Exile goes native

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Alisdair Donald didn't quite know what hit him when he came to London from Scotland to do a PGCE and from there landed his first teaching job. It has been a journey of discovery, revelation and a few hard knocks.

His hometown of Perth is a place where your neighbours are like an extended family and everyone knows just about everyone else. So it was a shock to his system to suddenly be plunged into the vast social wasteland that London can be for newcomers. Another shock was the high cost of living and particularly the rent.

"There was no way that my student grant would stretch to the ridiculously high rents that were being asked," says the 31-year-old history teacher, who teaches at an independent school in Croydon, south London.

"I could only afford a council high rise in Brixton. It was very cheap and very good until a crack den was set up next door. One night my brother rang and said 'I hope mum's not watching the telly right now because your block of flats is on the news - they've just done a big crack bust.'"

While the crack barons have come and gone, the distinctly English attitude to education has been something that Alisdair has found at least as unsettling. "England's on a sticky wicket with education," he says. "There's a dreadful attitude to secondary and university education here. In Scotland, you find that all classes of people value education for education's sake and consider it important. In England, the approach is best summed up in the expression "they're too smart for their own good".

But if England is still class-bound in some respects, Alisdair finds that it is refreshingly liberated in the way that neighbourhoods and schools are so culturally and socially mixed. "In some cities, you find ghetto schools, schools that are bad and just get worse and worse. Here, things are more evenly distributed. You might live in a really run-down part of London and around the corner you'll find beautiful Georgian houses."

Even so, he says that he has encountered what he has construed as racist taunts from his pupils for being a Scotsman. "Kids ask if I wear a kilt and take the piss sometimes of my accent. They can be a bit nasty."

About a year ago, in his PGCE year, he had what you might call the ultimate nasty experience. Walking home from a friend's house late one night, he was set upon by a gang of 10 youths about 100 metres from his house. He was beaten badly enough to keep him off work for 10 days.

Going back to school after that was difficult. "Imagine having to walk back into teaching practice in front of a class of youths. It was particularly difficult because I went back before I was well enough and felt absolutely terrible. But it was good for me and got me over the fear of being with youths of the same age as those who'd attacked me. Being a teacher definitely helped me get over that psychological barrier."

Has the experience put him off London? Not a bit of it, he protests. "I'd never consider leaving London now. It's gotten under my skin. I still find it exciting travelling on the Tube, seeing people from all over the world, hearing so many different languages. And the pace is still exhilarating to me.

"What happened to me last year could have happened in Glasgow or anywhere else where economics work against people, anywhere in the world. The buzz I get from living here makes up for everything else."

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