My life until now has been low on prayer. I grew up in a house where there was much scornful talk of God-botherers, but now I find myself in a job where barely an hour passes without my bothering God in one way or another.
Earlier this year I moved to the north-east of England and since September have been teaching at a Catholic school near Newcastle. At first, this praying didn’t come naturally. I could just about say the Lord’s Prayer, hard-wired in me since primary school, but even this was of limited help. In the first assembly my lone voice rang out with my favourite bit — “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever, amen” — not noticing that everyone else had stopped, as Catholics do, after “deliver us from evil”.
Now, I’ve got the hang of it and find I like praying. Saying things in unison is one of life’s great but uncelebrated pleasures — it creates an instant state of togetherness and orderliness. I also very much like the words: peace, grace, hope and light. The last of these is particularly nice to say as there is so little of it up here, 55 degrees north, where on cloudy days around the winter solstice it doesn’t really get light at all.
Although I don’t feel any closer to Christ, I am being converted to a slightly different view of education — and, after a term’s immersion in Geordie society, to a radically different view of how best to live. Life at my school is founded on the Gospel values which, I found after a spot of googling, involve the sort of thing even the most devout atheist should be able to sign up to: forgiveness, honesty, trust, family and, above all, love.
I listened with disbelief in the first staff meeting when we were told it was our job to love all our students — especially the ones who were hardest to love. This was a departure from the successful academy school in east London where I trained, when staff would gather together in the name of no excuses, exam results and value-added scores.
This emphasis on love seems to me oddly profound, because from it everything else flows. If you force yourself to care deeply for every one of your students, you work harder for them, you want the best for them. All the other stuff I learnt in teacher training after leaving my job as a columnist at the Financial Times — differentiation and assessment for learning — seems a bit by the by.
It is not only the Gospel that is making me have a rethink. It is the experience of teaching and living 300 miles from the capital, my home for the past 63 years.
I can’t remember quite what I expected when I moved. I knew about the north-south divide. I knew the south doesn’t understand the north, and the north feels resentful of the south for hogging the money and almost everything else — which explains both why the north voted for Brexit and why we in the south didn’t see it coming.
In my old borough of Hackney 78 per cent voted to stay in the UK; in the North East 58 per cent voted to leave. I’ve moved from the richest part of the country to one of the poorest, from somewhere where educational standards are among the best to where they are among the worst.
I expected to feel alien; I expected to be treated with suspicion. But, more than six months in, and even though I still feel weird in my new setting, there hasn’t been a whiff of suspicion, let alone resentment. My fellow teachers subject me to the same upbeat banter that they heap on each other and only very occasionally do they let slip that they find me odd.
The other day, I asked a colleague what he was up to at the weekend, and then followed it up with further inquiries until he protested: “Bloody hell, Kellaway, you ask a lot of questions!” By contrast, none of them have asked me anything, which at first I found a bit flat, but which I’m now starting to see the point of. They are simply taking me as they find me.
My students are doing likewise. No one laughs at my voice, or seems to be doing any judging, at least not in a negative way. They appear to have done some perfunctory googling about me, enough to hit on the sole fact that interests them. Early on one of my cheekier Year 12s came bursting into my class, saying: “Miss! There’s a rumour going round about you: you’re loaded.”
He said he’d looked up my net worth online and found I had $1.3mn. I told him I had no idea where the number came from and, anyway, it was all down to property prices. If you had bought a flat for £27,000 in London in 1985 and had a professional job for a few decades, then the overwhelming likelihood was a net worth of more than £1mn. This was perfectly normal in the capital, where there were more than 800,000 dollar millionaires.
My tutorial on property prices did not go down well. He batted my words away — he liked the thought of being taught by a proper millionaire and didn’t want me to talk down my fortune.
In a way this should have been familiar. My students at all the schools where I taught in London shared the fascination with money and the desire to have more of it. But in every other way this new bunch of teenagers seem very different indeed.
The first difference is that in my last school barely 2 per cent were white; in this one it is about 90 per cent. The second is that they have lived in the same place for generations. One day I was talking about structural unemployment and giving an example of the region’s defunct coal mines, shipyards and steel plants. On a whim, I asked them if all four grandparents were born nearby — almost three-quarters of the class raised their hands. I remembered a related question being put to my Hackney school where an assembly hall of students were asked if both parents were born in London. Out of 200, barely 10 put up their hands, most of them of African-Caribbean heritage.
The stats bear this out. According to the University of Essex’s Understanding Society study, the North East is the least mobile place in the country, with 55 per cent of survey respondents living within 15 miles of their mother — more than three times as many as in the capital. And, if my students are any guide, this statistic is not about to change, as few of them plan to leave. They might go abroad for a bit (I tried to warn them that Brexit has made this harder), but after that they want to return home. No one has any interest in moving to London. They know they can’t afford it, and don’t fancy it anyway.
It seems to me that London’s extreme mobility and the North East’s lack of it explain so much about the differences between the two places and the best and the worst things about each.
This stability cuts across everything. It may account for the lack of curiosity. It may also lead to insularity and innocence in how they view the world. All London schoolchildren know a lot about different cultures; my students know only their own. When last year their beloved Newcastle United football club was bought by the Saudis, in a surge of joyous exuberance some of them took to the streets wearing tea towels on their heads. They were baffled when the club put out an announcement telling supporters to leave all tea towels at home. Any London teenager could tell them about cultural appropriation, but when I tried to explain, one shook his head in disbelief: “Miss, we were showing respect! We were saying thank you for buying our club.”
A bigger difference concerns competition. In London every day 9mn people fight it out for scarce resources: for a seat on the Tube, a flat to rent, success, jobs, money or fame. Everyone is striving for something — and immigration intensifies this. When families travel thousands of miles from their homes to make a better life for their children, they don’t let them sit around doing the minimum.
The Hackney schools I taught in were monuments to striving and, as a result, the children did very well indeed. Last month, I did a Zoom call with some of my most driven students and heard how they were applying to Oxbridge and the London School of Economics and Russell Group universities. I felt a sudden pang for my current students who, despite going to one of the best schools in the area, have few such ambitions. They mostly do the work I set them and mostly do it more or less adequately. But, for most of them, that’s as far as it goes.
Early on, in a bid to change this, I told my Year 12s that to do well at A-level they would need to do six hours’ independent work a week per subject. The class gawped in disbelief. Patiently, one explained he couldn’t do that because he worked weekends in a restaurant in the Metro Centre and needed to see his mates and watch football.
I replied that, in that case, the best grade he’d get would be a C — or maybe a B if he was very lucky. “What’s wrong with a B?” he said. “I’d much rather get that than spend six hours every week on business studies.”
The wind was taken out of my sails. I had nothing to say in reply.
Some students are aiming higher. One tells me his dad has always pushed him, and he wants to go south to a top university. “I have friends who are so clever — cleverer than I am. But they don’t care about going to uni because they don’t have the motivation or the passion. They don’t want to challenge themselves. They are in their comfort zones and they don’t want to get out.”
He sees it as a shame and a waste — and that’s what I used to think. But now I’m wondering if it might not be a sign of failure and culpably low aspirations if no one wants to go to the best universities or move to London to make their fortune. Couldn’t it be a sign of the opposite — of a close-knit community where people stay not because they lack imagination but because they like it there?
I’m reading Fiona Hill’s book about growing up in poverty in nearby Bishop Auckland and going to Harvard and ending up at the US State Department. Her dad, a miner-turned-hospital porter, once said to her, “There’s nothing for you here”, and from that came the title. But for my students, I think there are a lot of things for them here. They want to be midwives and builders and primary schoolteachers and make-up artists and police officers. One of them wants to study law at Northumbria University — for which he needs, and will get, a B. I don’t think he’ll ever make senior partner in a magic circle law firm, but so what?
Who is to say these aren’t good ambitions? And who can fail to admire the lack of stress in getting there? Even in these past six months, I have been acutely aware of the lifting of pressure. Every day for five years when I taught in the capital my stomach tightened as I went through the school gates. Now, I park my car outside after a nine-minute drive and go inside, no clenching of the stomach.
In my current school the teachers seem happy and have no plans to quit. Many have taught there for 20 or 30 years and educated the parents of the current students. Indeed, teacher turnover is so low that I very nearly didn’t get a job. When I started looking last spring, there were 120 vacancies for business studies and economics teachers in London; in the whole of the North East there were only three.
In the highest-achieving London academies a quarter of the staff quit every year — not just because they can’t afford flats but because they are wrung out by the scale of the work. This is the trade-off: this sort of system gets the best possible GCSE results, but the teachers, and sometimes the students, get burnt out achieving it.
Last week at school when the third advent candle was lit — which I now know represents joy — it struck me that this is something that Geordies, despite the cold and dark and lower incomes, are really rather good at. At least they seem to be better at it than I am.
In the week before Christmas, when everyone was winding down for the festive season and preparing for a whole-school outing to the local cinema complex, I set my students some homework, which I said I’d mark the next day. One of them, a boy who is not in the slightest hard to love, piped up: “Miss, I think you should relax. Then you’d enjoy your life more.”
Straight back, I told him that I enjoyed my life very much indeed. But, as I prepare for my first Christmas in the North East, I’m starting to wonder: what if he’s right?
Lucy Kellaway is an FT contributing editor and co-founder of Now Teach
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