London is turning into an oversized private members’ club

For the millenial with no money, no umbrella and no hope of ever owning a house, it's time to look elsewhere.

“Boop.”

I’m on a bus. I’ve just scanned my Oyster Card and I’m getting the “insufficient funds” Red Dot Of Doom. Outside, great watery clumps are falling out of the sky.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” I say to both the driver and myself.

I don’t have any cash. I try giving the driver big, wounded puppy eyes. Nothing. He shrugs, I slump off the bus. I could’ve sworn I topped up my Oyster with a tenner about an hour ago. But London is like a sweaty magician in a snazzy waistcoat, who makes money disappear.

This isn’t fun anymore. With no money, no umbrella and no hope of ever owning a house, I wrestle my way through the rush hour on foot, back to my parents’. Maybe I’ll move out again one day, or maybe rent prices will continue to soar Shard-high.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve realised that, for so many millennials, living in London is a form of masochism. Last week, I saw a friend from Brighton wince as she paid four quid for a pint. Jaded by London prices, I looked on, dead-eyed and handed over an even heftier purse of monies for a G&T.

As the city I love turns into an oversized private members’ club, not a day goes by now where I don’t ask myself, “What am I doing here?”

The other day, I was paying some of the highest prices in Europe to be unceremoniously jammed into an armpit, on the tube, when it hit me: let’s all move to Londonderry.

According to a piece in the Telegraph, earlier this year, Londonderry is the most affordable city to live in, in the UK. Please note, I’m not referring to the Northern Irish city by its unionist name for any political reasons. I just like that I could live there and still claim that I live in London. Ish.

Within a couple of minutes of researching rental prices in Londonderry, I find a six bedroom mansion, with land (actual land), that’s on the market for £525 PCM. House-sharers, that’s £20 per person, per week. Even when I lived in Brighton, I was (at one point) paying £90 per week to live in a slightly upmarket squat.

In Londonderry, the budget mansion is only a very slight anomaly. I soon find non-methy, spacious terraced houses in central locations for around £30 PPPW. The average rental price in London is over £1,200 per month. To contextualise this even further, a grave plot and burial in the capital can now reach around £5,000. So, in the short term, it’s cheaper to be alive in Londonderry than dead in London.

Millennials, hear me out – in Londonderry, we would live like a slightly plumper Henry VIII. Gout-ridden and fat on roast swan, we’d slap our thighs and guffaw heartily over the years we spent paying hundreds of pounds a month for the pleasure of living in ungodly dirt shacks. And in Londonderry, there are cool things like this and this. And I’m pretty certain that this is in Bavaria, but it still came up when I Google-imaged “Londonderry”.

So, what’s shackling me to London? One of the obvious fetters is the gay scene – one of the most vibrant in the world. But, according to my research, it’s not as if Londonderry is completely devoid of rainbows and Lady Gaga. In 2010, the city had its first ever Gay Pride and I bet you pints don’t cost £4 in this gay bar. Plus, my fellow London-weary homos, if we all emigrated there at the same time, we could make Londonderry, like, really fucking gay. There’s always room in a socially conservative Catholic stronghold for a Jewish lesbian on a mission.

Living in London is a form of masochism. Photo: Getty

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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"Michael Gove is a nasty bit of work": A Thatcherite's lonely crusade for technical colleges

Kenneth Baker, Margaret Thatcher's education secretary, has been in a war of words with one of his successors. 

When I meet Kenneth Baker, once Margaret Thatcher’s reforming education secretary, conversation quickly turns to an unexpected coincidence. We are old boys of the same school: a sixth-form college in Southport that was, in Baker’s day, the local grammar. Fittingly for a man enraged by the exclusion of technical subjects from the modern curriculum, he can only recall one lesson: carpentry.

Seven decades on, Lord Baker – who counts Sats, the national curriculum, league tables, and student loans among his innovations – is still preoccupied with technical education. His charity, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, oversees university technical colleges (UTCs), the specialist free schools that work with businesses and higher education institutions to provide a vocational curriculum for students aged 14-19. He is also a working peer, and a doughty evangelist for technical education and apprenticeships in the upper chamber. 

But when we meet at the charity’s glass-panelled Westminster office at 4 Millbank, he is on the defensive – and with good reason. Recent weeks have been particularly unkind to the project that, aged 82, he still works full-time to promote. First, a technical college in Oldham, Greater Manchester, became the seventh to close its doors since 2015. In three years, not one of its pupils passed a single GCSE, and locals complained it had become a “dumping ground” for the most troubled and disruptive children from Oldham’s other schools (Baker agrees, and puts the closure down to “bad governorship and bad headship”). 

Then, with customary chutzpah, came Michael Gove. In the week of the closure, the former education secretary declared in his Times column that the UTCs project had failed. "The commonest error in politics," he wrote, quoting Lord Salisbury, "is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies". Baker is now embroiled in a remarkable – and increasingly bitter – war of words with his successor and one-time colleague.

It wasn't always this way. In 2013, with UTCs still in their infancy, he told the New Statesman the then education secretary was “a friend”, despite their disagreements on the curriculum. The bonhomie has not lasted. In the course of our hour-long conversation, Gove is derided as “a nasty bit of work”, “very vindictive”, “completely out of touch”, and “Brutus Gove and all the rest of it”. (Three days after we speak, Baker renews their animus with a blistering op-ed for The Telegraph, claiming Gove embraced UTCs about as warmly as “an undertaker”.)

In all of this, Gove, who speaks warmly of Baker, has presented himself as having been initially supportive of the project. He was, after all, the education secretary who gave them the green light. Not so, his one-time colleague says. While David Cameron (Baker's former PA) and George Osborne showed pragmatic enthusiasm, Gove “was pretty reluctant from the word go”.

“Gove has his own theory of education,” Baker tells me. He believes Gove is in thrall to the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, who believes in focusing on offering children a core academic diet of subjects, whatever their background. "He doesn’t think that schools should worry about employability at all," Baker says. "He thinks as long as you get the basic education right, everything will be fine. That isn’t going to happen – it isn’t how life works!" 

Baker is fond of comparing Gove’s heavily academic English baccalaureate to the similarly narrow School Certificate he sat in 1951, as well as the curriculum of 1904 (there is seldom an interview with Baker that doesn’t feature this comparison). He believes his junior's divisive tenure changed the state sector for the worse: “It’s appalling what’s happening in our schools! The squeezing out of not only design and technology, but drama, music, art – they’re all going down at GCSE, year by year. Now children are just studying a basic eight subjects. I think that’s completely wrong.” 

UTCs, with their university sponsors, workplace ethos (teaching hours coincide with the standard 9-5 working day and pupils wear business dress), and specialist curricula, are Baker's solution. The 46 existing institutions teach 11,500 children, and there are several notable success stories. GCHQ has opened a cyber-security suite at the UTC in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, as part of a bid to diversify its workforce. Just 0.5 per cent of UTC graduates are unemployed, compared to 11.5 per cent of all 18-year-olds. 

But they are not without their critics. Teaching unions have complained that their presence fragments education provision and funding, and others point out that hard-up schools in disadvantaged areas have little desire or incentive to give up children – and the funding they bring – at 14. Ofsted rate twice as many UTCs as inadequate as they do outstanding. Gove doubts that the vocational qualifications on offer are as robust as their academic equivalents, or anywhere near as attractive for middle-class parents. He also considers 14 is too young an age for pupils to pursue a specialist course of vocational study.

Baker accepts that many of his colleges are seen as “useless, wastes of money, monuments to Baker’s vanity and all the rest of it”, but maintains the project is only just finding its legs. He is more hopeful about the current education secretary, Justine Greening, who he believes is an admirer. Indeed, UTCs could provide Greening with a trump card in the vexed debate over grammar schools – last year’s green paper suggested pupils would be able to join new selective institutions at 14, and Baker has long believed specialist academic institutions should complement UTCs.

Discussion of Theresa May’s education policy has tended to start and finish at grammar schools. But Baker believes the conversation could soon be dominated by a much more pressing issue: the financial collapse of multi-academy trusts and the prospect of an NHS-style funding crisis blighting the nation’s schools. Although his city technology colleges may have paved the way for the removal of more and more schools from the control of local authorities, he, perhaps surprisingly, defends a connection to the state.

“What is missing now in the whole education system is that broker in the middle, to balance the demands of education with the funds available," he says. "I think by 2020 all these multi-academy trusts will be like the hospitals... If MATs get into trouble, their immediate cry will be: ‘We need more money!’ We need more teachers, we need more resources, and all the rest of it!’."

It is clear that he is more alert to coming challenges, such as automation, than many politicians half his age. Halfway through our conversation, he leaves the room and returns enthusiastically toting a picture of an driverless lorry. It transpires that this Thatcherite is even increasingly receptive to the idea of the ultimate state handout: a universal basic income. “There’s one part of me that says: ‘How awful to give someone a sum for doing nothing! What are they going to do, for heaven’s sake, for Christ’s sake!’" he says. "But on the other hand, I think the drawback to the four-day working week or four-hour working day... I think it’s going to happen in your lifetime. If people are only working for a very short space of time, they will have to have some sort of basic income.” 

Predictably, the upshot of this vignette is that his beloved UTCs and their multi-skilled graduates are part of the solution. Friend and foe alike praise Baker’s indefatigable dedication to the cause. But, with the ranks of doubters growing and the axe likely to fall on at least one of its institutions again, it remains to be seen in what form the programme will survive.

Despite the ignominy of the last few weeks, however, Baker is typically forthright: “I sense a turning of the tide in our way now. But I still fight. I fight for every bloody one.”