Back in the early 1990s, when my eldest children were very young, London’s state schools were widely seen as disastrous. That was unfair because not all of them were bad, but the truth is that many were. This was especially so at secondary level in Inner London, though the standard of primaries was patchy too. My eldest son, now 27, entered reception class in 1994. His new school, a short walk from our Hackney home, had been struggling. I hoped its newly-appointed head could turn things round.
She did. The school went from strength to strength. My son’s four younger siblings followed him there. Meanwhile, schools all over the capital were getting better too. Secondaries took longer to sort out. In Hackney, this meant many parents seeking places in neighbouring boroughs and beyond, especially if they had boys. But by the time my fourthborn reached the secondary transfer stage, a flagship academy had opened nearby and a pan-London transformation was taking place. The capital’s state schools were becoming the envy of the nation. Pupils from its many disadvantaged homes now do better than those from anywhere else in England.
This is an amazing success story. Explanations for it are various: the Conservatives’ national curriculum; Labour’s London Challenge; immigrants’ ambition; gentrifiers’ expectations; the Teach First programme; improved levels of funding. All of these things appear to have played a part and each points to ways in which schools elsewhere in the country can prosper too. During the 28-year period in which children of mine have been taught in London state schools – it will eventually extend beyond 30 – I’ve seen their education get better and better. Why does Theresa May seem so determined to make things worse for those who follow?
Last Friday, pupils, parents, staff and governors of the school where my grown-up son began his school career gathered with those of other local schools to have a picnic and protest about forthcoming cuts to their budgets. According to analysis by London Councils, over 1,500 London schools, around 70% of them, are set to lose money as part of the government’s revised funding programme, resulting in fewer teachers, larger class sizes and withered curriculums.
This threat looms at a time when the capital’s education system is in urgent need of more school places and increasingly struggling to recruit and retain good teachers, due to London’s high living costs. Yet instead of helping the capital contend with these pressures, May’s flagship education policy is a measure to allow the creation of more grammar schools, a pathetic sop to UKIP voters, to middle-class provincial parents and to Tory backbenchers who continue to insist in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary that academic selection at age 11 improves social mobility.
The enactment of this dimwit fantasy will do nothing for more than a handful of academically bright children from poor backgrounds in small towns and shires, and absolutely nothing for such children in London that its wealth of good or outstanding secondaries is not doing already. The threat grammars pose to comprehensives everywhere is that they will reduce them to institutions for children judged second class and punished for it.
This godforsaken general election of competing nostalgias has seen both the largest parties seeking to profit from anti-London sentiment. The Tories’ education stance is perhaps the most extreme example of it informing domestic policies. While the case for creating more grammars is non-existent, there is undoubtedly one for reassessing school budgets. But helping schools and children in other parts of the country should not be at the expense of those in its most educationally and economically successful city. Such is the state-sponsored stupidity in store for Brexit Britain.