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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: One school’s lesson in hope

It would take a lot more than a change in government to turn around the lives of some of the pupils at The Heath – but it would be a start

Photo: TNE/Getty

Where I live, London NW3, “the Heath” means one thing… the wonderful expanse of Hampstead landscape that makes you feel you’re in the deepest countryside, rather than one of the world’s busiest cities. For decades, I have walked, run and swum there, had some of my best and worst thoughts there, watched my children grow there, and come to appreciate the place as among the greatest on earth.

But not far from this magnificence, just a few streets from our house, is another “the Heath”, less well-known, less celebrated, which, when it was established, had to endure a fair bit of NIMBYism from people worried it was not right for “our” neighbourhood.

This other Heath is a school, also known as a PRU, a Pupil Referral Unit, the pupils referred to it those who have, for all manner of reasons, been excluded from mainstream education. You would need more than the few hours my partner Fiona and I spent there to get to the bottom of all those reasons, but nor do you need to be there long to understand that, whatever the specifics of all the exclusions involved, behind them lie stories of poverty, deprivation, mental health, abuse, gang culture, family chaos, not mere human badness.

Elements, such as staff-only fobs required to access rooms, feel more Young Offenders’ Institution than school. Other aspects would not look out of place in the most expensive private schools, such as class sizes and staff-to-pupil ratios that would make the heart of any struggling, austerity-hit state school headteacher soar.

The current PRU head, Alex Wilson, who has presided over the doubling of attendance rates from around a third to over 70%, likes to call the Heath “an intervention rather than a destination”, and some of the pupils do get back to mainstream education. For others, past, present and future, it may be that prison will be a feature in later lives, given Wilson and his team are dealing with some of Camden’s most challenging youngsters.

But it was hard not to feel inspired as well as moved by the commitment and caring of the staff, and by the scale of the challenges some of the pupils are having to overcome. Fair to say that for most, politics was not top of their agenda, but I did enjoy my exchanges with a 14-year-old who was telling me how he would resolve the Israel-Gaza crisis, and his classmate who reckoned he would do a better job as prime minister than “the nerd,” as he called our Dear Leader Mr Sunak.

Later, I caught up with Sunak’s appearance on Loose Women, where doubtless he expected a nice easy ride from a magazine TV show, but instead got hammered over lack of empathy for pensioners and the poor.

There is an old clip of Sunak as a young man, in which he says he doesn’t know any working-class people. It will take a lot more than a change of government to turn round the lives of those in the PRU. But it would make a difference to have a prime minister who at least knows that such people live in our midst.

The Heath is on the border of Keir Starmer’s constituency. He could do worse than pay it a visit, and try to work out how a government genuinely focused on helping the most challenged and challenging kids make something of themselves could actually do so.

I ended last week’s column in tears, as jazz singer Stacey Kent sang my favourite song at Ronnie Scott’s. And there were plenty more tears in Sheffield, where I met two Yorkshirewomen bereaved by suicide. 

Anna Scott’s daughter Ellen took her own life in 2017. The same year, Karen Sykes lost her husband Ian to suicide, and two years later her daughter Beth also killed herself. Totally, life-changingly, heart-breaking.

They came across something called the Greater Manchester Speak Their Name Suicide Memorial Quilt Project; a quilt made up of dozens of squares, each one designed, sewn and stitched by the family of a loved one lost to suicide. They decided to do their own, for Yorkshire, and what a beautiful piece of work it is.

They talked me through the story of every square, and when it came to their own, the tears came in torrents. They have now turned it into a book, explaining the project, then printing the squares, one per page, the name of the dead person above, memories of them below. 

Almost 170 people and stories, amounting to thousands of friends and family who will live with their pain forever. But the quilt, and the company of other suicide survivors, offer solace and comfort, even if the tears flow years after the initial shock. Email if you want to know more.

Talking of beautiful books, I cannot recommend strongly enough Michael Donald’s photo-journalistic account of the Battle of Orgreave, one of the most seminal political and industrial events of recent history. Shortly to be published by the New European, it will appear in the latest special offer we are making to help grow our family of subscribers.

But if you already subscribe, or have no intention of doing so, you should still get the book. It’s an important story, beautifully told. 

And it all came about because Michael, a fellow lido-swimmer, wanted a contact for Neil Kinnock, explained the idea at the pool, and showed me the photos he had already done. It’s brilliant stuff.

Speaking at the Inverness Chamber of Commerce dinner, instead of doing a straightforward speech, I asked the 350 guests to fill in an “Ask Alastair Anything” postcard. Hundreds of the cards were brought to me during the dinner, and I got through a good few dozen.

I love getting questions I have never been asked before, and I kicked off with one such – “what is the best question you have ever been asked at an Ask Alastair Anything event?” And I was able to answer with the next one in the pile: “In your long experience, in the many election campaigns you have worked on, have you ever found a good use for a motorhome?”

It was nice to see Scotland’s new deputy first minister, Kate Forbes, able to join in the laughter. We had a good chat later. I sense that first minister John Swinney is not the only one surprised to be back in a big job.

As I checked out of my hotel, a group of ageing American tourists was boarding a coach to visit Loch Ness. Cue endless banter about the Monster. Most seemed to accept that the whole thing was a rather splendid myth, which had successfully turned the place into a globally recognised tourist attraction.

But one elderly woman was having none of it. “Of course it’s real… there is a statue of it. Why would they have a statue of something that didn’t exist?”

It reminded me of the time I was on a plane from New York, and as we started the descent into Heathrow, the pilot said that if we looked out of the right-hand window we would have a great view of Windsor Castle. The American man in front of me said to his wife: “Why on earth would the Queen build her home so near to an airport?”

They’re not all stupid of course. But they did give us Donald Trump as president, and despite the experience, all too many are ready to do so again.

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