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
Show Hide image

We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.