The eldest of my children started her London schooling in 1988. The sixth and youngest finished hers in 2020, completing her A-levels under Covid conditions. Over those 32 years the capital’s state schools underwent phenomenal changes for the better. In recent weeks we’ve seen London’s teenagers produce yet another set of nation-leading exam results. So much progress has been made. And yet, as a new academic year gets underway, there is still more we need our city’s triumphant schools to do – and much to protect them from.
It seems, so far, that fewer than 10 schools in London have been affected by the “crumbling concrete” issue. Yet that is still too many, and a possibly bigger worry is national government’s attitude to the funding of London’s schools. The latest example of the Conservatives’ piecemeal, pork barrel, anti-London “levelling up” funding approach saw London’s poorer students excluded from a share of £42 million, while money went to Liverpool, Nottingham, Doncaster and elsewhere. Yet again, the prejudice that “rich” London gets more than its fair share was confirmed and acted on.
We have grown used to that from the Tory administration, whoever happens to be leading it. What will its widely-expected Labour successor do? Sir Keir Starmer has today made Angela Rayner his new shadow “levelling up” secretary. Will she recognise that material hardship exists in the UK capital too – especially among its children.
London’s schools know all about that. Over a quarter of a million young Londoners live in a state of “food insecurity“. That is why, despite its making financial demands on some schools, Sadiq Khan’s funds ensuring that all primary age students receive a free school dinner throughout the new academic year have been welcomed.
A grown-up debate continues about the value of such universal provision and how best to deliver it. There is less argument about the eligibility threshold for free school meals. Since 2018-19, a family claiming Universal Credit must have post-tax earnings below £7,400 for its children to receive them. Many low-income London families who didn’t previously qualify will do so from this week without having to apply.
London’s schools cope with the consequences of pupils’ poverty all the time, especially in some of the eastern boroughs (in Tower Hamlets the child poverty rate nears 50 per cent). Our schools have consistently had more success than those elsewhere with educating children from disadvantaged backgrounds to high attainment levels. Yet this outstanding record will be difficult to maintain if other parts of the country are helped at London’s expense.
Attendance at London’s schools seem to be holding up OK – absence rates last autumn term ranged from a lowest 6.1 per cent in Richmond to a highest 7.9 per cent in Camden and Islington. Yet nowhere has been immune from a big rise in the most persistently absent since the huge disruptions of Covid. Notably, in view of the London Mayor’s initiative, this has been most marked among children receiving free school meals as well those with an education, health and care plan.
There is an extra sadness in this, given that the demands of school closures during lockdown periods often brought school staff in London – and no doubt elsewhere – into closer relationships with the families of the poorest youngsters. Remote teaching, paradoxically, meant teachers going round to pupils’ homes to dispense donated laptops to those who didn’t have them, literally instructing on doorsteps. Is there a legacy there that could be built on?
With the right resources and backing, schools could help instil in children a richer and broader sense of belonging to their city, with all its wonders and possibilities. I was once told a story about a child from one of the less affluent London boroughs taken on a school trip to Shakespeare’s Globe. Standing on the riverbank, he pointed at the Thames and asked his teacher what it was.
London is still emerging from the pandemic – still bearing its scars. Its poverty remains stubborn, its social fabric, resilient but frayed. Its schools have become one of its glories. Nothing must prevent them continuing to go from strength to strength.