Opinion: 'If the UK really is up for increased immigration, let's open up our best schools – not just our borders'
In watching the growing outcry over the refugee crisis in Europe, it has struck me just how hypocritical the liberal middle and upper classes can be – however sincere their protests.
Why? Put simply: education. There are few more powerful signifiers of both the state and politics of a country than its schools.
More often than not, wealth equates to good schools. The wealthy can afford to send their children to private schools or to live in the type of postcodes that feature good and outstanding state schools (one of the major factors in creating expensive postcodes).
Immigrant and/or refugee families tend to settle (or be settled) in the UK, a long way both socially and economically – though not necessarily in distance – from these type of postcodes; they attend vastly different types of schools. While many ethnically diverse and immigrant-rich schools are fantastic, the already resident middle (and upwards) classes will, for the most part, try really bloody hard to keep their own kids out of them.
I once taught in a poor, ethnically diverse, immigrant-heavy – and Ofsted-rated “good” – school in London for three years. In that time, how many kids of politicians, activists, columnists or actors do you think I taught? Hell, even most of the teachers at that school opted to send their own children elsewhere.
Parents now go to extraordinary lengths to get their kids into a “good” state school. My dad lives opposite one of the best state primary schools in the country and regularly has parents knocking on the door offering him large cash bribes to “use” his address – or to buy his house. “Good” for a school increasingly means where a school is and who attends, as much as what is taught.
If you want to see people’s politics turn on a dime, tell them they can’t have their first choice of school for their child. I’ve also taught in one of the best, and most oversubscribed, state schools in the country. Guess how many times we were told by bitter and angry parents how their child’s life was now ruined because they had to attend the “bad” school down the road? These other schools weren’t technically “bad”, and more often quite the opposite, but were far, far more mixed than the school I worked at.
And it’s not just schools – although schools are a major factor in the increasing social division emerging in this country. I work with teenagers across the social spectrum every day of my working life. This is a generation of teenagers with such low class migration, it shocks me.
Poor kids hang out with other poor kids, kids in the middle hang out with kids in the middle and rich kids hang out with rich kids. Invariably, this class divide extends to a race divide, because kids who have just arrived from Afghanistan or Iran or Syria aren’t hanging out in Chelsea or going to expensive private schools, or the best schools in rich – and let’s face it, predominantly white – areas.
No, they go to they type of school I taught at for three years, and they live in the areas that are already immigrant rich but financially poor.
You stick a load of people in a community or a school from different countries, ethnicities, faiths, castes, skin colours and so on, it is often a very uneasy blend and leads to problems and clashes. The fights I had to break up at some of the ethnically diverse schools I’ve worked at are not fights that are flaring up at, say... well, I’m not going to name the schools, but you get the idea.
So, here’s my suggestion. If we are really, really up for increased immigration, let’s integrate at the first major hurdle of any person’s life: school. Let’s remove the barriers of wealth and class and expensive postcodes and extend our privileges to the not so privileged. Let’s offer a quota of places at expensive or heavily oversubscribed state schools in expensive areas, say 30 per cent to begin with, to anyone who wants to apply – and not just those who can afford to live down the road.
If the people living in their expensive bubbles really care as much as so many say they do, they should be happy for their kids to share classrooms with the kids of Afghanistan, Iran or Syria.
And if they’re not happy with this idea, than they need to really question the sincerity of their cries for more opportunities for immigrants and refugees. Because right now, the gates of some schools are keeping out more kids than they are keeping in.
Chloe Combi is the author of a new bestseller, Generation Z: Their Voices, Their Lives, available from Random House