Elitist Britain – cause for celebration?

In late August the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission published Elitist Britain, which reported on the dramatic over-representation in the top echelons of public life of those educated at independent schools and Oxbridge. It argued, persuasively, that such homogeneity undermines the legitimacy of state and other institutions, through a focus on issues salient only to a minority. Fairness and meritocracy are core British values, the report says, but people are concerned that background is more important than ability.

As an independent school based in the south east, Bedales would appear to offer its students every possible advantage: Elitist Britain identifies these variables as dominant in the backgrounds of leading figures in parliament, the judiciary, FTSE CEOs and the Times Rich List. Should this be a cause for celebration for the school, which is unashamed about its success in priming its students for achievement? Well, yes and no. Elitist Britain asserts that the best people should be in the best jobs, and we agree with that. If what our students want is to achieve high office in the fields of their choosing, it is vital that the education we provide helps them to do that in every possible way. I don’t imagine there is a teacher in this country who would say anything different. We’re proud of the academic results our students achieve, and that so many of them who want to, go on to study at the Oxbridge universities before thriving in their chosen fields.

However, we don’t agree that our students’ education should be geared to their hothousing towards such traditional markers of success, and we certainly don’t value or pursue cultural homogeneity. Indeed, if we were to try to instil such a thing I am confident that our students would not let us. At the heart of the contract between school and student at Bedales is the value of educating the whole person – head, hand and heart – and of students creating as well as taking from their learning environments. We are committed to the idea of ‘active learning’, and have developed our own GCSE-level qualifications precisely because we found GCSE provision to be overly-prescriptive – homogenous, even – and stifling of imagination and creativity.

On Saturday 13th September, Bedales will host a philosophy festival. ‘Philosophy Of…’ is staged by our students, who have succeeded in putting together a varied and challenging programme. With an eye on the findings of Elitist Britain, it is notable that the speakers include Laura Bates, the force behind the Everyday Sexism Project and the campaigning feminist Beatrix Campbell OBE. As Elitist Britain reports that Parliament remains the domain of independent school educated white males, it is interesting that these speakers should visit our school at the behest of the independently-educated young people involved in the festival. We admire our students’ independence of mind in this venture, and take pride in the development of critical faculties antithetical to the idea of the simple preservation of the status quo.

Elitist Britain makes recommendations for how the homogeneity of key institutions might be punctured. For schools and education, it seeks additional efforts with regard to 11 year old high-attainers, and also for the gap between careers advice, work experience and extra-curricular activities to be closed. These are worthy suggestions, but they are not enough. More fundamentally, we must educate young people to understand the world in which they live and how they might shape it if they are to challenge the homogeneity that Elitist Britain describes, and its effects. Learning to challenge the world can begin with students learning how to shape their school experience – a daily reality at Bedales, living proof of which is the philosophy festival on Saturday 13th.

By Keith Budge, Headmaster of Bedales School.