Sex Education Fans Need to Watch BBC Three’s Boarders

Missing the Netflix show? From the creator of Timewasters, British teen race comedy-drama Boarders is funny, shrewd and worth your time.

The cast of BBC Three comedy-drama Boarders in school uniforms
Photo: BBC Three

As an over-40 on the Gen X/Millennial cusp (I’m Generation Catalano, for census purposes), modern teenagers unsettle me. On screen. On buses. On the street with their midriff out and no coat on. I feel a powerful urge both to protect them and for them to stay 100 metres away from me at all times. Watching modern teen TV as a non-teen feels suspect, like eating Farleys Rusks with a full set of adult teeth.

Watching BBC Three comedy-drama Boarders then, which is set at the sixth form of a swanky English private school, I was primed to feel like a chaperone at a prom – unwelcome, uncomfortable and wishing to God there was a bar. What I actually felt was joy.

Created by Timewasters’ Daniel Lawrence Taylor and inspired by a news article about an elite, majority-white UK boarding school offering scholarship places to clever young Black students from underprivileged backgrounds, Boarders is shrewd, funny and well-cast. It’s Sex Education but recognisably British rather than weirdly transatlantic, Never Have I Ever with less gloss, Heartstopper but less innocent, Skins without the doom.

Boarders channels the best teen comedy-dramas and does it to talk about race. Not in a sharing-caring after-school-special way, but in a clear-eyed ‘this is 2024, everybody’s seen Get Out and has a take on the Colston statue, and this is where we’re at’ way. Crucially, it talks about race with more than one Black character from more than one background, so that a range of individual Black experiences can be explored without a single role having to say everything.

Ad – content continues below

Teenagers Jaheim, Toby, Leah, Omar and Femi (Josh Tedeku, Sekou Diaby, Jodie Campbell, Myles Kamwendo and Aruna Jalloh) don’t all have the same experience at their historical public school, but all they know that, as Leah tells the boys in episode one, “It’s not just you, you know, it’s us.” However distinct they may all be from each other – Jaheim’s a tech whiz, Omar’s gay and out, Femi’s family is Nigerian – institutions like St Gilberts still see them as one. Failure and scandal can be survived by the school’s majority-white fee-paying students, but for them, second chances aren’t an option.

Series one (hopefully there’ll be more) packs a lot in to six episodes. All the expected teen stuff is there from sex to partying, drugs, friendship fall-outs and parental pressure, but with the added lens of being Black and working class in a world of white privilege built on historical inequality.

It’s obviously not just a question of standing out from the crowd for these kids, it’s a whole platter of everyday racism. They don’t only experience hostility; there are also students only too keen to patronisingly ‘adopt’ a Black bestie. They’re stereotyped and fetishised (on their first day, Toby is taken for a drug dealer while Jaheim is flirtatiously told by a girl that she’s never seen a Black penis) and exploited in the name of performative #inclusion (a couple of comedy diversity officers follow the kids around in the hope of promoting Black excellence on the school’s socials).

A whole gamut is run, from the clumsy and perhaps well-meaning, to dumb ignorance, to a nastily racist string-puller with a hypocritical Black Lives Matter sticker on her SUV, all the way to serious violent assault.

Importantly for the drama, the main characters also get things wrong. They can be selfish or naïve or automatically assume the worst of people who don’t always deserve it. They’re teenagers, in other words, and having to navigate ordinary teenage lives on top of these extraordinary culture-clash circumstances. They’re likable and clever, with no illusions about what they’re up against, but each has their own way of dealing with it.

Thanks to fast-paced, funny scripts, empathetic direction from Ethosheia Hylton and Sarmad Masud, and solid performances from the young cast (Sekou Diaby is a stand-out as wheeler-dealer clown Toby but they’re all good), it’s a fun watch that’s never dragged down by the seriousness of what it’s dealing with. Without minimising its subject matter, Boarders keeps a sardonic, satirical tone that lets it achieve more than preaching sermons on the same subject ever would. More please.

Ad – content continues below

Boarders starts on BBC Three at 9pm on Tuesday February 20. All episodes are available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.