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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt