How times change while staying the same. In London’s leafier enclaves, where ranks of domestic staff are the norm and BritMilFit instructors outnumber the trees in the parks, moans about nannies’ unreasonable demands – pay and things like that – are as they ever were. But, where once t’was an unwritten law to employ twentysomethings from between the Balkans and the Baltics, there has been a small revolution. No longer shall Daddy hunger after the Hungarian au pair, as depicted not-entirely-unsympathetically in John Lanchester’s Capital. In place of Matya, meet Conchita – heavy of hip and middle of age, her implicitly-assumed undesirability reinforced by a skin more rich in melanin than her employer’s.
Over the years, I’ve had the good/mis*fortune to reside in some salubrious parts of London (*delete according to current state of social-economic-political outrage). Many households in these areas employ staff – often chosen, it would seem, in accordance with changing ethnic preferences. When I lived in west London, the commonplace sight of older Hispanic women with tow-haired toddlers made me marvel daftly at the sheer biological miraculousness of it all. Then I realised my mistake: these ladies may push the prams, but they do so in the way their spouses drive the cars. As chauffeurs. Dark-haired and tanning easily, I learned not to walk down the streets of Holland Park in my civvies, lest I be handed a bucket and told to do the front steps.
And so, parts of London come to resemble the Confederate States. It’s a hard nut to crack, what with the right to dispose of one’s income as one chooses being more or less sacrosanct. But we can, at least, rest assured that public institutions responsible for social education won’t be afraid to face such challenges head-on – can’t we? At an after-school staff meeting a couple of years ago, a trainee nearing the end of his course expressed incredulity that he was about to become a ‘proper’ teacher. Not because he was an incompetent (far from it) who’d fooled us all into believing otherwise. And not just because he’d survived being buried alive, Poe-style, under a mountain of paperwork with only his tell-tale edu-jargon to attest to a working pulse. No; he was amazed because he is black, and teaching seemed to him to be a white occupation.
That this belief is erroneous can be verified in any number of schools, where staffing is almost as diverse as pupil intake. Indeed, Sheldon, as I shall call him, admitted as much: he’d been on placements in other schools where he’d felt at ease being a teacher with black skin. There, to have a staff body that reflected the students’ ethnic variety was seen as a positive asset. Whether the presence of black teachers in overwhelmingly white schools is similarly valued remains debatable. An ex-colleague recalls being referred to as ‘the other one’ by both staff and students at a suburban high school. She was one of two non-white teachers in a staff body numbering around a hundred and twenty, and each was often confused with the other despite their differences in sex, build and subject. It was easier, apparently, to distinguish the Chuckle Brothers.
I digress. Back to Sheldon. His unease in his current placement did not surprise. The school, in inner London, had an overwhelmingly black intake – around 90%, comprising a wide range of ethnic groups – but not a single black teacher. The story differed in the ranks of poorly-paid support staff, where black outnumbered white by about four to one. The white support staff held positions of responsibility for which they were paid more, their lack of relevant qualifications being, it would appear, no barrier to career progression. Indeed, one might almost assume the reverse to be true: the sole staff member with the qualifications required by said posts was an Asian employee who had been appointed – and kept – at a significantly lower level, despite an excellent track record. Consequently, on every day that they were in school, children of all colours witnessed white people having the right to give orders and darker people being obliged to obey unquestioningly.
I’m ambivalent about quotas. On the down-side, they can hand bigots a rusty but usable tool with which to start chipping away at an appointee’s credibility. However, the imbalance in its staff, and the possible impact of this fact on its students’ self-perception, were among the first features to strike me when I entered the school, and I found myself looking more sympathetically at the idea. Then I noticed the ease with which white children, especially middle-class ones, were identified as gifted. By contrast, I had to fight tooth-and-nail to have one the most intellectually remarkable students I’ve ever taught – a black boy from a working-class, single-parent family – similarly designated. The recognition was, nearly always, accompanied by grudging ‘buts’ or compensatory emphasis on any errors he made – the kind that characterises its object as a buffoon.
Being struck so frequently by the status quo can leave a big bump on one’s forehead, that banging against brick walls only exacerbates; both the boy and I have left the place behind. I’m sure that few, if any, of the senior staff consider themselves prejudiced, and I know that many would – could? – counter such a claim by pointing out that they have chosen to work in a school with a very high proportion of black students. And it’s not inconceivable that the issues highlighted here are due more to failures of expertise and imagination than they are to malice – with, perhaps a little smug assumption of self-rectitude thrown in.
Maybe things are on the up. I know that the school has recently appointed a couple of black teachers – or, to use the head teacher’s words, “a couple of them”. However, the proportion of white support staff has fallen, and those that there are continue to not only earn more, but also to be offered first dibs on opportunities to supplement their incomes. So my fear remains that children of an impressionable age will continue to see something akin to what I witnessed – and, as an adult, was able to anatomise – in Holland Park: car lots full of vehicles belonging to the better-paid, white and powerful, while the women and men who keep gravel raked and glasses sparkling make their long journeys on early trains and night buses.
Plus ca change.