KHKJ2A Secondary Education in the UK: University propectuses on a bookshelf in a sixth form common room
There are confident people who went to state schools, and painfully insecure people who were educated privately © Alamy

As social mobility stagnates in many parts of the rich world, theories are multiplying about what has gone wrong and how to fix it. One idea gaining traction in the UK is that bright young people from less advantaged backgrounds lack a mysterious brew of “confidence”, “character” and “polish”, without which it is harder to reach the top jobs. Clare Foges, who was a speech writer for former UK prime minister David Cameron, argued recently that to help people climb the ladder we should teach them to “emulate the ease and studied informality of the privileged”.

The idea is creeping into public policy, too. Damian Hinds, education secretary, gave a speech in February about “character and resilience” in which he noted that recipients of private education have a special sort of confidence — “a kind of ‘have a go’ assertiveness”. He plans to initiate benchmarks so that every school can measure how they are “developing character” in their pupils.

As an idea to reinvigorate social mobility, this rests on two dubious assumptions. First, that these qualities can be taught, and second, that they should be.

When I was 17, my state school sent me on an “access day” in Manchester hosted by Oxford and Cambridge universities. The aim was to encourage pupils from state schools to apply and offer tips on the process. One academic led a session in which he “taught” us how to shake hands, then made us practise in front of him. I still remember how humiliating it felt. We were at state schools; we weren’t idiots. This clumsy attempt to teach “polish” almost put me off applying to either university, and I suspect I wasn’t the only one. Perhaps it is an unrepresentative example, but in the absence of any rigorous research about precisely which practical social skills state-schooled pupils supposedly lack, offensive or patronising missteps seem inevitable.

It is even more dangerous to make class-based generalisations about ill-defined personality traits such as confidence, which are shaped by many complex factors. There are confident people who went to state schools, and painfully insecure people who were educated privately.

Even if it is true that those from highly privileged backgrounds are on average more confident and assertive (as some evidence suggests), that is probably less because of what they were taught at school and more because they have every reason to be so. They know their prospects are bright and that there is a robust safety net beneath their feet.

Nor is it obvious that confidence and ease are qualities we necessarily need more of at the top of the jobs ladder. Ms Foges has described how, working with Mr Cameron, she learnt that “lightness” was an essential quality: “Far better to be jolly and vague than earnest and right — marking you out as someone who doesn’t really get it”. If running the country isn’t a job worth taking seriously, it’s not clear what is. Indeed, if the past decade’s worth of financial and political crises have taught us anything, it is surely that we could use more leaders in politics and business who doubt themselves, who seek the opinions of others and who lie awake worrying about the consequences of their actions.

Policymakers already endorse the idea that gender and ethnic diversity make public and private organisations stronger, and that managers should resist the temptation to hire people in their own image. The same is surely true for a diversity of personalities. Advising young people to be more like the elite in order to succeed is akin to advising women to act more like men to reach the top. Haven’t we moved on?

There are deep economic and structural reasons why social mobility has stagnated in countries such as the UK. In that context, the notion that young people at state schools need “character education” is a distraction — pointless at best and dangerous at worst.

Letters in response to this column:

A good handshake is important in business / From John Kent, Benenden, Kent, UK

Playing the ‘class card’ is the easy way out / From Raj Parkash, London, UK

Public schoolboy who didn’t ‘do’ saucepans / From Carl Tomlinson, Steeple Aston, Oxon, UK

Austerity ended critical out-of-school activities / From Alex Gordon Shute, London, UK

Confidence, polish — terms that still resonate / From David C Speedie, Charlottesville, VA, US

‘Polish’ is nothing more than youthful arrogance / From Jeremy Hicks, London SW19, UK

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