There is a new hashtag doing the rounds on Twitter today and it is one of the most narcissistic, self-congratulating ones I have seen for quite a while.
It originated yesterday when many people – including myself – received an email from the FutureFirst alumni organisation congratulating recipients on being a “state school hero”.
State school alumni shared stories of their accomplishments under the hashtags #StateSchoolHero and #IWentToStateSchool.
The idea was to inspire young people to achieve their goals. But what irked me was the implied conflation of a state school education with “disadvantaged young people”.
Full disclosure – I have been entirely state-educated from primary school all the way through to sixth form. I grew up in a distinctly middle-class commuter town in West Sussex and I was incredibly fortunate to attend not one but two schools which regularly outperformed many of the local independent schools in my area in terms of grade attainment. There was nothing disadvantaged about it. I went on to Exeter University and later obtained an MLitt at St Andrews. There are many such excellent state schools which we should be proud of.
Admittedly, many people in the most deprived areas of the UK are not so lucky as to have high-achieving state schools on their doorstep. But having scrolled through the hashtag I discovered some genuinely inspiring stories of success against the odds from adults who grew up in just such areas.
Let us not make out that all state-school children are doomed by virtue of their educational choices
However, rather than inspiring a younger generation, the campaign has been hijacked by middle-class born-and-raised adults singing their own praises. While there is still much educational inequality in the UK, let us not make out that all state-school children are doomed by virtue of their educational choices. Far too many of the tweets I saw were the definition of humble bragging; some were even written by people that I went to school with myself, or people who attended very good state schools in the Home Counties. Many of these state school ambassadors hail from a middle-class upbringing that the #StateSchoolHero label seemingly contradicts. The anecdotes include proud claims of completing multiple postgraduate degrees which, by implication, measures success by academic output and ability.
The implication that success can be measured by academic attainment is harmful for many reasons. While I agree with the notion of supporting and mentoring children from deprived backgrounds to “succeed” — however “success” may be defined — many of these anecdotes imply that success can be measured objectively. For many people, success may consist of achieving a state of contentment in their personal life or working for a cause they believe in, not from plastering their walls in academic certificates or working in a pressurised, high-earning job in the City.
And what about private schools? An independent school education doesn’t automatically equal success. Many smaller establishments around the country struggle financially and don’t share the same resources or output of “successful alumni” as eminent schools like Eton and Winchester.
There must be privately-schooled students who do not wish to pursue the route of higher education or fail to end up in the high-flying jobs which seem to be expected of them. Are they not “successful”? What right do we have to place a value on someone else’s achievements? Why should we make a child feel less important than anyone else because of the educational decisions of their parents?
While I commend the intentions of campaigners who want to inspire young people from disadvantaged areas, the reality of this campaign and those who have commandeered it shows that it was rather poorly thought-out. The idea that state-schooled adults who “succeed” are the exception to the rule is just another form of elitism and, quite frankly, plain wrong.
After all, more than 90 per cent of children in the UK are state-school educated — and they go on to fill most of the jobs going in the private and public sectors. The salt of the earth, yes — but not exactly heroic.
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