Disappearing schools, families forced out – and we call this progress? | Aditya Chakrabortty

Something strange is happening in the heart of London, something an entire generation has never witnessed. You see it by piecing together the news ignored as too small by the big media and reported only by the local journalists covering their particular boroughs. So try these snippets.

Last week, Lambeth announced that a secondary school founded in 1685 will close for good this summer, with its students farmed out elsewhere. In Camden, St Michael’s primary will not even make the end of the school year – it closes this month, the fourth in the borough to go since 2019. Days before the Easter holiday, Hackney warned that two of its primaries are likely to fold and another four may have to merge to survive. Neighbouring Islington is considering closures, while Southwark believes 16 primaries are at risk.

This is a huge story, not only about marooned children and panicked parents, or redundant teachers and struggling councils, but the very future of our major cities. These schools are not shutting because they are bad, but because inner London no longer has enough children to fill them. The dead centre of Britain’s political and economic powerhouse is driving out families – and its education system is now taking an almighty hit. Hackney, for instance, has 589 fewer kids in reception today than it did in 2014, a shortfall equivalent to about 20 vacant classrooms. Since schools mainly receive cash per pupil, empty desks mean debts, and debts force closures.

Once a primary or secondary school locks its gates, it’s gone for good. That handsome redbrick shell is gavelled off, to be reincarnated as splendid flats for sub-nuclear households, and the only reminder of a proud state institution is the service charge on that private finance initiative wing – which will be levied long, long after you and I have ascended to the great common room in the sky.

A city without children is not some dystopia; it is the new reality. At the Centre for London, senior researcher Jon Tabbush has analysed 20 years of census results, and found families with kids have gone missing across the centre of London. Since 2001, Lambeth has seen a 10% drop in households with at least one school-age child; in Southwark it’s 11%. Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Islington: they are all losing young families.

As Camden council’s leader Georgia Gould says: “People are either being pushed out before they can have babies – or they’re choosing to leave.” This goes way beyond the rite of passage of couples swapping their city-centre flats for a suburban home and garden, she says – it is now happening at speed and scale beyond anything her officials imagined. In outer London Barking and Dagenham, there has been a 34% increase in households with children: the kind of jump any local authority would struggle to handle. A similar story can be told all around the perimeter of the city: its children and its future are being formed on its outskirts.

Agar Grove in the borough of Camden, London.
‘The post-crash decade also saw inner London turned into a theme park for property speculators.’ Agar Grove in the borough of Camden, London. Photograph: Jack Hobhouse

If this historic shift has a hinge point, it’s the 2010s, when two big forces began reshaping the capital. The first came from Downing Street: since David Cameron moved into No 10, successive Tory governments have taken benefit money from the very youngest and handed it to the oldest. The Resolution Foundation calculates that newborns have lost £1,500 a year in entitlements, while those aged 80 and above have gained more than £500.

By holding down housing benefit so it lagged far behind London rents, the supposedly centrist coalition of Cameron and Nick Clegg forced less well-off families out of the capital. They made inner London into a no-go area for the working poor, and Britain into a country that steals from its future for the sake of buying a few extra votes at the next election.

The post-crash decade also saw inner London turned into a theme park for property speculators. The Bank of England was spraying about hundreds of billions of pounds like it was champagne at a grand prix, the then chancellor George Osborne was chucking taxpayer’s money at the property market, and London councils, including some of Gould’s Labour colleagues in Camden, were allowing developers to run riot. The arguments about gentrification soon descended into cliches about hipsters and Foxtons, when what was really being decided was who would live in the city and who it would serve.

Children are what Kathy Evans of the charity Children England calls “an indicator species”: as long as a city or town has a good and large mix of kids, you know it will be fine. In which case, the signs from London’s indicator species should worry us all.

Camden’s records show that just under 40% of its teenage children attend private school – about five times the national average. A roughly equal proportion of local kids grow up in poverty. So stark is the divide that some families are running a campaign to implore “aspirational parents” to at least consider local state options. The founder of Meet the Parents, Madeleine Holt, talks of “a fear of what state schools are really like” among the bankers and lawyers who now live in the borough. A fear, in other words, of their own neighbours – the ones who can’t drop £20,000 a year on school fees.

The families going missing are those who can no longer afford to buy or rent. Parents such as Louise Ellery, who rents from the Peabody housing association, a charity set up to provide shelter for the “artisans and labouring poor”. Yet she has seen her rent go up and up, along with her other bills. On her phone, she shows me the bank statement: £1,400 a month for her two-bed flat, which many London renters might consider a bargain. But her salary as a school teaching assistant nudges just over £1,600. For the rest of the month she has to feed, heat and clothe her two kids on that wage, a little bit of benefits and the occasional helping hand from a relative.

For two years, Ellery has tried to make these impossible sums work, while her elder child studied for A-levels. The 47-year-old has lived in Camden for decades, has helped run the school food bank and a toy library, and kept an allotment. She loves the fact her neighbours come from all over the world and that London’s free museums and galleries are on the children’s doorstep. But, “I can’t beat the cost of living”, she says. This summer she is moving to Somerset.

Her local primary school, Netley, loses one of its most experienced teaching assistants and her six-year-old daughter. Her headteacher, Gareth Morris, emails from his holiday to say he is “devastated” she is going. But he knows the score. Two in three of his children are on free school meals, and in lockdown he went around handing out food packages. Yet from the school gates he sees tourists trundling past with wheeled suitcases for their Airbnbs, and all along the neighbouring terrace houses the lockboxes for holiday lets.

Ellery has seen it, too, and the new shiny private tower blocks, and knows what all that means for her, her career and her kids. At the school, children have written notes to thank her for everything; on her estate neighbours have cried. “What’s it called when you push out low-income people?” she asks rhetorically. The tone is not anger but resignation. She has lost her fight to stay and London has lost another family.

  • Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist and senior economics commentator

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