It’s a sign of the times that, following a dearth of sombre posts, two should need to come along in succession. The last, written in the wake of the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack is followed now – so very regrettably – by another, scribbled in the aftermath of the North Kensington inferno. Including such occurrences in a blog primarily concerned with education would feel like an exercise in tangential connection, were it not the case that significance sometimes exceeds its source, and at speed. So it is with Grenfell Tower, whose charred remains stand like an accusatory finger in a borough where wealth accumulates barely a stone’s throw away from worsening poverty.
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea exemplifies, to an extreme degree, what can seem like the capital’s credo: despite reserves of almost £300 million, and enough for council tax rebates to those paying the top rate, RBKC saw fit to claw back a few thousand pounds from the refurbishment of a high-rise block housing some of its poorest residents. In recent years, it has also ‘boasted’ the most unaffordable rents and the greatest degree of benefit polarisation in London, the vast disparity between the ends of the economic spectrum being masked by its high average income. The spot in which the tower is located is both economically deprived and a prime location with considerable cultural cachet, the latter thanks to the famous post-Windrush Carnival and the more recent influx of celebrities to the south.
In the wake of the fire, the area’s schools have, in many ways, exemplified the generosity and defiance that has driven ‘ordinary’ people to fill the vacuum left by the local council’s inertia. It’s evident in their swift provision of counselling to those affected by the inferno. In the speed with which other schools absorbed students displaced from the academy next to the tower. Most touchingly, perhaps, in the young woman who, having escaped the blaze, sat her Chemistry GCSE a few hours later in her pyjamas – the only clothes left in her possession. I can think of few more humbling statements of belief in education’s value.
Beyond this, however, the appalling fate suffered by Grenfell’s residents should resonate with all of us who work in or use our public services. Social housing for those rendered homeless is scarce because much of this collective asset has been transferred to private hands. Just today, RBKC has been given sixty-eight flats by the Corporation of London, so that erstwhile Grenfell tenants – some of whom have been sleeping rough – can continue to be housed in the borough where they’ve made their lives. Being part of the affordable quota on a luxury development, the apartments would command considerably higher rents on the open market, although RBKC is bound, for the moment, to honour existing tenancy arrangements. Whether it remains obliged – or, more importantly, inclined – to do so is anyone’s guess.
Not least because whatever housing is still left in RBKC’s possession has already been eyed up for the rich pickings it could furnish: indeed, a senior councillor (describing himself as a developer who works for RBKC “in his spare time”) has purchased property in the borough’s less salubrious north, apparently anticipating a significant rise in its resale/rental value as the area is further gentrified. According to local action groups, this is the intended outcome of the council’s euphemistically-named “decant” policy, which will relocate social housing tenants to other boroughs so that regeneration work – purportedly planned with the same residents’ interests in mind – can be carried out.
However, in Grenfell Tower’s case, it would appear that the focus was less on regeneration than on a cosmetic quick-fix – one that would appease the aesthetic sensibilities of those who view social housing as an eyesore, rather than provide a habitable space to the people for whom these supposed blots on the landscape are home. Which is why, with disastrous results, the block’s exterior was deemed more important than the functionality of its infrastructure. Furthermore, there is growing evidence that tenants’ safety concerns were either dismissed repeatedly or silenced by threats of legal action. Both responses bespeak an alarming ease with fobbing off, rather than heeding, People Not Like Us.
All of the above demonstrate how prioritising the needs of the already wealthy over the poor, and profiteering over provision, can bequeath consequences of such life-limiting enormity that they oblige us to ask “What if…?” elsewhere. What if governments persist in hacking at the limbs of our health service? What if the restructuring and mis-funding of our schools continues apace? Thanks to the Mid-Staffordshire Trust scandal, we know how the NHS version might look. Let us imagine the education equivalent: an outwardly attractive structure serviced by inadequately qualified or temporary staff; apparently philanthropic sponsors and quasi-patrician leaders drowning the concerns of certain kinds of parents with claims that, comme noblesse oblige, they are acting in the best interests of the children; skewed consultations and misgivings silenced by menaces. Oh, hang on…
But imagine it we must, because the consequences of the above will be felt most starkly by society’s least advantaged, for whom there are no options other than what the state provides. Just as they were on the day when Grenfell burned.