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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.