“I was too north London for No 10”: One Brent teacher’s global fight to reform education

The “world’s best teacher”, Andria Zafirakou – who won the Nobel equivalent of teaching in 2018 – on the pressures of life at her school in a pandemic.

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It is a familiar scene at the end of the school day. Teachers patrolling the courtyard while kids jostle to board the bus home. This could be any school, but Alperton Community School in Brent, northwest London, is able to boast something no other British school can: “the world’s best teacher”.

Andria Zafirakou won the million-dollar Global Teacher Prize (GTP) – the Nobel of teaching – in 2018 at a glamorous event hosted in Dubai. Three years on from the grandeur of the ceremony, the arts and textiles teacher sits with me in her small office – generously decorated with her students’ artwork – and reflects on the past few years.

“I was on planes for the majority of the time,” jokes Zafirakou, who was invited to speak at events across the world after her prize. Her new book, Those Who Can, Teach, tells the story of her time at Alperton – a school that mirrors the diversity of her own life.

“It’s a classroom of London,” she says of Alperton students past and present. Speaking proudly of her Greek-Cypriot roots, Zafirakou herself went to a diverse school. Balancing the identity of her heritage with the one forged growing up in Eighties Camden helps her relate to many of Alperton’s students and parents.

Even at the end of a long day, Zafirakou is full of energy; she even enthuses about the pristine white walls of Alperton’s new facilities, which she finds have made a “real difference” to the demeanour of both staff and students.

Since joining in 2005, Zafirakou has seen all sides of Alperton – from a failing school in a decrepit Victorian building, to the thriving institution of today – but the school’s diversity has been a constant throughout. With over 30 languages spoken by pupils at the school, she learned a plethora of phrases to help children and parents who have migrated to Britain feel less alienated.

“To have somebody greet them and say Ohayō gozaimasu [“good morning” in Japanese] goes a long way,” she says, as the personal assistant on her smartwatch interrupts her to inform her it “didn’t get” what she said.

Artistic from a young age, Zafirakou took inspiration from her own art teachers. She says students discovering and expressing themselves through art allows them to overcome barriers. “That kind of self-achievement is the most powerful, transformational thing that can happen to them.”

Despite spending less time with pupils in her senior management role at Alperton, for Zafirakou the pandemic’s catastrophic impact on schoolchildren is clear to see.

“Covid has been like a microphone” for identifying vulnerable kids, she says. “In communities where things are normally kept under the carpet, students have been imprisoned in the troubles [at home]... The only places where they can seek support is the school.”

For every success story in Zafirakou’s book, which tells the stories of pupils she has taught, there is another of poverty – with most accounts being a mix of the two. Brent, where the school is based, is one of the capital’s most impoverished areas: 33 per cent of its residents live in poverty, compared with the London average of 28 per cent.

Despite the best efforts of those at Alperton, trying to mitigate the effects of poverty on students’ lives is a daily challenge. Zafirakou’s book is stark evidence of the increasing pastoral work taken on by schools, filling in the gaps for services that have suffered after over a decade of funding cuts.

On top of dealing with various social services cases, Zafirakou has cleaned, repaired and bought uniform for a number of students whose families cannot afford to do so.

“What happens in my book happens in many schools in the UK,” she says. “But we don’t look at that, because we are so focused on targets, grades, achievement and Ofsted – and that’s it.”

In Zafirakou’s view, this incessant drive to top league tables is having an adverse effect on students and staff, leaving them with a “queue” of mental health issues.

Teachers support their students as best they can. “If we don’t do that, then that achievement and progress and all those results, that won’t happen.”

Art has been sidelined by the educational establishment in favour of focusing on Stem subjects, Zafirakou argues. She even raised the issue with the previous prime minister. Her book details an impassioned rant at Theresa May in Downing Street following her award. May listened but Zafirakou left wondering if she was “too passionate, too fierce – too north London”.

Not wanting children to miss out on the benefits of art – especially those in disadvantaged areas – Zafirakou invested her award winnings in establishing Artists in Residence (AIR), which connects artists with schools across the UK.

“It helped to bring a world into our schools that was, in the past, very difficult to bring,” she says. “It’s about helping inspire teachers and young people… With Covid, it’s been harder to get secure funding – but we’ll keep going.”

Those Who Can, Teach: What It Takes To Make The Next Generation by Andria Zafirakou, published by Bloomsbury, is out now

Harry Clarke-Ezzidio is a graduate trainee at the New Statesman.

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