Goodbye, good luck, we love you
It's a damp, rather foggy start to the last day of school for this year's A-level students at Seven Kings high in Ilford. And it's not just the weather that's flattening the tone. Last night they went to their leavers'
prom at a local hotel. Some haven't been home; one or two boys are still in their best suits with their ties undone. Some, by the look of them, haven't slept.
But Perin Patel is his usual perky, dapper self, despite not having gone to bed until 3am. "I don't need much sleep," he laughs. After the prom he and 20 of his friends piled into a hired limo to be driven to Leicester Square.
Having failed to gain access to a nightclub, they ate at McDonald's before catching a taxi home.
Many of the 212 Year 13 students leaving Seven Kings today only joined two years ago, for the school's sixth form is selective and takes more than a third of its students from other schools. But Perin has been here since he was 11. He would probably have gone to the local grammar school were it not for his wheelchair, which he uses because of a haemorrhage on his spinal cord when he was two months old. But seven years ago, the grammar school didn't have any lifts. And Seven Kings, a 1,300-pupil comprehensive in Ilford, is the designated centre in the London borough of Redbridge for pupils with physical disabilities, and has good facilities for wheelchair users.
Perin has loved his time here. "It's a brilliant school," he says. "I couldn't have asked for more in terms of the teaching, or the facilities."
He thinks for a minute. "No, there's nothing I'd want to change."
There won't be much work done today - if any - and in recognition of that fact, both Year 13 and Year 11 will be sent home before the end of the morning. It's bound to be an emotional day. To add to the fun the school's headteacher, Sir Alan Steer, has just been appointed chairman of a new government taskforce on behaviour, and the school is full of camera crews.
End-of-term pranks aren't traditional here, but the leavers will need to be watched even more carefully than usual.
Despite the late night, everyone's here for registration at 8.30am in the drama studio that serves as a form room for Perin's class. The Year 11s had their prom last night too, in school, and there's a little cluster of red balloons floating up towards the ceiling as the class gathers one last time for a group photo.
Perin only has one lesson this morning - physics, with Dr Kamlesh Pithia. Dr Pithia knows no one's in a state to learn, so they sit and chat. In a high-achieving sixth form, they're an exceptionally bright group. Among these 20 boys, three expect to read medicine, one law, one dentistry, four engineering and one theoretical physics.
Perin is hoping to go to University College London, to read economics.
After that, he would like to work for a merchant bank. But first he needs to gain A grades in physics, maths and economics, and a B in further maths.
He's revising for four or five hours each evening and more at the weekends.
Dr Pithia is confident Perin can make the grade. "I would be extremely disappointed if he didn't get an A. He's working at a very high level. He's very enthusiastic. He's hard-working and he wants to achieve."
Like many others in his year group, Perin is clear about his goals for the future. Since he was a small boy he's helped his father, a pharmacist who came here from Uganda in the Seventies, with his stocks and shares. He's already making plans to approach some of the banks for work placements next summer.
But now it's break, and time for a final gathering of Year 13 in the sixth-form block. Usually the common room pulsates to the sound of loud music at this time of day, but today it's quieter. The pictures from last night are being flashed up on a screen, and there's a great deal of hugging and crying.
The staff are almost as emotional as the students and the head of sixth form, Carol Jones, is already in tears. She calls everyone to order. "When I talk to any of you individually I start to cry, and if I leave this any longer I'm not going to get through it," she says. "You lot have been such a special group of people. We know you're going to go on to achieve greatness. I'm convinced there are people in this room who in years to come will be in high positions in government, or in medicine. Have a wonderful career. I just love you all so much."
There's hardly a dry eye in the house. Someone shouts back: "We love you too, Miss!" and everyone cheers. Even Perin, who maintains his air of cheerful calm, admits its hard to say goodbye. But he's moving on. There's a lot to look forward to. "Change is good," he says.
Fran Abrams's book on Seven Kings will be published by Atlantic Books in September 2006