Speakers – Cambridge News

Stuart Nicholson, Principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies
Stuart Nicholson, Principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies

The old adage “it’s not what you know but who you know” has been making headlines again recently in a number of stories suggesting the advantage of a private education continues long after school days are over. But is this really simply down to the old boys’ and girls’ networks as some of these stories suggest?

A recent survey from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that privately educated graduates were earning thousands more than their state educated peers even when they had the same degrees from the same institution. Many commentators put this down to the fact they had better networks. While clearly it’s difficult to argue against the benefits of being an Old Etonian in terms of the networking opportunity, only a tiny fraction of independent schools have that type of network.

I believe there are many other reasons why the advantages of attending a private school continue through life and I’m equally convinced that these advantages need not be the prerogative of those who’ve experienced this type of education.

Many leave independent schools better equipped with non-academic as well as academic skills, such as social skills, an understanding of routes to career success, confidence and the ability to talk to people from a range of backgrounds.

I believe there is no reason why state schools students can’t leave school equally equipped.

The excellent charity Future First has dedicated itself to equipping students with just the skills I mentioned by encouraging schools to make more of their alumni (something that some private schools have been successfully doing for centuries).

In a recent survey it found that within the past year just three per cent of former pupils of state schools had been contacted by their old school compared with 42 per cent of people educated privately.

The charity is urging state schools to set up alumni networks and has been funded to help them. The aim is that the schools will keep in touch with former pupils, encouraging them to mentor, become educational and career role models, provide work experience and help with fundraising. As its managing director said: “If students see people like them with the same background have succeeded, they are more likely to believe they can too.”

Former North London comprehensive pupil and BBC economics editor Robert Peston is a firm believer that state schools have much to learn from independents. he set up a charity bringing speakers into schools to encourage state schools to inspire students in the way independent schools do.

As he said in a BBC interview, state schools need to become “living, breathing organisms” and have more of a sense of history that students can be part of. Laurie Cunningham, the first black footballer to play for England, attended Peston’s school, but, instead of naming a wing of the school after him, he was forgotten.

Peston argues that rather than starting from “year zero” every time a new head comes along, state schools should give students a sense of where they have come from just as the independent sector does and I agree with him.

A recent visit from a former student of ours, the journalist and author Hadley Freeman, was an incredibly inspiring event for our students, as was a former student coming back to showcase an award-winning documentary he had made at the Arts Picture house.

These success stories are not exclusively the preserve of independent schools.

I believe that every school in the country could call upon former students to inspire current students, show them that their school is somewhere to be proud of and help them along the way to achieving their own goals in life.

Principal Stuart Nicholson

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