'All the good, liberal Islingtonians intend to use state schools, but few stay the course'

5th August 2005 at 01:00
Hilary Wilce continues our summer series with a look at the tiny urban borough which is home to education's elite.

Islingtonians live in a small part of London but they think it's the world.

This wouldn't matter - lots of us think our home town is the centre of the universe - except that education in this country is increasingly run by Islingtonians, for Islingtonians, on Islingtonian notions of how the world works, even though 99.999 per cent of the country is not only not-Islington, but bears about as much resemblance to it as Hell's Kitchen bears to the Hamptons or Hawaii. Tony "education, education, education" Blair launched his Prime Ministership from Islington. Now Islingtonian Andrew Adonis has joined the team as a junior education minister in the House of Lords, cementing that unique north London perspective solidly into the heart of school thinking.

Islington is a tiny, urban borough, just north of central London, riven by traffic and with barely a blade of grass to its name. What it does have is streets of expensive Georgian terraced houses and some large sink estates.

In the houses live journalists, lawyers, barristers, advisers, civil servants and various other movers and shakers, mostly, though not entirely, of a liberal bent, since anyone with that sort of money but a different political perspective tends to head for Chelsea or Fulham, where the shopping is better and there is easier access to Wiltshire. In the estates are single mothers, drug abusers, refugee families and the kind of domestic households that think good parenting means kitting their children out with pound;100 trainers and a packet of Wotsits for breakfast.

This means that while all the good, liberal Islingtonians fully intend to use state schools for their children, few stay the course. Nursery goes well. The early years of primary aren't too bad (St Saveus From The Inner City is "absolutely marvellous"), but then that wonderfully mixed social environment becomes altogether too mixed for comfort and most, like MP Diane Abbott, of next-door Hackney, which is practically Islington these days, cave in and pack their children off to a competitive London day school where they get four As at A-level and go on to Oxbridge, smug in the knowledge that, having lived in gritty Islington, they're pretty, like, you know, ghetto, and know where it's at. But having to use private schools - or, like Tony Blair, having to truck their children across the capital to an acceptable state school - leaves good, liberal Islingtonians feeling guilty and cross. Oh, what a dreadful mess state schools are in, they think, wringing their hands as they watch home-going schoolboys gobbing on the pavement and snapping the fleur-de-lys tops off the railings in front of their houses. It must be possible to do something! And out come complicated policies based on specialist schools and city academies.

These are then rolled out, willy-nilly, across the country, even though, outside Islington, where the two-nation culture fairly quickly shades towards something more varied, most people simply want their existing local schools to get better, and no one sees any need to turn a solid all-round school into a narrow specialist music college, or to give Lord This and Whiz-Kid That a veto over school policies for a just bob or two. Let's simply have better teachers, they think, fewer tests and targets, improved vocational options and further education colleges for all those kids in the middle, and a culture where parents are expected to teach their kids how to behave.

But Islingtonians know nothing of life in the middle. Life in their manor is tough. Gulfs are huge. Shiny new bridges must be flung across them.

Radical problems need radical answers. Of course, this is not all a bad thing. Most Islingtonians are good people with thoughtful intentions.

Blue-sky thinking is never something to be sniffed at. And maybe their solutions will work like a charm in the kind of area they call home. But how well will these Islingtonian policies bed down in Ilkeston? In Ipswich? In Isleworth? Or could it be that these clever urban burghers, their educational vision clamped in horrified fascination to the chasm between Islington Green and St Paul's, are guilty of that thing they would most despise - small-town thinking that just doesn't travel?

We'll probably never know. Politics being what it is, as academies rise, so the fortunes of today's leaders will fall. New boys and girls will come along to take their place, along with their own vision of schools based on what they see around them. Oh dear. Notting Hill might be leafier than Islington, but its vistas are just as limited.

Hilary Wilce is a former Islingtonian who broke free Next week: Jill parkins ON 'the trouble with kelly's hours'

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