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WESTMINSTER PEOPLE: Soho Parish headteacher Joffy Conolly

Primary school nestled in the middle of Soho's 'boho, quirky and creative vibe'

07 July, 2017 — By Alina Polianskaya

Joffy Conolly 

What is it like running a school in Soho?

“Unusual,” says Joffy Conolly, headteacher of Soho Parish Primary. “It is really exciting because there are some incredible opportunities that we have that no other school has.”

Speaking to other headteachers really brought this home for him, particularly those from schools outside the capital where “most children had never been to London”. “We almost take for granted that we have the nation’s theatres, the best museums and cultural centres on our doorstep and we can get there on London’s transport.”

Joffy came fairly late into teaching. He previously worked in advertising, and though quite enjoyed it, he decided one day that he “didn’t really feel that I was doing something for humanity”. Recalling a typical day’s work and realising “you had helped to sell more crisps,” he established, that “it didn’t really touch my soul”. Then one day, about 20 years ago, a friend suggested teaching and Joffy never looked back. “I’m never bored,” he says.

But working in the centre of Soho comes with its challenges, such as the recent “drugs epidemic” in the area.

Pollution and limited outdoor space are also tricky to deal with. “We are hugely constrained and you see what we have done with the playground to mitigate that.” A rather impressive jungle gym, complete with climbing nets and lots of different play zones, makes clever use of the space above the ground. A fundraising campaign made it possible.

Joffy says: “Yes there are challenges, but the advantages and opportunities massively outweigh them, if you seize them, we are giving them a very rich curriculum. We have loads of links to different businesses in the tech and art worlds… theatres, the ENO, the Royal Ballet, the Royal College of Music. We did a great one-off project with Ronnie Scott’s, with Billy Cobham a legendary percussionist who worked with Miles Davis. That kind of opportunity you don’t get anywhere else. We are really fortunate.” Links to numerous businesses in the area show the children how what they are learning applies to the real world.

“We held an enterprise week where we invited various entrepreneurs from places such as Google. The children get to meet people who work in these exciting businesses, visit where they work and see the links of how what they are learning in school applies to the real world.

“It shows them why you need maths to work out the trajectory of the ball moving towards what you see in the Google VR headset.”

Joffy worked in Soho long before he became a teacher and to this day finds it “fascinating”. “One of its abilities is to change and reinvent itself,” he says.

“It is always changing. It does have a very strong sense of community and the whole thing about the Soho village rings true to me. That is one of the reasons I enjoy working here, people are very proud and protective of it.

“The huge rise in property prices risks killing the goose that lays the golden egg. It is the most visited square mile in the country. What draws people to the area is that it’s such a mix.”

He compared it with Camden Market which has recently undergone a number of changes – he used to live in Kentish Town so knows the area well.

“For me the heart and soul has been largely ripped out of it, Camden Market, as it has been massively overdeveloped and become more commercial. As a result a lot of smaller traders disappeared and it’s lost that edge. I don’t welcome crime and grime, but if something is too sanitised, you lose that soul,” says Joffy.

“While it would take a lot to sanitise Soho, and we need to tackle issues such a drugs, what draws people in is that boho, quirky, creative vibe. And we need to keep that and that means keeping a mix of people. If we zone out the more independently minded people it will go the way of Camden Market.

“And if it is lost, it is lost for ever.”

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