The level playing fields of Eton
How do any of us cope? If you read these monthly notes then you know I cope with humour [allegedly], with thinking externally, by having adventures [off to Thailand next week and rather annoyed I’ve missed the fun of the storms] or by helping others whom I think have it tough.
Hence my obsession with trying to make this country more equal in opportunity. That’s a very quaint social notion. Not equality but equality of opportunity. What does that mean? It means that there are people in the toughest comprehensives in the land who are cleverer, stronger, nicer, as ambitious as people enjoying an excellent privileged education at £25,000 a year on the Sussex downs or in the Buckinghamshire countryside. If we are to prosper in tooth and claw as a nation, then it won’t happen by keeping the bloody foreigners out. It will happen by making sure that people are helped along and up based on their potential not on their exam grades or spelling or language skills or prowess on the rugger pitch but on what they can achieve given the chance.
I work with young apprentices and do everything I can to encourage them, their families if they have them, their potential employers, to realise that there are young people with the ability to lead the country, run great companies and achieve great social reforms – but only if you pave the way. they may not have had great teachers, great parents, great anything – but they are as talented and capable as David Cameron – dare I say, some of them possibly more so?
The music schools I’m associated with learned this lesson very early. The late Sir George Martin, son of a humble north London family, was given a scholarship by the Royal Academy even though he could hardly read music. Someone in a key position heard some music he’d made up for a brass band and said ‘come to The Academy, we’ll teach you how to do this properly’.
Right now, places in the highest ranked universities are filled with students whose parents have spent thousands and thousands of pounds on private tutors, preparing them for specific exams, coaching them through or even writing their personal statements for them – sweeping aside amazing young people whose schools don’t expect their pupils to go to Oxbridge or Warwick and whose parents don’t have the resources to get their little darling coached for specific exams.
My own alma mater Cambridge is genuinely trying hard to redress the perception that it is an elite institution for elite young people. it has put in place well-meaning policies to encourage applicants from the widest pool of society. Great.
I encouraged a young muslim girl to apply this year. I’ll call her Amina. A grafter, a clever clever charming person with initiative and determination. A fine devout family who had consistently told her she did not need qualifications because she would marry and look after the family. So paying for coaching, even if they had the money, would have been deemed pointless. A degree from Cambridge was not just not for the likes of them, but pointless for someone who would not work. No one else at the school was applying to Oxbridge, no teacher knew what the personal statement for Cambridge should look like, no one told Amina anything about the entrance exam. When she went to take the exam she didn’t even have any idea what the exam would be about or what it would cover.
So she flunked her maths. amina loves maths but she hadn’t covered part of the paper at all so had no clue what to write or how to approach it. so she flunked big time. So big time that not just her college but the whole University passed. She wanted to study economics and you needs maths.
She expected it. from the getgo she knew she wouldn’t get in. but she wanted to try anyway. Amina will keep trying all her life. She may keep failing all her life because she doesn’t have the tools or because she’s a woman or because she wears a hijab or because she doesn’t know how to spell amphibious. That’s what bugs me.
I’m white, male, Cambridge graduate, gong from The Queen … so I should walk into any role I go for eh?
So over the last dozen years or so … let’s see … er … The Copyright Tribunal board, The Leonard Cheshire Board, The Chair of Creative & Cultural Skills, The Chair of the National College for Creative & Cultural Skills, The Chair of The PRS Foundation, Council member of the London Enterprise Partnership, The BBC Trust – oh yes I nearly forgot, The House of Lords … I’ve been put up for all these jobs. I’ve been interviewed for all these jobs … I’ve not got any of them. Most of them have to interview me. did you know that, under equality regulations, most public bodies guarantee an interview to an applicant with a disability. So they do. then they are off the hook.
So I know how Amina feels. I didn’t expect to get any of those jobs. I knew the interview was an attempt to ensure I wasn’t discriminated against. I knew they wouldn’t want a blind guy in the job. Not really. Not in the end. So I know how Amina feels. I spoke to her. she said ‘I knew I wasn’t the right person for Cambridge. As soon as I sat down at the exam and realised it was a completely different sort of exam and I hadn’t covered half the topics, I knew I wasn’t what they wanted’.
I hope she keeps trying. The UK deserves and needs Amina to get ahead.
If the Royal Academy had asked George to sit a sight reading exam or tell them what a concerto is, he’d have flunked. He wouldn’t have got in. he wouldn’t have got the job at EMI. He wouldn’t have met John and Paul. he wouldn’t have been able to posset the idea of a harpsichord on Lucy in the Sky or a string quarted on Eleanor Rigby or a brass band on All You Need is Love or an orchestra on A Day In The Life. So The Academey enabled George, George enabled John and Paul, The Beatles empowered a generation of working class young music makers who couldn’t write music, the country transformed, the young musicians empowered the fashion designers, the photographers, the writers, the film makers, the entreprenours, the satyrists to change us from a privileged, dull, bankrupt post war Britain, to a global cultural and economic powerhouse. Haven’t we learned anything?