that “I feel like people see me and think: she’s just going to be a little lazy girl, not going to do anything … I shock people with what’s going on inside.” Her mother, Sam, tells her interviewer: “Being black and from Dudley, they’re going to judge you. I talk like I’m dumb – but I’m not!” Sade is later suspended for a day for throwing her lunchtime baked potato at a boy who called her and her mum slags. “She said, ‘Mum, the jacket potato was lovely and I didn’t even get to have a taste of it!’” reports Sam, laughing. We later see her on the phone, after it seems likely that the boy did not receive equal or appropriate punishment, not laughing. Round and round whirls the adolescent life in a dizzyingly unfair world.

Kara has less of her friend’s optimism. “I want a university life,” she says. “But I think it’s how you’re brought up. Some people do wish for more. But I’d rather stick to the minimum than have my dreams crushed … I don’t see myself living this rich, art gallery life. That’s what I dream, but I don’t think I see it. That’s a bit sad, isn’t it?” The film-makers do a fine job of letting the children (and they are children – the late, lamented baked potato proves it if nothing else) and the moments speak for themselves, trusting the viewers to piece together the emerging, bleak and saddening themes.

Mrs Edwards-Wright, the head, is only in her second year of the job, though you wouldn’t know it to look at her as she rallies the troops, delivers short, punchy speeches to the students, and runs through Covid protocols with her staff. It is already hard to remember just how new, how baffling this all was a year ago, even when you only had to work it out on an individual basis, not reconstitute an entire school and its physical and administrative workings, to say nothing of the emotional toll of suddenly having the responsibility for the health of an entire community laid at your door. All while battling another disease: inequality and the low expectations, narrowing options and desperate competition for scarcer and scarcer resources it leads to. Truly, I don’t know how any of them do it.

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