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STOP PRESS: Robert Peston has a good idea

Robert Peston sends star speakers to state schools | Education |

One of the things I most enjoyed about Cheltenham Ladies' College, my daughters' private school, was Speech Day. Partly because the then Principal had a wicked sense of humour and gave an hilarious, but still informative, account of the year's events. But mainly because of the 'old girls' who came back and gave, for the most part, very inspiring talks. Nothing could have been more empowering than for the pupils to see what girls before them had gone on to achieve. I said to Mrs P. on one such occasion that it was a shame our old school, a bog-standard comprehensive up North, didn't ask former pupils back to speak. I remembered how little idea we had of the world's possibilities at that age and imagined how it might raise the aspirations of kids like us to hear about interesting lives. She observed drily that 'no-one remembers we were there so how can they ask us back?'

Private schools have an ethos, a history and a need to maintain contact with pupils and their families for marketing and fund-raising. State schools don't. Not only do they have no incentive to tell the world what a good job they do, they are under no pressure to be any good. In the topsy-turvy narrative of the state sector, outcomes are determined by social conditions. Success and failure are mere accidents to be equalised. They have nothing to do with talent or effort. Given such a world-view, it's amazing that any state schools do great work. The occasional inspiring leaders who make that happen deserve to be national heroes - not treated with suspicion by their 'right on' professional colleagues.

I have encountered many interesting jobs in my professional career that I had never heard of when I was at school. As the teachers had effectively never left school, they were no help in this respect. The idiot careers teacher even suggested Mrs P join the local electricity board as a telephonist. How epic a fail was it to recommend a job that would shortly cease to exist anywhere in an organisation that was about to be abolished? But she was a working-class girl from a council estate. Her life outcomes were socially-determined. For her to do better than end up on the dole would have undermined that all-important narrative.

Not to cavil, because I am genuinely pleased by Peston's scheme, but the one flaw is that it's not going to match speakers with their own schools. It's much more confidence-inducing to meet someone successful who once sat in the same classrooms as you. For example, it's great that the Prime Minister has volunteered to take part. I congratulate him, but will it really be empowering? It may only confirm the self-destructive ignorance of the public sector narrative. There's nothing wrong with Eton, you understand. It's a great school. If the Misses P had been Masters P, that's where we would have sent them. But surely the last thing Eton needs is to perpetuate the legend that it can put rich buffoons into positions of power?