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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: The uplifting school which would take Farage to his breaking point

An academy where 85% of pupils have English as a second language found engaged, informed children with high aspirations and plenty of questions

Image: The New European

Paddington Academy is one of those schools that reminds you that multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multi-cultural, multi-national Britain works better than the Braverman brigade would have us believe. And before anyone says this is “just London” there are plenty of schools like it elsewhere.

Eighty-five per cent of its pupils have English as a second language. Sixty per cent are on free school meals. If you had an Olympics within the playground you would need at least 80 flags to be sure the medal winners were properly celebrated. The vast majority of children are non white, and there are plenty of headscarves.

This is the kind of stuff to take Nigel Farage beyond his “breaking point”, and have GBeebies presenters whipping up all the right wing bollocks without which they cannot breathe. Yet my God … of the many schools I have been to since publishing But What Can I Do? this was right up there among the best.

I had a pretty comfortable start, the first questions coming from two young Kosovar Albanians whose parents fled when Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic was embarking on ethnic cleansing late last century. It was a high point of Tony Blair’s leadership and though these two were not called Tonibler, plenty of young Kosovans are. So that was a good way to kick off, with a discussion about the current fragility of the peace between Serbia and Kosovo, about which they were hugely well informed.

There were young Iraqis there too and first a girl, and later two of the boys, wanted to hear in detail why we did what we did 20 years ago, before they were born, and how I viewed those events now. They listened respectfully, later said they understood the complexities, but ultimately felt we did the wrong thing.

There were, of course, many questions about Israel/Palestine, about Labour, about education, about small boats and immigration, about social media, about every issue you can imagine, personal and political, and when teacher Sam Ineson tried to bring it to an end there were still a dozen hands raised and those who held them aloft made sure they got their questions answered afterwards anyway.

It was all the more uplifting because on the way in a science teacher had told me he worried that a lot of the children would lack the confidence to engage in debate. Far from it. We could have carried on for ages.

What I saw were young people who were polite – I lost count of how many told me in their questions that they were grateful for me giving time to be with them – engaged, good-humoured, informed, challenging, with high aspirations and a strong work ethic.

And bizarrely given my political tribalism I was especially moved by the fact that one of those two Kosovan boys, having expressed his gratitude for what we did for him and his family, nonetheless told me that though he liked us and didn’t much care for the current government, at heart he was more of a conservative than a socialist. When it came to the group photo he made sure he was sitting right next to me and he said he hoped one day to be a Tory MP.

I hope he makes it. He certainly can’t be any worse than most of the ones doing the job now. There were others there who wanted to be scientists, lawyers, teachers and entrepreneurs. We will need them all to make it.
Another young Kosovan asked me what I thought of Suella Braverman. Not a lot, I said. He said she had portrayed “all Albanians as criminals,” and it made him angry.

The populist right do indeed like to portray “immigrants” as scroungers, scoundrels and thieves. There is another image closer to reality though. People who have been forced to flee their homeland, made a home here and raised children who will make a huge contribution to their country. Britain.

There is a very funny moment in the Netflix series on David Beckham, recalling the time when The Sun scoured the world to find someone who had never heard of the footballer turned global brand. They found a farmer in Chad to whom Goldenballs was a total mystery. Front page news.

First I declare an interest. The series was produced by my friend Nicola Howson and she asked me to spend a bit of time with American director Fisher Stevens in the research phase to help give him a feel for Britain’s sporting and media culture during the time Beckham became one of the most famous faces on the planet. But I promise it is not that personal connection that leads me to say that watching the series is worth four hours of anyone’s time. Even Fiona, who is not a football fan, thoroughly approved. “Like a warm bath.”

It was fascinating as a reminder of the global phenomenon he became, the madness that surrounded him and the at times brutal treatment he endured at the hands of both media and public. It is also a portrayal of a marriage and a growing family and, even accepting the Beckhams had a major say in how they were presented, they came over not just as a real partnership – despite their well-publicised hiccups – but one with a lot of humour and emotional intelligence. I have only ever met Posh Spice once, at an Alex Ferguson testimonial dinner, but always liked her from afar and like her a lot more after the series.

But what I loved about Becks was his persevilience (my word, his quality). He is such a brand now that you forget the many downs there were among all the ups of his career. He just kept on keeping on. And in the interviews with his fellow players, home and abroad, you could not fake the fondness and respect that comes through from virtually all of them.

As for my favourite bit … when his mum revealed she and the rest of the family had been staying in the same hotel as a reporter from The Sun, and they put their dinner on his room. Childish, but hey … we all need the inner child at times.

It is not easy to get the tone right when discussing the Israel-Palestine crisis. After interviewing the Palestinian ambassador to London, Husam Zomlot, on The Rest Is Politics we had plenty of messages saying we were too soft on him and far more saying we were too hard.

To the latter, you may like to see the message the ambassador sent me the day after our interview. “Thank you for giving me such an opportunity to speak at length and from the heart.” Pleasure.

A serious question… has anything for which the UK government has partial or complete responsibility actually improved in the last 13 years? Anything? I’ve really tried hard, but nothing comes to mind. Nothing. The recent by-election results suggest the feeling is growing.

The feeling was especially strong as I waited on a train at Euston en route to Glasgow for a charity event. And as we sat there, for over an hour before finally being told the train was cancelled, every couple of minutes an automated voice came on to welcome us and list all the wonderful places at which the train would be stopping. Even as I was getting off, on she came again, to tell me would be stopping at Warrington, Crewe, Preston, Penrith.

Only we didn’t. And the only way I could make it on time for my event up north was to leg it to City airport and do something I try so hard
not to do, eco-warrior that I am, namely take an internal flight. It left and landed roughly on time, which these days feels like a minor miracle.

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