Access On The Ground: Peckham to Portcullis

Photo by Garry Knight. CC License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Since starting as a Programme Coordinator for The Access Project (TAP), I’ve found the best way of explaining my job to people is to relay my most interesting day-to-day experiences working with students in inner-city state schools.

Statistics are useful. But taken in isolation, they fail to capture how the relationship between socioeconomic deprivation and educational inequality manifests on the ground.

In regular posts, I want to provide an anecdotal window through which others can gain a clearer view of what educational disadvantage means in practice, and how we at TAP are trying to combat it on the frontline.

Each week I am based in two schools: Ark Globe Academy and St George’s Catholic School.

Globe is in Elephant and Castle, SE1, and draws its intake from an extremely diverse demographic of students. It has a relatively high proportion students who are:

a) eligible for free school meals (whose annual household income is less than £16,000); and,

b) from parts of town with low rates of university-place attainment.

Resting in the shadows of tall, sterile office blocks, the school is surrounded by the infrastructure of South London gentrification. Students are fiercely aware of this. I attended a poetry slam at the school the other evening, and one of the common themes expressed by their spoken word was a frustration with the sudden, shallow transformation happening on the academy’s whitewashed doorstep.

St George’s, on the other hand, is squeezed into the North-West London bubble that is Maida Vale. Not many of its students seem to live in immediate proximity to the school. There is a juxtaposition between it’s hectic, under-spaced corridors and the calm web of townhouse affluence that sets the tone of the local area.

Regardless of these differences, across both schools my job is to bring the term ‘access’ to life in a consistent and effective way. To attempt to break down some of the city-wide social barriers that exist in our state-school system.

One of the key parts of the TAP programme I deliver is to match students with volunteer tutors — graduates working in offices across London, probably much like yourself — for weekly, hour-long tutorials.

One of my Globe year 10 students is tutored in English by a parliamentary researcher, at the café in Portcullis House, Parliament, where MPs have their afternoon coffees. Beyond working on the GCSE syllabus, the pair spend ten minutes of each lesson practicing public speaking. Just the other day, the student excitedly came to tell me about his tutor introducing him to Harriet Harman (his MP — he lives in Peckham), and of Boris Johnson walking past his seat during the last tutorial.

Another student, a St George’s year 10, has her Maths tutorials in the Treasury with a government economist. When I accompanied her to the first session, we were given a tour — past George Osborne’s office, through the historic, sprawling offices and up the spiral staircase that leads to the building’s unique rooftop view of Parliament.

Both of these students live on council estates and qualify for free school meals. These facts alone means that, if we go on current trends, they are 150 times less likely than an Eton pupil to gain a place at Oxford or Cambridge when the time comes for them to apply to university.

Whether in SE or NW postcodes, they are the true beneficiaries of our work. Because what makes these tutorial partnerships remarkable is not just that academic support is received.

It is that such meetings function as a proxy for connecting otherwise unconnected social dots. They provide a secure and purposeful common ground for two ends of society’s spectrum to learn from, and become familiar with, one another. These sorts of rare interactions that we at TAP facilitate, between disadvantaged school children and established, willing professionals, amounts to one prong of attack on the unequal nature of our British education system.

You can sign up to be one of our voluntary tutors on our website, www.theaccessproject.org.uk — all you need is a degree.