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Sex Education’s Academic Utopia

Cavendish College is not as perfect as it claims to be

The final season of Netflix’s popular series Sex Education begins a new chapter in the lives of the show’s main characters. Otis (Asa Butterfield) and friends embark on their journey at Cavendish College, a strikingly different academic experience from the gloomy, strict Moordale High. The college seems, at first glance, to be a colourful and welcoming utopia: a green, student-led, overwhelmingly queer campus that doesn’t tolerate gossip. Once you look beneath the surface, however, Cavendish is not nearly as perfect as it seems.

There are no typically stylish, mean, popular kids in Sex Education’s fourth season – but there is still a group of students who “rule the school.” This is the first crack in Cavendish’ facade of perfection. For how can a utopia have any kind of hierarchy? When you imagine an ideal school, you would probably picture everyone on a level playing field, which at first glance, Cavendish seems to embody. However, all this falls apart once we meet the group of students self-proclaimed “the Coven.” Abbi (Anthony Lexa), Roman (Felix Mufti), and Aisha (Alexandra James) are very picky about who they invite into their friend group despite loudly promoting inclusivity in their school and community-related efforts. Moordale’s formerly stereotypically popular Ruby (Mimi Keene) clearly wants to become friends with the Coven. But her previous actions comes back to haunt her as the group throws her previous exclusionary behavior back in her face, making an active effort to exclude her in their social activities. These are not exactly the actions you’d expect from a group so dedicated to “inclusivity.”

Another of Cavendish’s purported values is openness to everyone’s opinion, demonstrated by the symbolic podium placed in the school’s foyer that is always available for students to voice their ideas. However, there does not seem to be any system in place to take note of or actually implement what students have to say; it is as though speeches are forgotten as soon as students step off the stage. It is not clear how student government or elections work, but it is implied that only those in the Coven can vote on and adopt important campus decisions. Although Cavendish claims to be a democratic student-led campus, the reality is that only a fraction of its students’ thoughts are actually being taken into consideration.

The friendly and overly optimistic environment that welcomes us at Cavendish can also be read as toxic positivity. It is not realistic or healthy to be happy all the time, despite whatever utopian ideals full of rainbows and sunshine might tell us. The “no negative talk” rule enforced by Abbi throughout the season prevents the friend group from discussing important feelings and issues, and ultimately (and unsurprisingly) leads to resentment and argument. Toxic positivity is one of the issues the characters directly address by the end of the season, as they come to realize that Cavendish College can never realistically be a utopia, but only a work-in-progress.

Another utopian aspect of the campus is its full, unquestionable acceptance of queer students. But this level of progress brings our attention to another marginalized group at Cavendish who do not experience the same acceptance. Disability rights are highlighted this season, rights which have only recently begun to be considered as widely as queer rights have. Although Cavendish seems amazing on so many fronts, one of its biggest flaws is its accessibility issues. It seems unrealistic that in this utopian setting, the only way for people with mobility issues to access floors other than the ground level is a faulty elevator, given the school’s seemingly excess funds. While the foyer boasts of comfortable seating, the classrooms still use typical chair-desk combinations in one size only, which poses problems for disabled people. In addition, despite the school’s generous use of technology in all other departments, there are no tools or aids in place for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. These accessibility issues are one of the only problems openly acknowledged by the students, who stage a protest to get the elevator fixed and replaced. Protests are part of revolution, and revolution is required to create change; we must break the system in place before rebuilding a new, utopian one. This protest, therefore, is another indication of a rejection of Cavendish’s utopian narrative. By protesting, the students are acknowledging that their school is not perfect yet, but they are trying their best to make it so.

There are many reminders that Cavendish College is a green campus; everyone bikes to school, they have a strict compost and recycling system, they don’t use paper, etc. These actions make their own school a less polluted space but will not do much to help the global climate crisis. After all, a utopia cannot survive independent of the world around it. Corporations have historically encouraged individuals to pursue greener actions to help fight climate change, while they continue emitting tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year. The fact that Cavendish promotes small green actions without acknowledging the systemic causes of climate catastrophe shows that the campus is not a utopia, but rather a world of climate change denial and inaction.

This is not to say that individuals should not create change in their own lives and commit to a healthier lifestyle. But it is important to remember to be critical when an institution, like Sex Education’s Cavendish College, calls themselves “inclusive, diverse, and ecologically responsible.” It is harmful to promote a safe space while glossing over underlying issues; to work towards creating a utopia, we must acknowledge and fix problems, not ignore them. The most realistic part of Cavendish, in my opinion, is that young people are aware of and find solutions for systemic discrimination and disrespect. The only truly utopian part of Cavendish is that young people are actually listened to, and their ideas are fully implemented to create a place where they actually want to be. To me, this kind of world is the true utopia.