It is evident that the education system is symbolic and reinforces class divisions and privilege. Fewer institutions symbolise the gross inequality in the UK more than Britain’s top 10 independent private schools. Former pupils at these schools dominate our most powerful jobs in politics, finance and not surprisingly the creative sector (theatre, TV, art).
In a Guardian article (Beaumont – Thomas, 2015) that shone a spotlight on a survey that documented the scale of the problem with class and the arts sociologist David O’Brian, Senior Lecturer in Cultural Policy at Goldsmiths made clear the importance of privilege and ownership. He said “It is clear that creative arts are hugely important to the stories we, as a country tell about ourselves. The government must address the potential exclusion, as a result of the educational inequalities, of voices that are not drawn from the privileged’
As it exists our education system is divided. This sense of belief that a kids from a council estate could go to university was highlighted when I spoke to young people in Merthyr, a lot of the young people I spoke to told me that University wasn’t for people like them.
In Merthyr I interviewed 19 year old Jamie from a housing estate in Merthyr who was had been chosen to be local Labour leader for his area. I was interested in what he saw in himself and how that had influenced him to get involved in leadership - I asked him have you got what it takes to be a leader he said 'Ive got what it takes but I can't because of where I come from.'
Jamie’s exceptional, a youth worker and young labour leader for his constituent, intel- ligent and unapologetic. He went to school at the local comprehensive. Daniel’s re- sponse isn’t one that’s unusual. It’s a mantra that re-occurs and it seems to creep into working class communities. I wonder if what his mantra would be if things for Jamie were different? Is it just about where he lives? Or is it about class? His education?
Our education system is divided. George Waldon in his book ‘The New Elites’ says
“Educationally, Britain is a unique country. Nowhere else have 90 percent of those in leading positions in society been educated in schools where 90 percent of the current generation cannot attend... For all its social progress, educationally speaking Britain is still governed by an exclusive caste, not in the old Etonian sense but simply because the leaders of society in almost every field were educated in establishments set aside for them because they were 9 talented and/ or because their parents had money”
(Walden, George 2000 pg. 193)
This division in the schooling system is perhaps the very genesis of social polarisation, it’s where the divide is most explicit. A gate- way to the best education can be a breeding ground for elite networks – supporting the mantra, it’s not what you know it’s who you know. Connecting people is a powerful thing.
The higher your social class, the better your education and the more ingrained self-confidence seems to be, the higher you climb the more exposed to influences and networks that support your way of life, your kind. Well- educated, well - connected people know how to use their voice to their own advantage. At the other end of the social scale there is a sense of how little trust and confidence is placed in you and the place you live. If you have less money it means you have fewer options.
Coming back to Pierre Bourdieu in his work he reflects on inheritance and how it’s passed down to the next of kin, shaping our relationship with education and our capacity to learn. It’s the capacity to succeed that Bourdieu talks about that is inherently passed that helps those more privileged move into positions of power.
Of course that’s not to say that working class families don’t pass that to their children. I know many well-educated and confident working class people. What it helps to reinforce is that sense of working class people being kept within their means. That class can be a controlling factor to how well you believe you can do within your circumstances. This we see highlighted in Jamie’s comment ‘I can’t because of where I come from." It’s the capacity to believe in success that Bourdieu talks about that supports privilege people to move into positions of power. From the people that I have spoken I get the sense that even in positions of leadership and power that feeling never subsides. If society tells you you’re not good enough what chance have you got.
The education system is entrenched in class. What hope do the working class have in competing for the top jobs. In 2016 the Sutton Trust created a survey that reported that privately educated elite were enjoying a hugely disproportionate presence in the top British professions, no surprise there. It also described the acting industry as being unfavourable disproportionate, describing it as “heavily skewed towards the privileged.”
When the top jobs are occupied by a single demographic the reality is they will shape the country to represent their interests alone. This couldn’t be more clear in recent events that see austerity hitting those most vulnerable whilst giving tax breaks to millionaires. With education being pivotal in class and social mobility is it the notion of private vs state schools that needs to be challenged? Is that where the journey begins to combat inequality and division?
If we don’t have access to learning creative subjects in schools then we’re in a very despairing and desperate place, not only will we be lacking talent development but we will be lacking a belief that working class people can do it. The level playing field doesn’t exist in education, but where it might exist is in experience itself.
Speaking to a college lecturer she reassures me that what we could see a ground swell of artists that are working from experience rather than education. A resurgence of underground art that creates instinctively without the need of academic institutions. The problem that she sees with academic institutions is that they create an environment where it’s not ok to fail. If we don’t fail then it’s hard to take risks and be brave. She says ‘we need to fail otherwise we give up when we think that we’ve already lost.