by Sarah Kinson
Dr Tony Sewell is the director of the London based charity, Generating Genius, which aims to help children, in particular black and mixed-race boys from working class backgrounds, to achieve educational success and to go on to University.
When did you first arrive in London?
I was born in Brixton in 1959
Where did you grow up?
Penge in Bromley, South London and I felt that all the action was happening in inner London! The scouts and the Church were important to me. A lot of my early teenage years were spent in Church youth-group activities in and around Sydenham. It doesn’t sound very exciting! But a lot of children in those groups were middle class, and they went on to university. And so I decided I would go too.
Have you ever left London, and if so, why did you come back?
I moved to Essex and Sussex to go to University, and then I came back to teach in a school in Brent. But I became disillusioned with London and so I left to teach in Jamaica. I was ill-prepared for Jamaica! Probably as ill-prepared as my parents were, when they came from Jamaica to live in London in the 1950s. After two years, I felt there was no future for me there, so I came back.
What parts of London have you lived in?
After Jamaica, I lived in Tottenham for a year. I had a number of teaching jobs and then I moved back to South London. This time to Brockley in Lewisham, where I bought a place with my brother. I’m not nostalgic about London. I have never really felt at home here. But somehow when you leave it, you want to come back.
What do your cultural roots mean to you?
I was strongly influenced by my parents’ Jamaican culture. For me, it was both good and bad. It gave me cultural awareness but it also kept me feeling homeless - I felt that this wasn’t really my space. On the one hand, multiculturalism gives you something but, on the other hand, it can disorientate you away from the place where you are and where you really want to be. On balance, though, it was a good thing.
Where do you live now?
Sanderstead in Croydon. I came back to the leafy suburbs! But it isn’t really London; it’s Surrey. It’s a kind of pretend countryside. I remember when I lived in Penge, I used to sign my letters ‘Bromley, Kent’. I wondered then whether I was in London or in Kent. It’s the same in Croydon. There is the sense that there is the real London, and then outer London, where we are, and it doesn’t get the same focus or attention.
Describe a normal days' work for you
I’m a freelance education consultant, and so I travel around a lot, giving talks or doing things in schools. I spend a lot of time writing and reading. I also do a lot of networking – because I am a Chief Executive of a charity - and that is how you get the money to support a charity.
Is London a good place to bring up children?
If I compare my own childhood with my daughters’ (although I have more money than my parents did), I definitely had more freedom. But I am not convinced that things are worse in terms of safety and violence now. My parents just never thought of safety – nobody did – we just went out. However, I am not saying that we should just accept things as they are now.
Overall, I think my child will have more going for her than I did. The biggest difference is, being a black child in London now, is a lot more positive than it was then. She is never going to face the level of racism – the overt racism - that we did, particularly on the street. She has experienced a couple of racist incidences, but we used to have it night and day. So that is completely different. I’m not saying that it is utopia now, as I‘m aware that she is middle class, and that she’s insulated from a lot.
What enables someone to do well in the education system and why do some do better than others?
The system is geared up for middle class students. But you can have aspirations if you come from a working class background, and that is just as true for white working class kids. With education, there comes a point when you say ‘here it is and if you want it you can take it’. It‘s a choice. Yes, it is geared up to the middle classes but that shouldn’t stop you. If students don’t take that chance then it’s either they have anxieties (and need more confidence), or it is because they can’t be bothered.
What should schools - and wider society - be doing to help?
I never think I would say this, but government has done a lot already. There is so much happening now for working class children, in terms of education and in terms of money per child. But if there was anything that is missing then it is alternatives to school. I think there is a need for more investment in community-led education programmes that gives children the confidence to go on in education, and I would also like to see universities take over more schools.
Not everybody wants to kick around a football - in our classes we get children to make cars. It is fun, educational and it has got intrinsic value, which appeals to boys. But you need the space and time to do that. That can be in the summer, after school, or on Saturdays. I think if you can get more students doing that, you would solve a lot of the disaffection that is around.
What advice would you give to those young adults who feel they are being left behind because of their background?
If you feel you have reached a plateau in your life then enrol in a course at your local college. People think of all different things to stop them from accessing education, but my advice is simply: go and sign up on a course. You won’t regret it.
What do you do to relax?
I like the river Thames and I have re-discovered the South Bank. I enjoy the theatre, cinema and reading. I also think that we live in our little pockets of London and we don’t understand the other areas. So one of the things I have done is to explore new bits of London, like Primrose Hill. As a South Londoner, North London feels like another continent, to me; it is vast. South London feels like a village, in comparison!
What is the worst thing about London?
Dingy high streets with lots of ‘To Let’ signs. The supermarkets dominate everything and the vibrant little high streets, that used to be at the core of life, have been left to ruin. You find that happening all around London.
What is the best thing?
It has got to be the diversity of the people around you. And lots to see and do!
If you had only one more day in London (i.e. had to leave tomorrow) what would you spend your last day doing?
I would go to Greenwich Village and Blackheath. I have got romantic memories of that area that I would like to be reminded of.
Where do you want to end up when you pop your clogs?
I don’t have any romantic idea about where I end up. It would just be nice to be in a place where I wasn’t feeling any pain. The Thames will do. I have very mixed feelings about London. It is like a relationship with a person that you want to escape from, but at the same time you know you will go back to.