Oxford Gardens Primary School in North Kensington opened as normal on Wednesday, June 14th. Children arrived in the morning and left in the afternoon. But, following the inferno that engulfed the residents of Grenfell Tower in the early hours of that fateful day, their experience was anything but normal. Their lives had irreversibly changed.
The school sits less than half a mile, a few streets away, from the decimated Grenfell Tower that still blazed that morning. Debris floated from the burning tower down in to the playground while the lingering smell, that all knew contained burned flesh, pervaded. Children took in the sickening sight of that once-familiar tower block now blackened and smouldering as they arrived at the school gates.
A council-run school, Oxford Gardens is administered by Kensington and Chelsea – the local authority that threatened the Grenfell residents with legal action when they warned of the fire risk that was to kill them. The council was as unresponsive to the needs of this school that morning as it was to every other aspect of this community-shattering disaster. From the Town Hall there was nothing, exposing local authority indifference to North Kensington and leading to Kensington and Chelsea being replaced by other boroughs as the leaders of the official disaster response.
Children from the school were killed in the fire; every single pupil and every single parent, without exception, has been affected.
The father of a girl in Year Three told Urban Dandy: “My daughter is really affected. Mahdi and his family were all killed and he was in her class”.
Of his other daughter in Reception, he told us: “She has heard religious stories about the hellfire, and she said ‘Dad, I thought this kind of hell is after death.’ I explained that those people who died in the tower would go straight to heaven, Allah guarantees it in the Qu’ran; if people die in this way, they have already suffered enough.”
On 14th June, children were kept in their classrooms all day, a hot day, to protect them from the sight of the tower. Now they are allowed out again and the relative normality of lessons has resumed, but break time is overshadowed by the freakish and haunting view of Grenfell Tower.
A parent of a Year Five child shared: “On the way to school we see the St Francis* kids going to a school they’ve been rehoused in. Then we arrive at the school playground to see the tower, it’s a constant reminder.”
“During a trip with the class, on the tube they all picked up the Metro and all they are interested in is Grenfell. None of them looked at the football news. My daughter talks about it constantly.”
“The school held an assembly for a boy who died, which is more than the council has done. The school can’t do much but they’re trying; they’ve advertised a psychologist and other help. I’m not disappointed in the school, or the police or the fire service, just the council. The teachers aren’t trained for this. They already have to do more than they’re paid for”.
Alongside the formal education from the schools and teachers, local parents rightfully wonder at the education their children are receiving from the local authority in Kensington and Chelsea. The poor perish in tower blocks – inappropriately cladded by the very council – while the needs of displaced, traumatised survivors are attended to by other traumatised individuals in the community. Meanwhile the local council, more than simply deaf, but who threatened legal action against the heartbreakingly accurate and prophetic warnings of the residents – stays noticeably and purposefully absent, absconding its responsibility for both the inferno and the essentials for this in-need community. A short walk south towards Holland Park and there are shops that groom dogs to look “gorgeous and fluffy.” The children understand the connection.
Neighbours, friends and an entire community now rightfully fear becoming charity cases to be appropriated by the obscenely privileged and callously detached. The council’s inglorious response and preceding gross, hard-hearted maltreatment of its poorest constituents will have left local children in no doubt as to where they stand in the pecking order within this Borough. The disaster has provided institutionalised proof of how little value is attached to their lives by their presumed betters.
A parent governor at Oxford Gardens spoke to us: “A lot of the children from Oxford Gardens go on to Kensington Academy, which is now closed because it’s right next to the tower. Oxford Gardens is a feeder school for that Academy. On top of that, children have lost friends from youth groups. A lot of the staff are rooted in the area meaning many people in the school community have been seriously affected.”
In the aftermath of the disaster, the council was seldom seen on the ground, leaving the heavy lifting to ordinary, untrained people. These diligent individuals came from all walks of the community, tirelessly running the response despite inexperience and a shocking absence of resources and guidance. The council clearly prioritised managing the situation over taking any responsibility or ownership of the disaster or its aftermath. Further, the council’s unresponsiveness diverted local parents away from their primary roles as carers of their children during a time of ever-present trauma, to become the primary caregivers for the whole community. “The family priority has become null” the parent governor told us. Try making sense of that aged nine.
At Oxford Gardens, as at many local schools, the governor explained: “There are empty seats, three children have been confirmed dead, and the children have best friends at other schools who have died or been directly affected. I’ve lost parents I knew. “
“In the playground we’re hugging and touching each other on the shoulder for reassurance. Even with parents we don’t know, the whole body language has changed. It’s a muted, mutual understanding.”
The family priority has become null
At the office used by Urban Dandy on Ladbroke Grove, children arriving for supplementary schooling gaze out of the window at the grim, skeletal tower. Most have a fixation with the disaster, attempting to understand it through questioning adults about fire, building regulations and government responsibilities. They want to hear that this will not happen again. But we cannot tell them that the authorities will take care of things, that would be a lie. Our children are manifesting their psychological scars in nightmares, tears, almost constant hugging, drawing pictures of burning towers or looking their elders straight in the eye: “How do you know that we’re safe?”
The public relations management of the disaster by local and national government is not going to fool this younger generation. By the time they are Year Five, children understand their position and value in this class-based society. For those that will grow up in the shadow of the Grenfell Tower, this understanding is no longer an implicit awareness, but explicit knowledge.
They have had to absorb and process more than any child should ever have to, and their consciousness has shifted forever, individually and collectively. They have seen their parents and community respond with humanity and grace in adversity. The flip side to the council’s degrading lesson in class indifference is that these children have now seen human beings at their best.
By Tom Charles with Jennifer Cavanagh
*St Francis of Assisi Primary school is next to the Lancaster West estate