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
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.