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Steph McGovern – “I was your classic swot”

Broadcaster Steph McGovern looks back on the confidence and workplace experience she received at what was then a somewhat controversial school…

Steph McGovern
by Steph McGovern
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I went to what was, at the time, a newly-formed City Technology College – a Tory initiative in the 90s to try and marry education and industry.

I lived in Middlesbrough, historically a place of heavy industry, but also often at the rubbish end of the deprivation statistics. The school was therefore an educational experiment of sorts, and quite controversial when it first opened. It had a number of industrial sponsors, including British American Tobacco, so there are a few photos of me shaking hands with the company’s chairman – little did I know…

As a student, I was your classic swot but also the class clown, always trying to strike a balance between doing well at school and making my mates laugh.

I think I just wanted people to like me – standard ‘TV presenter syndrome’! The school was located in a tough part of Middlesbrough, with students from a real mix of backgrounds, and had a really egalitarian ethos, in the sense of, ‘All children have skills, whatever their family’s background.’

We were always taught to put what we learned into practice, so we were forever visiting businesses and got to use some amazing facilities at the school. There was a TV studio on site, so instead of assemblies being held in the hall they’d be broadcast to TVs in the classrooms. Some of us also produced a college news bulletin.

Our teachers were great at making us feel as confident as the kids who went to the local public school, because they were who we were up against when taking part in various inter-school schemes and events. In a very down to earth, non-patronising way, our teachers would say ‘What have they got that you haven’t? Get yourselves in there and do your best.’ I’ve always done well since then by following that mentality.

The useful careers advice we received was mostly by proxy, because the main concern of the school’s sponsors was ‘What are the kids learning that will actually help them in our business?’ That’s partly why I now regularly work with schools and teachers.

I’ve been to see Gavin Williamson, sat in his office and told him all this, because I think the government’s requirements mean that teachers now have to be very narrowly focused in what they do. I run a regular school careers event, for example, and we’ve often had to hold it on Sports Day because it’s the only date that won’t clash with the school’s curriculum- related learning.

As things stand, schools are forced to be like sausage factories, getting students in at one end and pumping them out at the other so that they’re all the same, rather than recognising their differences and playing to whatever their individual strengths and weaknesses might be.

The school I went to gave me the confidence to recognise my skills for what they were and apply for things, because what’s the worst that can happen? So I’d email the bosses of programmes I liked, asking about work experience opportunities, or whether I could just come in and see what they did for a day. That helped me get my start on Tomorrow’s World, before working my way up through the ranks at the BBC.

I’d have loved for my younger self to know that who I am, and what makes me different compared to others was a good thing, rather than a bad thing.

When I’ve visited schools, my main focus is on overcoming kids’ belief that they don’t have any skills. I once worked with a group of 40 who were about to go out into the world having passed hardly any exams. When asked to write down the skills they had, none of them wrote anything.

So I asked one of them what they’d been doing the previous weekend. He said he was working, and there it was – ‘Where? The local Chinese? Great. You were serving customers? That’s a skill.’ If he didn’t know about the transferable skills he already had, because he ‘wasn’t good’ at maths or English, then what are we doing?

That’s my mission, now – to help kids, particularly those from deprived backgrounds, know that they are skilled, despite not thinking that they are.

Steph McGovern is a journalist and broadcaster, and the presenter of Steph’s Packed Lunch, currently airing on Channel 4; follow her at @StephLunch.

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