In your last years of pre-pubescence, when you’re riding scooters and eating 5p Freddos, you are blissfully oblivious to the school dilemma that slowly but surely takes over your parents’ lives.
For some families, it’s out of their hands, with only one school option available, or you lack the time or money to fret over league tables and parenting forums. Alternatively, you’re already settled into a prep school feeding into a private school with the end goal of a successful Oxbridge application clearly in sight.
Other parents, particularly those in urban, densely populated areas, with many schools within a single catchment area, can feel like their child’s future is hanging precariously at a cliff edge, and their decision will either haul them to success or let them plummet to their doom.
In Haringey, the school experience can vary massively. It is the most divided borough in London: four of its 19 wards are in the wealthiest ten per cent in London, yet many of its wards are in the poorest 20 per cent nationally. As you’d expect, the wealthier wards boast high-achieving schools, and the poorer parts, such as Tottenham, have schools that anxious parents go to great measures to avoid.
Take my own secondary school. Situated in the UK’s most diverse postcode, it was a vibrant patchwork of people and cultures stitched messily together. Students spoke a language of languages, importing foreign words from a multitude of places within a single sentence: “Drop me some money for a lahmacun, wallahi I’ll pay you back.” It was a school of acceptance, everyone belonging in not belonging, everyone indiscriminately and aff ectionately insulted for their most personal insecurities, with sticky-floored corridors and graffitied walls, and with such a high immigration rate that I was the only native English person in most of my classes.
It was also a school that families actively, and expensively, avoided. Despite its ‘Good’ Ofsted rating, the below-average A*-C GCSE rate, the rundown surroundings, and the rumours of a knife-carrying, hooligan-like student body gave parents the impression that it would only churn out aimless sixteen-year-olds with a brick-wall future and a heroin addiction.
On my road alone, despite plenty of local options, families rented their homes out for a year and moved into the wealthier areas of the borough to be in the catchment area of the ‘good’ schools. For the parents unable to escape being allocated the Tottenham school place, ridiculous appeals were made, such overly loud school, bells and one prospective student deeming himself “too clever” for a school of “chavs”.
Fair enough. Parents have the right to decide where and how their children are educated. However, it is important to recognise that, even within the state system, opportunity is bought. And that for many families, there is not a choice. Students from lower income backgrounds of equal or better ability than their wealthier peers are denied the same opportunities because of obstacles that result from low-income, deprived areas.
The impact is telling when comparing exam results for the two schools, both state comprehensives, both in the same borough: 86 percent of students achieving 5 A*-C grades, including English and Maths, in the ‘good’ school, compared with a mere 50 per cent in the Tottenham school. Many of these obstacles, such as low aspiration and behavioural issues, would be reduced if the school system was less divisive and there was a greater spread of financial backgrounds in the student body.
This is not an issue unique to Haringey, nor is there an easy solution. Despite this, research from the OECD has confirmed that increasing the social mix of students in schools serves to improve the performance of disadvantaged pupils without any negative effect on the school’s overall performance.
It is easy to assume that exam results and league tables reflect quality of education. However, despite a seemingly poor pass rate of only 50 percent, the fact that my school had many students starting off their secondary education with only a handful of English words who then passed their Language and Literature GCSEs, is testament to a dedicated teaching body and an ethos of encouragement amongst students facing similar obstacles.
The painfully slow reading of Of Mice and Men was compensated for by a keenness to learn that showed itself, rather than in endless A grades stamped on coursework essays, in the playground discussions about whether Curly was a “wasteman” or the mimicking “brap” sounds of George’s gun. Only as a result of this environment could I have found myself surrounded by friends discussing the gendered nature of Islamophobia, drinking Somali tea, and listening to Skepta.
I sing praise for my own school. It was a challenging, vibrant environment in which the interests, such as migration, nationality and language, that led me to my degree choice were formed. It was an experience that I wouldn’t trade for the easier ride of a ‘good’ school. Yet it was full of engaged, intelligent students with unrealised potential who, in a school system more diverse in terms of financial background, may have had the chance to flourish that they deserved.