It must really get on the nerves of people not teaching in London to continuously be told how brilliant London’s state schools are, especially those serving disadvantaged communities. Many London schools in these circumstances are really good, and they are funded more generously than schools elsewhere in the UK that are facing equal, and sometimes greater levels of need.
Fairer funding would help to rebalance the scales, but this would not be everything. What is it about teaching in London that gives advantages that cannot be transferred? Is poverty poverty, or is it different for those going through hard times in the poorest communities of London compared to those in the North East, Yorkshire, Blackpool and the much maligned Isle of Wight?
Today I had a risk assessment for a visit I am doing on Thursday. I finished teaching this afternoon at 3:15, knocked the kids out of the way of the school gates, and got to Westminster at 4:00. From my classroom, in a school in one of the most disadvantaged boroughs of London, I was able to arrive at the gates of the Houses of Parliament in less than an hour with no forward planning for the cost of a Tube fare.
When I got in past security, I was ushered through the tunnel that links Portcullis House with the House of Commons and the House of Lords. I am a real political geek, and down this one corridor I brushed shoulders with Wes Streeting, John McDonnell, Tristram Hunt and Ken Clarke.
The guy showing us around took us into Westminster Hall and spoke to us about the history of it; how it was nearly 1000 years old, and was built by William the Conqueror’s son. A siren sounded and the MPs came rushing through to vote. What they were voting on, I don’t now, but out of every doorway, they jogged, shuffled and hobbled forth.
At 3pm, I was in my classroom talking about what we think happens after we die and just 90 minutes later, I am watching the law change in the corridors of power.
On Thursday, when I bring my School Council here, we will be setting off at 9am, having a session in which we will learn all about the democratic system, and we will then be back in school for 12:30 ready for lunch.
Things like this are specifically London. The ease and affordability with which teachers and schools can provide opportunities for their pupils to sample, engage with, interact with and learn from the civic, cultural, political and social heart of our society. And why are these things all so close and convenient – because everything is always so London-centric, and always has been.
As I sprinted through the door to leave today, a colleague grabbed me, imploring me to cover for her and to take Year 6 to the Science Museum tomorrow in her stead. Easy. No problem. What would be a huge difficult and anxiety-raising task for many teachers is just yet another trip along the District Line to South Kensington, one of the most well-thumbed documents in our Risk Assessment file.
My kids got free tickets to the Olympics. My kids are phenomenally and impressively multilingual. My kids are well travelled. My kids visit the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, British Library, British Museum, Royal Albert Hall, Tate Modern, Globe Theatre, Houses of Parliament, Kew Gardens, and they do so usually for no cost, because Tube Travel is free for schools, and many of the most incredible attractions are free.
This does not undermine or override the hardship they go through. In Newham, 44% of people are paid less than the legal minimum wage and a third of children are growing up in poverty. The lack of affordable housing and the ruthlessness of private landlords means that the area continues to be hit particularly hard by housing poverty, overcrowding and homelessness. To cope with the rapidly rising population, schools are all under pressure to expand. My school has 996 pupils on roll, and we are not the biggest in the area.
But one thing we do have, which feels so barbed and awkward, is that our children see prosperity, even if it is the prosperity of others. They see Queen Mary University on their way to East London Mosque. They see the skyscrapers of the City of London and Canary Wharf. Regardless of the material situations they find themselves in, which can be extremely limiting, they nonetheless are insulated from the sense of absolute abandonment that comes from seeing only hopelessness, unemployment and deprivation. Our pupils can go to their successful schools and can live in genuinely alarmingly overcrowded conditions – family units with more than three children and more than three adults all sharing one room with one bed, taking turns on the floor – but the landscape they see, and the future they can envisage within it, is different from that being seen by children in other areas of the country that are of similar levels of financial poverty.