Stop blaming state school pupils for their lack of 'confidence'

It’s easy to claim richer students are more confident because of their superior education, but it may be more accurate to say they’re more confident because they’re rich.

There is a simple reason why some of the best private schools, and some of the best state schools too, focus on developing a young person’s whole potential. It’s because it prepares them for the future.

So says Stephen Twigg, shadow education secretary. And who can argue with that? Well, I can, for starters. I’ve nothing against developing potential in the young and preparing them for the future. Nor do I mind teachers playing a part in this. All the same, I suspect my understanding of “potential” and “preparation for the future” isn’t necessarily the same as Twigg’s.

According to the Telegraph, Twigg and the Labour party believe “state schools should look to private schools by putting lessons in speaking and debating skills on the timetable” and that “state sector teachers should adopt tactics seen in private schools to ensure children gain a range of ‘life skills’ skills needed to succeed in the workplace”. In their focus on traditionalism in order to achieve vague, pseudo-egalitarian goals, such assertions all feel rather Gove-esque. Hence it’s not surprising to see the Conservatives adopting a similar approach towards addressing the imbalance between the privately educated and their less well-off peers. Writing in the Guardian, in support of the social enterprise group upReach, Conservative parliamentary candidate Charlotte Leslie argues that “the less well-off need support to develop vital networking and social skills”. Yes, because that’s the problem, or to put it more precisely, they’re the problem. The children of the poor have “scantier knowledge as to how to go about achieving their ambitions” and “have been less equipped with the soft skills employers want”. So far, so vague, but do you know the other thing about the children of the poor? They have less money. Of that there is no doubt. They have less money and that, more than anything else, is destroying their prospects.

It strikes me that political rhetoric relating to education and social mobility has fallen prey to exactly the same passive-aggressive victim blaming that characterises discussions on poverty and benefits. The adult world is divided into workers and shirkers, but it’s not the shirkers’ fault they’re lazy; it’s the fault of overly liberal policy-making for spoiling them with a luxurious benefit system and making them morally weak. Similarly, school leavers are now divided into the well-educated, work-ready wealthy and the badly skilled, worthless poor, but it’s not the poor’s fault they’re worthless; it’s the fault of a state education system that’s been lacking in rigour and tradition. Hence it’s not privilege and discrimination that make certain professions a closed shop; it’s the fact that no one in his or her right mind would want to employ the products of a wishy-washy, PC, “all must have prizes” state system.

I will be truthful: I have nothing against tradition or rigour. I like depth and grammatical accuracy (a red flag, if ever there was one, for anyone reading this to highlight all the errors I’ve made). Moreover, I’m not under the illusion that all state schools are brilliant. I am a parent who lives in a “poor” catchment area for secondary schools. If I ever get the chance, I’m outta here. I went to a “good” state school and I want my children to do so, too. Like most parents, I have that unselfish-selfish investment in my children’s welfare; I’ll sacrifice myself for them, but when pushed I’ll sacrifice your kids, too. Even so, I don’t believe doing so would make my children more valuable or useful than yours (I mean, they are, but that’s just because they’re mine). I just – if I am honest – want my children to be seen to have that value. I want them to have a chance to play the game, even if it’s rigged.

Offering to help state school pupils buy into a system that rewards “networking” and suitably vague qualities such as “resilience”, “self-confidence” and “leadership” presupposes that such a system a produces a fair and reliable measure of employee potential. But does it? Are these not all dangerously subjective measures which allow elite groups to privilege their own? Aren’t we being asked to buy into the idea that it’s not what you can do but whether or not you’re a jolly good chap that matters? The proverbial foot in the door is being offered only to the few – upReach is currently being piloted with a group of 40 students, while one presumes that not all children are to become Twigg-inspired debating society heroes –  yet all children who do not attend fee-paying schools are condemned by newspaper reports suggesting they lack not just “speaking and language skills”, but “character”, “life skills”, “resilience” and “self-confidence”.

Do you know what really crushes self-confidence? Being told you’re rubbish. Endless articles and speeches listing all the skills you lack. Hand-wringing self-fulfilling prophecies from those who claim to have your best interests at heart. Being told that doors are closed in your face because you’re not good enough, not because they’d never have been opened to begin with. Poorer students may lack confidence to begin with but this is because failure is a real option for them, with real consequences. It’s easy to claim richer students are more confident because of their superior education, but it may be more accurate to say they’re more confident because they’re rich. From the moment they draw breath they are considered to be worth more.

There are obvious differences between state schools and private schools, and between the state schools attended by the privileged and those attended by the disadvantaged. These include areas such as class size, resourcing, staff turnover, subject choice, attendance, and exam results. Most of these things are specific and measurable. This is a real, concrete imbalance, not an abstract clash of philosophies. However, we’re being asked to accept that it’s all one slippery slope of failure. State school pupils don’t attend debating societies therefore they lack “resilience” therefore they lack “life skills” therefore they are justly overlooked by employers. Give me a break. I just don’t believe that the average old Etonian has greater reserves of resilience than someone who’s been raised in abject poverty. He just thinks that he does – but right now, he’s in charge so I guess that’s all that matters.

Eton boys, perched on the wall, watch the tradtional wall game. Photograph: Getty Images.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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New New Labour: forget ideological purity – Jeremy Corbyn is building a mass appeal party

Rather than a Seventies revival, the Labour leader is creating a social democratic party giving opportunities to all parts of the population.

Does the general election result signal a new political and, dare I say it, public relations phase for Labour?

There is a consensus among commentators and MPs across the political spectrum that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has been a continuous struggle to revive the party’s ideological purity and rekindle its cultural and political relationship with the trade unions.

The Economist cover depicting Corbyn as Lenin with the caption “Backwards, Comrades!” encapsulated the mood about a leader thought to only offer old and sometimes toxic solutions to new problems such as the gig economy, Brexit, fintech and corporate taxation.

Criticisms about militant left politics and Seventies nostalgia exist in a political and cultural framework constructed and passionately preserved by New Labour and its proponents. New Labour was the mark of a newly reformed party that had detached itself from the politically and electorally incapacitating idea of common ownership of the means of production (known as Clause IV), and endorsed competitive market economics.

The 1996 manifesto “New Labour, New Life for Britain” set out the party’s “third way” approach to realign the free market with social justice. For New Labour, the state’s minimised role in the economy, the liberalisation of financial services and public-private partnerships can and will lead to an effective taxation system and investment in health, housing and education.

The intellectual architects of New Labour cast this ideological departure as a necessity for denouncing an alleged anachronistic and unrealistic socialist way of thinking, and effectively regaining the trust of the electorate.

Whereas Tony Blair’s New Labour embraced the free market for communicating the party’s modernisation, Corbyn subverts the logic of the free market for the same effect – to present a party fit to govern in the 21st century.

Corbyn’s leadership cannot and should not be perceived as a nostalgic return to a strong state thriving on high taxes and the provision of welfare at the expense of social mobility, entrepreneurship and ultimately electability. Instead, Corbyn’s leadership is an attempt to develop a New New Labour based on the premise of participatory democracy.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of perpetual financial crises, political volatility and consolidation programmes, citizens in the UK and across the world are frustrated with the lack of political imagination and determination.

The conviction of the efficiency of an independent market in every aspect of social life including health, housing and education prevents political leaders and policymakers from implementing radical ideas. Corbyn’s leadership and political programme highlighted the limitations of New Labour in times of crisis and distrust. New Labour has grown old, and the disbelief in socialism appears as a conservative dogma that only contributes to an ever-greater disparity between citizens and parliamentary politics.

The 2017 Labour manifesto, “For the Many Not the Few”, envisions a productive role for the state but such a role is neither restrictive nor a top-down affair. Corbyn’s New New Labour regains its legitimacy as a social democratic party – and the electorate’s trust – by striving to create opportunities on both national and local levels for all members of the population to make meaningful contributions to policymaking, and seeks to broaden the range of people who have access to these opportunities.

From crowdsourced Prime Minister’s Questions, massive mobilisation of activists inside and outside the party’s structures to the understanding of wealth creation as a collective endeavour, the Labour party has the potential to become a creative platform upon which membership, participation, individual ideas and anxieties do matter.

Progressive taxation, redistribution of wealth and nationalisation of key industries are nostalgic musings about lost political battles as long as there exist rigid boundaries between the citizen, politics and the economy. The restructuring of Labour and the redefinition of activism according to the principles of participatory democracy have enhanced the meaning of deliberation and proven that social democracy is capable of dynamic reform and renewal.

What does the future hold for Labour and its multiple ideological orientations? Condemning Tony Blair’s New Labour and praising Corbyn’s new kind of politics after beating expectations in the election is not enough. It should be the duty and aspiration of each Labour leader to formulate a New New Labour for a party that is faithful to its social democratic values and is able to govern by offering new solutions to new problems.

Dr Kostas Maronitis is a cultural and media sociologist, and lecturer at Leeds Trinity University. He is the author of “Postnationalism and the Challenges to European Integration in Greece”.