There were two reasons why I really had to read Wendy Wallace’s Oranges and Lemons: Life in an Inner City Primary School. The first is that the school whose life it covers, Edith Neville, which serves three to 11-year-olds, is about 50 metres up the road from my home, and many of the children who live around me attend it. The second is that I’m a school governor at a very similar school not far away.
The reason why everyone should read it is to understand the enormous disadvantages many children in Britain today face, and the desperate need for resources (many of which are now at risk of being snatched away, where they currently exist – like Plot 10, the 40-year-old Somers Town institution that provides pre- and after-school care that’s now under threat) to support children and families.
Somers Town was traditionally home to the railway workers who served the trains at St Pancras/King’s Cross and Euston stations, between which it sits. Most of those jobs hae gone now, but it is still a very poor community, probably the last one left in central London, sandwiched between the posh and increasingly institutionalised Bloomsbury to the south, and Camden Town to the north. Most of the housing is council and former council flats, so has to a large degree escaped the gentrification of surrounding areas.
But as author Wendy Wallace explains, anything outside Somers Town is foreign territory for many of the pupils at Edith Neville, whose only excursions outside Somers Town – indeed sometimes outside their own usually small homes – come through the school.
Wallace spent a year at the school, and chooses to focus on a small selections of pupils and staff. They, and their parents, all have their own stories – Najreen, whose mother only speaks Bengali and appears depressed, caring for three small children. One of the success stories – by the end of a year at nursery she’s progressed for almost catatonic silent terror to full interaction with other children and teachers in two languages.
Then there’s a Somali teaching assistant, who helps bridge cultural gaps having made a great leap herself from a traditional Somalia peasant life to London at the age of 20, but “the staff are highly valued but because they are surplus to legal minimum requirements, they are inevitably the first to be considered when school budgets shrink”.
But there’s also, as Wallace sits in the head’s office, a parade of community woes: one boy in year 4 has been left by his mother who says she can’t cope with him with his recently out of jail father, who’s now also says he doesn’t want him; another parent is a refugee who thinks people are talking about her negatively; another girl has been hit in the face and says her father did it, newly alone in care of four children: should she be referred to social services?
But it isn’t by any means all miserable. Totally uplifting is the tale of Maharun, the blind girl who wades into life with great confidence, aged nine now, and having been at the school since three, supported by the highly dedicated staff (her fulltime teaching assistant learnt braille to fulfil that role, and labels posters in the corridors in Braille so that her charge can read them with the others).
That’s a success story, but the fact that the school when this book was written had 70 children assessed as having special needs out of 250 (and getting that label is far from easy) shows the scale of the challenge. The book reports how the school is offered only 10 hours of a dedicated assistant for a proposed pupil with severe learning and language delay who is not in control of his bodily functions. “Is he meant to soil himself in the other 17 hours?” the head asks.
It’s a short but gripping read, and one that will produce what to many in the education system will be a familiar frustration. All of the focus on targets, on exams, on meeting rigidly defined academic roles, not only doesn’t help many of these pupils and their teachers navigate their lives and progress, but actively hinders them. And the constant stream of government directives and organisational changes streaming down from on-high swallows much time and energy, as does dealing with inadequate buildings and funding.
I’d like to see every British MP forced to read Oranges and Lemons; then they might grasp why Britain is doing so badly in the OECD education rankings - not because of inadequate teachers or problem schools, but because the inequality in British society is leaving far too many parents without the resources to cope with modern life – and thus leaving their children stranded.