Archive | December, 2010

Going Back, Way Back …

28 Dec

The UK is renowned for its political correctness.  From the V&A paying £400 to a man who burnt his thumb with the restaurant’s soup to the London school that removed pupils’ Ofsted-praised art and craftworks because they presented a fire risk, the Brits could win an award for disproportionate reactions.  Among the sea of PC absurdity though, there is a root idea that is sensible: fair treatment for all.

In March, a job centre in Southend-on-Sea apologised to a benefits claimant after he alleged that his ‘Jedi faith’ had been scorned when staff required that he remove his hood.  Religious tolerance gone wrong, yes – especially given that the man later said that the main reason he was a Star Wars follower was “I want to wear my hood up.”  But the principle – respecting a belief – was laudable.  Awareness of the importance of racial and religious tolerance has undeniably increased.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights sees to that, though putting the law into practice across the world is a different matter.  Currently, though, there seems to be a trend of regression at the moment rather than progression: countries that have traditionally demonstrated will when it comes to recognising the rights of others are going back in time.  The Middle East may not be an internationally-hailed flag-waver for freedom, but its practice of religious tolerance has improved over the years.  Jordan frowns upon religious extremism of any kind; Lebanon’s government is sectarian.  Where religious freedom does not exist – as in Saudi Arabia, where overt practice of any religion other than Islam is illegal – prejudice is publicly declared and is set out by law.  Syria’s Christians and Muslims recognise one another and between them there is relatively little tension.

Yet the trend is reversing.  Christianity in the Middle East has been receiving substantial coverage in British national papers recently.  This was partly because of the lead-up to Christmas and a public interest in what has become of the Holy Land (apparently now the land of commercialism) but partly also due to the Middle East’s shifting religious attitudes.  Where Christianity was once born, it is now scarcely welcome.  Christian exodus from Bethlehem has been traced to two factors: Islamic extremists and the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories.  Regional violence is keeping tourists away.

In Egypt meanwhile, plans to build churches cause controversy that makes the outrage over the US plan for a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero look tame.  Last month, police in Cairo used teargas and rubber bullets in order to control the crowd; a Coptic Christian was killed, dozens injured and over 90 arrested.   An Egyptian Christian laid the fault at the door of his own: some Egyptian Christians “just move within a Christian circle only.”  “If they continue like this it’s segregation.”

About 3,500 Christians live among 1.5 million Muslims on the Gaza strip, and relations have traditionally been good.  Gaza residents emphasise their solidarity as Palestinians in the fight against Israel.  During the Hamas takeover three years ago, however, there were some spates of violence.  A Roman Catholic convent was ransacked; since then, a bomb has been detonated outside a Christian school and a Christian bookshop firebombed, killing a Christian who worked there.  During a period of anxiety and disruption in the Gaza strip, though, it is perhaps unsurprising that animosity should surface between religious sects.  Witness the West post 9/11 and 7/7: intolerance erupts at times of attack.  British and American Muslims have been persecuted for no reason other than that of their religion, just as Christians are now in some parts of the Middle East.  The UK’s system of (extreme) political correctness is at least in place to help combat bigoted attitudes.  While attacks of a personal nature may persist, there is no room for systematic persecution – as, some argue, there is in the Middle East.  Certainly Saudi Arabia makes a strong case for it.

If lack of tolerance towards Christians in the Gaza strip emerges at times that are particularly fraught, it thrives in Iraq.  More Christians have left Iraq in 2010 than in any time since the invasion almost eight years ago.  Christmas services this year were more or less cancelled, in an area where the religious – whichever their choice – need religion’s support more than most.  Al Qaeda made it clear in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day that Christians would be targeted.

Why? It is not religion, surely, so much as the idea of something other; the idea that one’s own beliefs are threatened if one is surrounded by beliefs that are different.  Amin Gemayel, a former Lebanese president and a Christian, made a telling comment when speaking of the Christian exodus from Lebanon.  “When the region is completely cleansed of other religions [apart from Islam] it will be a surrender to the fundamentalists.”  No: it will be a country comprised solely of Muslims.  Gemayel, too, has fallen to using politically charged language, as though a Muslim country in itself is a crime.  His words blur the barrier between Islam and fundamentalism – in precisely the way he asks for the barrier not to be blurred between Christianity and anti-Islamists.

Religion in the Middle East is part and parcel of politics.  Perhaps that is no bad thing; one can see the results of an atheist, or unspiritual, society in Britain.  But the UK has got one thing right, and that is enforced tolerance.


You Have Your Lebanon And I Have Mine

24 Dec

Yesterday Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druze community and head of Lebanon’s Progressive Socialist Party, highlighted afresh the risks the country now faces as it waits for the results of the UN’s Special Tribunal into the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri.

‘Lebanese have the right to ask many questions about the indictment which, day after day, has proved to be a politically motivated decision somewhere, and leaves Lebanon at high risks,’ he said, in remarks published today by daily newspaper As-Safir.

The lengthy wait for the conclusion of the Tribunal is proving more troublesome than the investigation itself.  It is the speculation of tension that generates the tension.  Khalil Gibran, author of ‘The Prophet‘ and probably the most renowned of Lebanese authors, wrote these prophetic words:

“You have your Lebanon and I have mine. You have your Lebanon with her problems, and I have my Lebanon with her beauty. You have your Lebanon with all her prejudices and struggles, and I have my Lebanon with all her dreams and securities. Your Lebanon is a political knot, a national dilemma, a place of conflict and deception. My Lebanon, is a place of beauty and dreams of enchanting valleys and splendid mountains. Your Lebanon is inhabited by functionaries, officers, politicians, committees, and factions. My Lebanon is for peasants, shepherds, young boys and girls, parents and poets. Your Lebanon is empty and fleeting, whereas My Lebanon will endure forever.”

Speculation about what the Tribunal might conclude, followed by speculation about the effects such a conclusion might have, is not fruitful.  Gibran’s Lebanon will out, if we let it.

Go Ban Ki

18 Dec

Ban Ki-Moon yesterday said that he was “concerned about all this rhetoric over the Special Tribunal on Lebanon. It is not desirable.”  Thank goodness that has been recognised.  Creating a whirled flurry of media concern escalates tensions that might exist among the political parties, but are hardly “palpable on the streets of Beirut.” (

Let’s Get Rid Of “Terrorism”

17 Dec

Terrorists are not simply terrorists.  The “terrorist” label is the fastest way of widening the discord between ‘them’ and ‘us’.  “Terrorist” is not a neutral word; neither is it an accurate description.  Jacques Derrida pointed out the fallacies inbuilt in the term: is it always killing? And does ‘killing’ also mean ‘allowing to die’? In which case, what about the thousands dying from AIDs who we daily forget? And if media exposure slips, will the “terrorists” begin to get away with it? Another of Derrida’s questions highlighted the bias inbuilt in the term: will terrorism one day “stop being denounced as such to be hailed as the only recourse left in a legitimate fight?” The question is politically courageous.  Seven weeks after the planes crashed into the two towers, George Bush made a coercive statement: “you’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror”.  Those words force polarity.  Lexically, his statement is true: the bias of “terror” prevents neutrality in either political affiliation or expression.   Anybody who wishes to be considered rational must posit himself against the “terrorist” (and indeed, no “terrorists” call themselves “terrorists”).  Bush’s fight is based on lexical disingenuity.

Last month, Mohamud Osman, a 19 year old Somali-American student, tried to set off a car bomb in Oregon; he was caught by the FBI.  His perspective is undeniably chilling.  He deliberately targeted a Christmas-tree lighting ceremony attended by thousands and said that he wanted every single person there “to leave either dead or injured.”   Even more horribly, he made this claim after having been arrested – in other words, at such a time when his words cannot be construed as bravado or idealism.  Even in reflection, mass murder remained his aim.

Why was “terrorism” his intention in the first place? As with the majority of “terrorist” attacks that we hear about in the West, Osman’s desire to hurt so many came out of his desire to punish the US for Iraq and Afghanistan.  He came to believe that destruction was the optimum way of shouting to the world his condemnation of America.  Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, the Iraqi who blew himself up in Stockholm, had similar motives: Sweden’s presence in Afghanistan, and artist Lars Vilks’ cartoon of the prophet Muhammed.  Al-Abdaly told his lecturer in 2003 that he was “stressed out” by the US invasion of Iraq.  What must be recognised is that both these young men (Osman is 19; al-Abdaly was 28) acted out of a desire that provokes most youth to action: the desire to change things for the better.  They were motivated by idealism; both men believed that their actions could make a difference. 

Clearly, their manner of enacting this desire was appalling.  It was misguided and destructive.  Yet mightn’t it be the case that we are making it easier for such people to go down the “terrorist” path? The FBI called Osman a “dim-witted wannabe terrorist” after they caught him.  Such a description is only likely to further estrange him – and to push others considering similar acts into following him.  “Wannabe” glorifies the idea of being a “terrorist”, as though it is something to strive for, something beyond the reach of the “dim-witted.”  (Would not having been caught made him a successful and intelligent “terrorist” instead?) “Dim-witted” presumably refers to the ease with which Osman was baited – but it does such ease not belie a disquieting readiness to battle that ought to be taken seriously? Osman is not some idiot who simply felt like committing suicide and committing mass murder; it is unlikely that anyone should be so charmed by the idea of “terrorism” that they wish for their own death in the process.  This is no attention-seeking. 

Osman’s willingness to believe that “terrorism” is an effective way of making the world a better place is what governments wishing to prevent “terrorist” attacks must consider.  For terrorism to be seen as a viable option, the perpetrator must be desperate.  He, or she, is likely to seek out understanding and compassion.  Al-Abdaly was described by an Islamist website as “our brother … who carried out the martyrdom operation in Stockholm.” Which verdict – that or “dimwit” – is Osman more likely to wish to achieve? And therefore which path will he choose? 

Osman represents a group who believe that “terrorism” is a route to martyrdom.  He remains alive for us to question – not solely for intelligence information, but also about who he is and what led him to consider this action as viable.  What made him choose such a direction; for it was, above all, a choice.  There can be no passivity in suicide and murder.  This is far, far more than the “culture of resentment” that Ann Marlowe described in the New York Post.  Resentment is not in itself sufficient to be the fuel for “terrorism.”  It is a culture of a will to make a difference that is misguided and manipulated.  It is not only the extremists who are responsible, however; it is also, on the Western side, a culture of misunderstanding deepened by labels.  To dismiss Osman as a dimwit allows him to believe himself a misunderstood victim.  It allows him to believe he has much more in common with his “brother[s]”.   For those who believe that the invasion of Iraq was unjust and are convinced that radicalism is the only way forward will doubtless be further seduced by the idea of their posthumous glorification.  The story put forward by those “brothers” is one by which a young radical like Osman can easily become seduced: he feels himself welcomed into the bosom of a family, who have his same dreams for their countries and his same hatred of injustice.  The brothers promise an eternity of happiness and glory.  Al-Qaeda’s magazine, named ‘Inspire’, is full of such indoctrination.  Radical organisations are deeply aware of the ease with which a lonely/angry/sad  youngster can believe their calling is to destroy as many people on the other side as possible.

Edward Said described the function of the label “terrorist” as something we use to keep “people stirred up and angry.”  In demonising the “terrorists” and in dismissing them, we isolate them.  Not only is this wrong, it is stupid. We make the job of militant recruiters much easier by calling potential suicide bombers idiots.

Just What Does Democracy Mean?

10 Dec

It’s been a tough week for democracy.  Last week there was furore over Julian Assange and whether he was defending or attacking it.  Today Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace prize, but he couldn’t receive it.  China exercised some powerful autocratic flesh and he was prevented from going to the ceremony in Oslo.  The allocation of the prize was supposed to signal a win for democracy, a ‘middle-finger-up’ at China’s political decisions; but China has tossed the insult straight back and even managed to stop almost a third of the other invited countries from attending.  A democratic right to choose, or blackmail?

Closer to home though, there have been the good old democratic, peaceful protests that took place across England on Wednesday and Thursday.  Thursday, of course, saw the protests get out of control.  People weren’t so much protesting the hike in tuition fees as attacking the state.  “Off with their heads!” was blared at Charles and Camilla as the couple ducked in their limousine.  Class division has hardly seemed starker: the ‘mob’ on the street, battling the cold weather, demanding that the government listen; and the royals, in their Rolls Royce limo (couldn’t they have called a cab?), surrounded (apparently) by royal protection, off to the London Palladium for this year’s Royal Variety Performance.  The crowd were “baying  for blood”, according to a local shopkeeper, and banging at the car.  The man who thrust a stick through the window to poke Camilla in the ribs was photographed looking aggressive and gleeful, the sort of “thug” Sir Paul Stephenson has insisted on branding him as.  By contrast, Charles and Camilla were captured first cowering terrified, then, as they arrived the Palladium, in stances of dignified composure.  How shrewdly, and how horribly, the class divide showed then.

A “thug” is somebody who behaves badly; inhumanly.  The man with the stick and indeed the baying crowd, did behave in a thuggish manner.  To attack the royals – who were on their way to a philanthropic event, who had taken the deliberate decision not to hide away from protesters, and who are neither the coalition government nor have the legislative power to force them to change their minds – was despicable.  Yet to call the people kicking the car “thugs” dehumanises them; and it does so in an absurdly typical Toryish way.  It reinforces the idea that there is a ‘them’ and an ‘us’ and therefore distances them from access to a democratic voice.  It suggests, while being very careful not to be explicit, that such people cannot have anything worthy to contribute and that their views therefore ought to be discounted.  It is very, very clever on the part of the government, especially because most of the public will feel disgusted by such pointless and groundless aggression.  Calling those select demonstrators “thugs” undermines their credence, and unfortunately that has implications for the (peaceful) protesters with whom the government, media and public now associate them.  The branding of “thugs”, along with the acts they committed, have tarnished a day of protests that might otherwise have been constructively received.

Instead, media focus has overwhelmingly been on the damage yesterday’s events wrought.  The royals; the Cenotaph climbed by Charlie Gilmour; the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree; the statue of Churchill; even poor old Topshop at Oxford Street.  (This, incidentally, was simply dumb: with one protest overlapping another, the protesters began to look as though they had an insatiable thirst for destruction and couldn’t care less where they gorged themselves.)  Worse, in terms of getting the public onside, the  inevitable cost of all this to the taxpayer has been highlighted (thousands of pounds apparently, with £15,000 worth of damage at Topshop alone).  All this rather negated the protests themselves.  Which is ironic really, given that the protests were not particularly violent.  43 arrests out of 25,000 marchers is not cause for concern.

But all of this is cause for questioning the democracy in which we assume we live.  Naturally, democratic right does not give someone the right to intimidate another, social superiors or not – though to witness the way the wealthy are often vilified as privileged or Oxbridge attendees as public school snobs you might think otherwise.  Democratic right does, though, allow the right to protest.  Correction: it is a state in which freedom to protest is a given.  And that is why (fanfare here) Boris Johnson‘s comments on the Today programme this morning were undemocratic.  “We could have water cannon.  We could have baton charges.  We could have many more broken heads of young people in London today.  I don’t think that is what people want to see in this country.”  Boris is suggesting that democracy is a kindness from whoever is in power.  He describes democracy as “allowing people the right to demonstrate”; that is not democracy.  A democratic system is one in which demonstration naturally exists and is a mode of expression.  Peaceful protest ought to be listened to and addressed.  It is not a generous bonus offered by only the most benevolent democratic leaders; it is a pre-condition of democracy.  It is not optional.

Sir Paul described the police force as showing “great restraint” in not using their firearms on protesters.  Is that democratic? A state where police are condoned for not shooting protesters is in a hazardous situation indeed.  Last week, a professor of law in Saudi Arabia was arrested for publishing an article that was critical of the Saudi royal family.  Is such an arrest undemocratic? Yes.  Almost as undemocratic as if the Saudi officials had claimed great restraint or generosity in allowing him his freedom.

Listen to Boris here:

Bizarre statistic for the day

7 Dec

8% of the 1,000 young men recently surveyed in Helmand and Kandahar provinces have heard of the 9/11 attacks.

Stop Banging the Drums of the Lebanese War

6 Dec

The U.N tribunal on Rafik Hariri‘s death is due to give a verdict.  Ban-Ki Moon spoke of “rising political tensions” in Beirut; the media is sensing strife and casting pessimistic predictions; catastrophe is widely forecast for Lebanon’s future.  I disagree that such catastrophe, if it is to come, will be born from Lebanese seeds.

It is in the interest of Lebanon’s enemies to “bang the drums of war” (Ramzy Baroud,  By pointing out that Lebanon is a country of political and religious fractions, ever experiencing civil, governmental, denominational (and any other ‘al’ you can conjure up) friction, Lebanon can be used and deployed as a power pawn.  A crucial component in the tangle of the Middle East’s web! so tragic that it cannot resolve itself! others can declare, while stirring their spoons a little harder in the Hezbollah-Hariri pot; Lebanon will be ruined if it remains so sectarian! – while telling one sect that another insulted its mother.

What these powers – and if you’re thinking who: America, Iran, Syria? the unfortunate answer is all of them (and more) – do not want is a unified Lebanon with political stability and therefore the strength to say no to anyone who fancies a bite.  Otherwise, the small squabbles that happen between one part of the Middle East and another, and the larger-scale battles that take place between Arabs and Israelis would have to occur in a more explicit manner.  That would be far riskier for the participants.  Otherwise, the trouble between Israelis and Arabs could no longer be exemplified through a conflict such as that between Israeli and Hezbollah in 2006 – a conflict that either (1) nobody really notices; or (2) various people gasp at when the short bulletin appears on the news but soon after forget – after all, so many other countries are involved that it must be under control; or (3) people are horrified at and denounce, but can do little to curtail – after all, the powers reporting it so insouciantly (oh dear! trouble in Lebanon yet again) are the ones who have manoeuvred events, people and moods to bring this state-of-play into being.

A weak Lebanon is a bonus to other countries.  It is a battleground, a symbol and a scapegoat all at once.  And, fortunately, it is filled with a resilient people who seem to be able to continue each time there is conflict, whether it takes the form of a fifteen-year civil war or a massacre of 108 refugees at a UN base in Qana; a summer’s worth of bombings watched from your balcony, waiting for the next explosion of bombs to hit your house and your family, or a few days total shut-down in Beirut.

Each of these has happened in Lebanon.  Not throughout its history, not even over the last century, but in the last four decades.  The civil war ran from 1975-1990; the Qana bombings took place in 1996; the summer war in 2006, and the military takeover of Beirut in May 2008.  (Think of how much you have heard about these – in comparison, say, to 9/11, or even 7/7.)

For the outside world, the Lebanese have one overriding quality in their favour.  As a nation, they do not talk about problems.  They suffer; they wail and bemoan their suffering; they mourn  and shriek their dead.  And when their dead are buried and the war/bombing/city takeover is over, they close their mouths to complaints.  They indulge in the private lament or sparse political cursing, but they believe, above all, in the sanctity of having been given life, and the great blasphemy that it would be not to live it.  And so, they focus on laughing and celebration and dancing, and prefer not to speak of politics.  A stunning number of Lebanon’s youth – certainly most of the ones I’ve met – profess even to hating politics, believing it can only be a force for destruction.  Those who are politically active, choosing between Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea in their school elections, deliberately play down their choices.  Good, you might think; except that friends with differing views do not discuss them, debate, and agree to disagree.  They do not mention them.  The debate is too risky to begin.  So – silence.

The civil war did not happen.  2006 was a summer for mountain partying.  The Hezbollah occupation of Beirut in 2008 about which so little is written and about which even less is spoken did not happen.  The Lebanese have muted it into oblivion.  It is not that these events did not devastate them.  It is that they force a determined obliviousness to the fact that conflict took place.  It was so awful that they want to forget it; they would rather deny it or ignore it than acknowledge it*.  And so, the resilience of the Lebanese can be depended on if conflict should occur.  They will continue; they will rebuild their shattered Lebanon; they will welcome foreigners with the hospitality and generosity for which they are renowned; they will hope (against hope) that conflict will not recur.  But if it does, they will go on.  Lebanon is the ideal battleground.

Announcements of widespread unease in Lebanon are lies.  Such unease is the intention of Lebanon’s enemies, who hope that in saying something loudly and frequently enough, it will come to dramatic, even violent fruition.  War might arrive any day in Lebanon, yes, but that is not because of the tension brewing between groups.  If war arrives, it will be because the pellets of tensions have been carefully dropped in from above by a foreign power, like the few scatters of salt needed to perfect a stew.  They will have been inserted, and prodded and poked to boiling point, until they explode.

The most disruptive thing that can be done to the Lebanese right now – the thing most likely most likely to lead them to war – is to tell them that there is trouble in their country.  To emphasise the instability of the government and to repeat the gravitas of the situation, is to destabilise the government further and increase the situation’s gravity.  With Lebanon, to insist on highlighting these things is to generate them.  It plays on every Lebanese’s worst and most smothered fear, and such a fear will suddenly explode in dread and horror.  Such fear can lead to war.  That, at least, is what Lebanon’s enemies are hoping.

What do the Lebanese themselves want?

Look at the army.  In October, after international press was in uproar regarding Ahmadinejad’s Beirut visit, the Guidance Directorate of the Lebanese Army Forces issued a bulletin entitled “There is no Cause for Civil Strife.”

Look at Hezbollah, who provided hospitals, food and shelters in 2006 and were lauded for it across Lebanon. In 2008, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, spoke of his willingness to work with Sa’ad Hariri for a better Lebanon: “when we see that [an] extended hand [from Hariri] is sincere, it will only be met by an extended hand.”

Look at the three year anniversary of Hariri’s death.  Two gatherings, one following the other: thousands of Lebanese filled Martyrs Square in central Beirut to pay tribute to Hariri; the Shia southern suburbs held a mass funeral to mourn Imad Mughniyeh, their murdered military chief.  At the time, Nadim Shehadi, a political analyst, said: “These two events taking place just a few miles from each other in Beirut symbolize the divisions that are paralyzing this country. But at least it has been peaceful.”  He was right about the divisions – perhaps wrong about the paralysis they cause.  Since 2008, the country has witnessed stunning growth.  Michel Suleiman had become president; parliament is operating.  Beirut was even given the accolade of being The New York Times number one tourist destination for 2009.  “At least it has been peaceful”; peace is quite an accomplishment, I think, and especially for groups as diverse as those that live alongside one another in Lebanon.

Look at other politicians.  Sa’ad Hariri retracted his 2005 statement blaming Syria for his father’s assassination.  Wallid Jumblatt said “If the tribunal is going to lead to strife, then let’s all agree on canceling it.”  Like the majority of Lebanese, they want to progress.

In Lebanon, peace is indisputably wanted.  Look, most of all, at the youth.  Look at the facebook groups calling for Lebanon’s peace and unity (and progression – there is even one called the Lebanon Improvement Movement. There are many more declaring how much they “love Lebanon!”) Look at the proud assertions that ‘I am Lebanese’ – not Christian, Muslim, Druze or multi-coloured.  The desire for peace and progression is uniting society, if nothing else is.

Over the next few weeks, the tribunal will return with a verdict on Rafik Hariri’s assassination on February 14th 2005.  Responsibility will, half a decade later, be distributed – though whether it will be the ‘haqiqa’ (truth) Robert Fisk has mentioned in his articles is another matter.  Let us hope that the reports around the world of “brewing tension” and the clamouring “drums of war” will not manipulate the Lebanese.  Let us hope that the attempts of any country – be it Syria, Israel, Iran, France, the US, the UK or anyone else – to sound the horn of Lebanon’s instability will fall on ears open only to moving on.  Let us hope that worldwide hearsay does not generate war.  As the Lebanese Forces pointed out to their soldiers, “statements encouraging divisiveness pose a real threat to the country.”

The drums of war, Lebanon, are just what they want from you.

* Of course, by ‘they’ I do not pretend to speak for the every member of the Lebanese population.  There are those who make every effort to remember and make remembering publicly more common.  But for the overwhelming majority I have encountered, it is better to focus on other things.

There are also those who endeavour to wage war against Hezbollah or Israel; or Aoun; or Muslims, Christians and any other of Lebanon’s 18 different officially recognised sects.  They, though, are a minority with an unpopular attitude.  They tend to be regarded as unpatriotic. They could not hope to account for, nor could they effect, the tension the outside powers hope for.

A dash of Lebanon

4 Dec

Small selection of Beirut and beyond …

Click for full-size.

Oxbridge: why state schools prepare you well, but need to raise expectations

3 Dec

Today Frank Field pointed out the crucial role families play in educating their children, saying “it is family background, parental education, good parenting and the opportunities for learning and development in those crucial years that together matter more to children than money, in determining whether their potential is realised in adult life.”

The following is from a piece I wrote for Times’ School Gate blog, published yesterday:

With Oxbridge interviews soon to get under way, I’m running a few pieces on two of the most famous universities in the world. On Tuesday, Olivia Williams gave her interview tips and today Emily Holman writes about her journey from state school to Cambridge. She’s keen to change attitudes and thinks that state schools have their own part to play…

“State educated children are seven times less likely to go to the UK’s best universities than those who have been privately educated.  But is it really as simple as a state–public divide? I don’t think so. As a Cambridge graduate who also went to a comp, and a staunch refuser of the idea that this makes me unusual, I’m adamant that a state education can benefit you as much as a public one.

My state school was just outside of Croydon. I like to point that out, as though being just beyond the bounds of Croydon in geographical terms would stop the clichés of Croydon behaviour from seeping in. Sadly not: at my school, students threw chairs at teachers. Being bullied meant you’d had bones broken. Pupils accrued hundreds of hours in community service after being sent to court; friends got pregnant at 14.  It wasn’t quite the type of comp where the chances of you getting into a fight were bigger than the chances of you getting a GCSE, but it was pretty likely you wouldn’t reach GCSE year without having either been in or witnessed at least two fights per term.  At the age of 13, a boy from my form was tried for GBH.

So what on earth led to me, seasoned as I was to every state school stereotype, getting into Cambridge? Unfortunately I can’t tell you the secret to getting a place (I remain surprised by the success of my application to this day), but I can tell you that what was significant was the application itself.  It was the fact that I had contemplated applying that marked me out from my classmates, not that I got in.

Some of my peers had never heard of Oxbridge; how, then, could they have known to apply? To these students – low on ambition (because unaware of opportunity), but as thriving in potential as any public school kid – the school gave little encouragement in terms of higher education.  Staff tended to attend only to those who already stretched themselves.

I was one of the lucky ones.  My parents had taught me to always do my best.  Though low middle-class in terms of jobs, they were positive royalty in terms of mindset.  Thanks to them, I saw school as a resource.  All the opportunities (okay, not lacrosse, not horse riding lessons or etiquette, but all the basic opportunities) were there.

Teachers were largely good.  Some were inspiring, some not.  Looking back, that lottery of quality was fine life training – of a type that is missing from many public schools, whose students take excellence for granted.  My parents insisted that I couldn’t view the guidance of others as a natural-born right, only as a bonus.  If a teacher wasn’t up to my expectations, then I knew I had better find a solution.  Many of my friends, though, saw bad teaching or limited facilities as a reason to give up.

State school is superb preparation for the self-sufficient style of learning that university introduces.  (Well into my first year at Cambridge, several public school friends – boys in particular, interestingly – were still finding it hard to adjust to not being spoonfed anymore.)  The risk is whether or not the state kids will have thought to apply to university.

State school emphatically does not spoonfeed you.  How you do is up to you.  That, more than anything else, is the reason state schools have a bad reputation.  Students can flounder or flourish.  I saw friends at least as intelligent as me in the early years of secondary school give up; they had grown bored.  The boy to whom I owe my maths GCSE dropped out of sixth form because he couldn’t see what good it would do.  A girl who had always said she wanted to be the first in her family to go to university ended up disappearing in year 12 to get married.  She did not see education as relevant to family-life.

Thanks to the attitude of my family, I saw school as a means to an end.  I used it as best I could, and it served me well.  Ultimately, I applied to Cambridge because I couldn’t see any harm in at least trying.  That was where I stood out.  What is the biggest pitfall of the state system? Not pushing the kids.  Pupils there are as brainy as pupils anywhere – but too many do not believe in themselves and do not see the point in trying hard; they just don’t think it will get them anywhere.  They are more likely to believe in the X-factor route to riches.  In my year, those who did apply to university largely opted for average institutions: they didn’t believe they could do better.

That lack of self-belief is the saddest, most destructive consequence of the state-public school divide. It is most likely amplified by the harping on about how rubbish state schools are.  The (groundless) paranoia of their inferiority is the worst enemy of state school students; and it is exacerbated by staff concentration upon those with more obvious promise.”