Abolishing Eton could unlock our cultural potential

Imagine a country in which everyone has the same access to arts education, allowing for a true diversity of artistic voices

At this year’s Labour Party conference in Brighton several motions were passed to build the most radical policy platform I can remember from a serious British party. From the essential Green New Deal to bold plans to move towards a far more progressive, humanitarian approach to migration, the raft of policies to emerge from the conference represents a vision for a genuinely different society.

Yet for all the transformative potential of these ideas, there was one policy proposal, green-lit by Labour delegates, that’s caused quite a stir among the British media: the Abolish Eton campaign, or the motion to rid Britain of private schools.

The figures speak for themselves: as the motion notes, “only 7% of UK students attend private schools, yet the Sutton Trust 2019 report revealed that 65% of senior judges, 52% of junior ministers, 44% of news columnists and 16% of university vice-chancellors were educated in private schools”. And in a society that has allowed the ultra-privileged to portray themselves as somehow anti-elite scourges of the establishment – Farage (Dulwich College!); Johnson (Eton!) – even our unusually deferent population thinks there’s something amiss, with 63% of people agreeing that “it is unfair that some people get a better education and life chances for their children by paying for a private school”.

Removing the charitable status and redistributing the privileges of private schools (read that again – this is hardly the language of some Maoist plan for forcible collectivisation) is clearly and unambiguously a positive step towards dismantling the class infrastructure that supports the ever-deepening, cross-generational divides between the mega-rich and everyone else in this country. The part-hilarious, part-offensive moral and intellectual gymnastics in which the headmaster of Rugby School was forced to engage is proof enough of this (as reported by The Independent not long ago, he warned “We would have a Margaret Thatcher mining crisis in so many areas of the UK if they decided to get rid of us,” going on to say an “attack on excellence” was not the solution, and defending the £36,000-per-year school by saying that they have employed local building firms to build new buildings in the past). That’s not to say, however, that it won’t raise questions about which we need to think carefully: most relevantly for readers of L&Q, what has all this got to do with music?

Depressingly, many of our most successful musicians – commercially, if not critically or, well, musically – are drawn from the same elite as the aforementioned judges, ministers, and journalists (how surprising that half the British media were up in arms about their old schools being integrated with the rest of us shitkickers). The examples are obvious and legion: arguably the two most globally ubiquitous British bands of this millennium, Coldplay and Mumford and Sons, are made up of former public schoolboys; most of the latter’s late-’00s indie peers were also privately educated, including The Maccabees, The Horrors, Florence Welch, Bombay Bicycle Club, Yuck, Foals, Laura Marling, and others.

The way that class and education are tastefully omitted from most conversations about such acts is striking, considering the nakedly classist media treatment of their more resolutely working-class musical contemporaries – see the demonization of grime and trap, or, for a more aesthetically similar comparison, the routine ridicule of indie bands from beyond the bubble of Greater London independent schools who broke through at approximately the same time. I’m no fan of Kasabian, The Pigeon Detectives or The Enemy, but are they really any worse than the (admittedly uncool, but hardly comparably reviled) likes of fucking Mumford and Sons? I’m not so sure.

A decade of Conservative austerity – not to mention New Labour’s downright gleeful attitude to the privatisation of public services – has left arts education in the state sector in ill health. This isn’t news – under an education system that is predicated on exam results and hard finance, the somewhat more abstract, long-term benefits of children’s access to the arts are easily dismissed by a post-Gove Department for Education. The disproportionate effect this has on poorer kids, unable to pay for guitar lessons, never mind private schooling, is also pretty obvious. A recent quip from Alexei springs to mind: “austerity is the idea that the global financial crash of 2008 was caused by there being too many libraries in Wolverhampton”.

The integration of private schools into the public sector won’t automatically solve these problems, nor will it come unencumbered by issues of its own, but it’s a radical step in the direction of a more egalitarian Britain, and the possibilities this implies for our music and art are significant. Imagine a country whose first public reaction to the music of working-class, multiracial artists is not pearl-clutching hysteria (invariably shadowed by a far less hostile view of the deeply problematic excesses of white, middle/upper-class cultural icons), but a recognition of the innovation and ingenuity of our blossoming underground. A country in which everyone has the same access to arts education, allowing for a true diversity of artistic voices, can only be culturally richer: mathematically as much as ideologically, this seems self-evident.