'In contrast to the woeful housing offered to the poorest in society, schools are now a beacon of hope'

In the very borough in which the Grenfell Tower tragedy was allowed to happen, schools are making every effort to maximise the opportunities for disadvantaged students – and many are succeeding

John Dunford

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"A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members," said Mahatma Gandhi. The message from the Grenfell Tower fire is clear: until this country looks after the housing and welfare of its poor, it has no right to be called great.

The aftermath of the shocking and tragic fire has left the government and local council running to catch up, both having been found wanting in the years before the fire and the days afterwards. The failure of leadership by senior politicians nationally and locally has been cruelly exposed.

The effects of class and race inequality are there for all to see, brought into the open by the extent of this tragedy.

Poor white people and ethnic minority families are the ones allocated to places like Grenfell Tower, becoming powerless to improve their living conditions against the combined neglect of some landlords and councils.

For many years the Grenfell Action Group, representing the residents in the Tower, has been warning about the poor conditions in the block and the inadequacy of the tenant management organisation and the local council. They were not listened to and their warnings went unheeded.

The 2009 fire in Lakanal House, a tower block in south London, killed six people, but the government has failed to upgrade fire regulations and ensure that the lessons learned from that fire are implemented elsewhere.

The parallels with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the failure to provide adequate flood defences in poor areas of New Orleans are clear.

It is unthinkable that anyone could have made a decision to clad a tower block in flammable material when a fireproof material is available for just £2 more per square metre.

There was no fire sprinkler system in Grenfell Tower, yet it is well known that no person has ever died from a fire in a high-rise block with a sprinkler system.

Local councils starved of funding by the government now put money-saving above moral purpose.

It is doubly ironic that the fire occurred in Kensington and Chelsea, one of the richest boroughs in the country, but with average income concealing an enormous contrast between the super-wealthy and some of the poorest people in our society.

Schools unite

The contrast with other multi-storey dwellings, often owned as investments by rich foreigners and with apartments rarely, if ever, occupied, could not be greater. Any complaints from the owners and residents in those blocks would, we all know, be dealt with promptly.

The nearest school to the Grenfell Tower is Kensington Aldridge Academy, which remains closed while safety assessments are made.

The school’s website states that: "The tragic events of Tuesday night at Grenfell Tower have impacted upon our whole community. Our thoughts are with all of those who have suffered loss or have been affected in any way at all.

"The school’s priority must be our students and staff, all of whom have been affected in one way or another by this devastating event.

"Today we are holding assemblies for all our students to explain the support the school has made available for them. We will have a permanent presence of counsellors and therapists in the academy for the foreseeable future, and for as long as the students need." 

While its building is closed, Kensington Aldridge Academy will be working in neighbouring schools, Burlington Danes Academy and Latymer Upper School. There are also many hundreds of members of the public doing extraordinary volunteering work (pictured).

The stark differences in our society, highlighted by this terrible tragedy, have been accentuated by policies such as the bedroom tax, cuts to social care and the abolition of the education maintenance allowance (EMA). These policies impact on the pupils of Kensington Aldridge Academy, as much as the low income of families.

Only the pupil premium stands as support for schools to improve the life chances of children from poor families.

Closing the gap

In contrast to the woeful housing policies for the poorest in society, schools are making every effort to maximise the opportunities for young people from poor backgrounds – and many are succeeding, especially in London.

London schools have shown that it is possible to raise the achievement of disadvantaged young people and close the gap with their more fortunate peers.

In Kensington and Chelsea, education is a success story. 60 per cent of disadvantaged 11-year-olds reach the expected standard in reading, writing and maths: this is the highest figure of all the 150 English local authorities, with the national average being 39 per cent.

The progress 8 score for disadvantaged 16-year-olds in 2016 was +0.24 – the highest of any local authority in England. The national average is -0.38 and the worst local authority has an average score of -1.14.

For learners not receiving the pupil premium, the achievement in Kensington and Chelsea is the fifth highest in the country, behind Hackney, Haringey, Barnet and Ealing.

In London, efforts to raise the attainment of young people from poor backgrounds are not focused just on closing the gap, but on providing the best possible quality of teaching and learning for all.

Education is a beacon of hope for the young people in the borough that should have done so much more to avoid the fire tragedy.

Extending opportunities

Schools alone cannot solve the inequalities in our society, but, as the Kensington and Chelsea statistics show, there is much that schools can do to reduce the gaps between rich and poor.

In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, let us turn our sorrow and anger into a renewed determination to do everything possible for disadvantaged children in every school.

John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. He tweets as @johndunford

For more Tes columns by John, visit his back catalogue.

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