“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
This blog is about the inspirations and struggles of life and this week, a school in central London provided the perfect inspiration to write about a group of people, and one in particular, who I think are dedicated, passionate and wonderfully human.
If you don’t live in England, you may not be aware that national exam results for schools came out this week. It was the first time I paid much attention to the announcements — because my sister’s year at King Solomon Academy in central London, also the school’s inaugural year group, were receiving their grades.
Here’s the thing about my sister’s school; it’s an organisational model of education that didn’t exist in England until only a few years ago. And because of that all the children receiving results yesterday, living in the poorest ward in London were, according to statistics like the one below, almost completely guaranteed to fail at school. 58% of her year’s students receive free school meals (children living below the poverty line receive free meals in Britain) and over 75% don’t speak English at home.
A universal and heartbreaking statistic about education is the more free meals in a school (ie: the more poverty), the greater the rate of failure in exams. It’s a well known and much debated fact.
There are lots of opinions and shouty people talking about this. I’m not going to add my voice to theirs, because what I want to tell you about today is my personal experience of watching my sister and her friends from Teach First who, in their 20s, started working with the ARK Foundation to build a school and education model from the ground up into a game-changer of British education.
These teachers regularly worked over 100 hours a week, teaching for 41 weeks a year. They were usually up at 5 each morning and worked until midnight almost every day for the last 5 years. My sister would be at the houses of her students frequently; calming parents while convincing her more intractable students out of bed and into the classroom. She spent hours reassuring parents who couldn’t speak English and so felt utterly overwhelmed, while desperately caring for their children’s happiness and success. And in frequent phone and email conversations with politicians and journalists as the idea of their school caught on. All that before she taught a single English lesson.
During regular sessions from their first term onwards, the teachers set aside time to teach basic skills like how to get on and off a bus politely, how to hold a knife and fork, how to behave in public, how to speak in job interviews. When older, the students went on field trips to universities, theatres and concerts; they learned to play musical instruments (one of my favourite memories of my sister is hearing of her weeping incoherently as she watched her students perform in their first orchestral concert).
A large percentage of students had low levels of literacy when they came into her English classroom at 11, and the poverty-stricken local community struggles with all the usual crime and drug problems, based on their poverty alone academic failure can seem assured. But this isn’t just any group of teachers and, based on their principle of ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goals’ my sister had her students put on a full production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth when they were 12. In case you’re wondering, they rocked it. I visited one of her English classes when these students were 13, they were reading classical Greek literature and debating philosophy.
And they have so much fun. The teachers make up chants for the whole school to learn, they set the world record for the largest number of people rolling numbers, they create times table rock stars, students and teachers also Harlem Shake pretty well…
Amongst the successes were profound challenges. I can’t count the number of times my sister wept on the phone to me about a student’s living conditions, about the personal struggles some of them were experiencing, about her utter exhaustion, about the fear that maybe it wasn’t going to work and they were going to fail the kids — it was never once about her, always about the students she’d come to care for so deeply.
So this week, as her year group received Britain’s highest results ever for a school with over 50% of free lunches; and 93% of students received five A* to C grades, guaranteeing them places in further education and beating top private schools at the core subjects, I’m filled with overwhelming admiration for the tenacity and passion of these young teachers and their students. And I’m about the proudest big sister in the whole world.
A surely-as-inspiring idea I had this week were these chocolate, malt and honey madeleines… I was on the way to a completely different recipe and just wasn’t happy with it, before I was suddenly struck by a memory of my sister and I as children eating almost our entire body weight in maltesers before causing havoc with our sugar highs. It’s a lovely childhood memory and I wanted to honour both it and her.
- 90g unsalted butter, very soft
- 100g caster (superfine) sugar
- 2 eggs
- a pinch of sea salt
- 80g plain (all purpose) flour
- 20g cacao powder (if you don’t have cacao, a dark cocoa will work as well)
- 10g powdered malt (I use Horlick’s)
- ½ tsp baking powder
Cream the butter with a tablespoon of the sugar
Whisk the remaining sugar with the eggs and a pinch of salt in a separate bowl until light and fluffy
Hand whisk together the flour, cocoa, malt and baking powder in a separate bowl before gently folding into the egg and sugar mix
Scoop a third of the batter into the butter and whisk vigorously
Transfer into the remaining batter and fold very gently
Scrape the batter into a plastic piping bag and chill for at least 3 hours or up to 3 days
Preheat the oven to 220˚C / 430˚F
Butter a madeleine pan and dust with cocoa powder
Snip a small (8mm) hole from the tip of the piping bag and pipe the batter three-quarters of the way up the prepared moulds
Reduce the oven temperature to 180˚C / 350˚F and bake for about 15 minutes, until the edges are slightly crisp
Remove from the oven and leave to cool for a few minutes in the pan before turning out onto a wire rack
While the madeleines are still slightly warm, pop the piping nozzle of the honey malt cream (recipe below) into the mound of each baked madeleine and squeeze about a heaped teaspoon’s worth of the cream into each madeleine while slightly wiggling the nozzle to get into all the spongy crannies
Dust with icing sugar and serve immediately, while still beautifully warm
Honey Malt Cream
- 80g double (heavy) cream, cold
- 15g powdered malt (again, I use Horlick’s)
- 30g set honey
- Seeds from 1 vanilla pod
Place all the ingredients in a mixing bowl and whisk until the cream is super thick and all ingredients are well combined