Arts Emergency

A quiet word about inequality.

There is a quote we often use as inspiration to keep on fighting. It comes from the current Education Secretary Michael Gove, representing his views for the Times in 2003 prior to his becoming an MP. He suggests that £21,000 or more in fees is “a bargain”, that anybody who is deterred by this high cost is basically not worthy of a place at a top university:

Some people will, apparently, be put off applying to our elite institutions by the prospect of taking on a debt of this size. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is all to the good.

It’s a binary world view that those fortunate enough to be born into a certain level of advantage find easy to accommodate. Yet it fundamentally disregards the reality facing millions of young people who, even before the tripling of tuition fees in 2010, struggled despite talent, to attain a level footing in society. I wanted to offer a short briefing here on inequality in the United Kingdom.

To begin, we’ll look at just one area in which Arts Emergency is very active, the media. Here, over 54% of all leading news journalists were privately educated, while a 2012 Guardian guide to the ‘100 most important people in the media’ included only three non-white people. This encapsulates concisely the kind of issues we are working against as a charity. Even among politicians, the supposed representatives of the people we find that 35% of all MPs attended fee-paying schools, with the majority of cabinet ministers and many of the shadow cabinet included in that number.

In fact, just five elite schools sent more pupils to Oxford and Cambridge over three years than nearly 2,000 other schools combined, which equates to two-thirds of the entire state sector allocation. This is pretty amazing, and it will come as no surprise to hear that just a handful of the country’s most prestigious schools produce one in ten of our leaders right across culture, politics and business. Let’s make it simple and quote the Oxford English Dictionary to be clear on what we’re talking about here:

Definition of old boy network in English (also old boys’ network)


an informal system through which men are thought to use their positions of influence to help others who went to the same school or university as they did, or who share a similar social background: many managers were chosen by the old boy network.

Slightly further down this social ‘pecking order’, statistics show that white, better-off, middle-class families still exert a stranglehold over places at all of our top universities and as such public discourse and many of our professions still suffer from a lack of diversity. Indeed, many young people from non-establishment backgrounds feel they have no stake in society at all. This sense of social anomie was pointed to as a major contributing cause of the 2011 riots, according to a study set up by the government.

This and much, much more, adds up to make a society where the education system and the economy works well for the few, but creates challenges for the many. It is obvious and, we’d like to make clear, not intrinsically wrong, that wealthier families are in a position to give greater advantages to their children. From birth to university and beyond, it is perfectly natural to want the best for our children no matter your economic or social circumstances, but …

… we want the best for EVERYONE

The Arts Emergency Service was founded in London, where the top 10% of the city’s population earns 273 times more than the bottom 10%. That’s a pretty grotesque disparity, but we refuse to dwell on the negatives; we much prefer action!

We are building a network of like-minded artists, professionals, academics and activists to work together to give disadvantaged young people the social and cultural capital that will help them overcome the many challenges they face.

It’s not all about money – having encouragement, the benefit of somebody else’s experience, contacts and confidence can do just as much to level the playing field as all the millions of pounds successive govenrments and NGOs have ploughed into ‘social mobility’ programmes (if not more!). We welcome their willingness to make some concessions to the “99%”, but social justice is our aim and creating privilege for people who have none is how we go about making this happen.

Arts Emergency enables the young people with whom we work to realise their potential, benefiting not just them, but enriching our wider cultural life through their unique future contribution. Do join us in this endeavour.

Follow me on twitter: @_griff

Further reading on inequality:

The Sutton Trust have lots of reports and useful statistic, many used above, about inequality and access to Higher Education

This joint report (with foreword by AE contact Owen Jones no less!) by The Equality Trust, My Fair London and The Centre for Labour and Social Studies has lots of background on wealth inequality

Media Diversity UK is a small but wonderful group tackling the lack of diversity in UK Media

Ipsos MORI published a thorough study of Children’s wellbeing in the UK and beyond

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has a wealth of research on issues around poverty, inequality and social justice

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