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This Girl Just Became the First State School Pupil Ever to Win Individual Prize at Eton Debate

The daughter of an immigrant family, living in one of the poorest areas of the UK, just became the first state school pupil ever to win the individual prize at a prestigious Eton debating competition. 

Selina Begum, 16, claimed the prize for the best debater at the annual Eton Autumn Invitational, beating 200 other pupils.

Most of the students she was competing against study at the UK’s most renowned independent schools — including Eton College, Winchester College, and Westminster. 

Begum — whose family moved to Britain from Bangladesh in the 90s — currently lives in Manor Park, east London, with her parents. Her mother is a full-time carer to her disabled father. 

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The London borough of Newham, which includes Manor Park, has one of the highest child poverty rates in the UK. 

“Half our borough’s children live in households in poverty,” said West Ham MP Lyn Brown, in an article written for the Newham Recorder. “Children go hungry, sleep in the cold, and regularly lose the insecure or temporary roof over their heads.”

“It’s not just a matter of numbers on paper,” she said, “poverty has consequences.” 

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At the Eton debate, Begum debated on junk food and rights to privacy, before presenting a prepared argument on the abolition of the death penalty in the US.

While she described the competition as “intimidating”, she emerged victorious — a win that she credited to her sixth form’s debate coordinator Jerome Singh. 

“The students from Eton and the other independent schools were so confident. They got up and spoke without notes and seemed like they had been doing it all their lives,” said Begum after her win.

“But Mr Singh told me not to be scared,” she added, “that my arguments were just as well thought out.”

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Although Begum has debated before, she has never entered anything at this level. 

“It makes me so happy to realise that, despite my background, I can compete with pupils at these types of schools,” she added. “Particularly as they will be who I am up against when trying to get into Oxford.” 

Begum, who is currently studying for four A-levels, in maths, economics, politics, and history at Newham Collegiate Sixth Form, hopes to go on to study history at Oxford University.

But this isn’t the first time Begum’s school has hit the headlines. 

Last summer it found fame after headteacher, former London City lawyer Mouhssin Ismail, helped 95% of students win places at Russell Group universities. 

That included nine students who won places at Oxbridge, and one who won a scholarship to MIT in the US. 

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The pass rate for A*-C was 99%, and 88% of students scored A*-B — putting the school among the top performing in the country.

“When I spoke to journalists last summer, I said there was no reason why a pupil from East Ham couldn't compete with those at Eton,” said Ismail. “Not only are our students competing with these students, they are actually now beating them.”

“There has been lots of talk about the lack of state school students going to Oxbridge, but this year we are aiming to send at least 20,” he added. “If you give the students the right opportunities — like the chance to debate with and beat the students from Eton — then there are places available. We have proved that.” 

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