How many of you have taught students who went on to become cabinet ministers? No, I thought so … to me, one of the key areas that we must address is the chronic lack of opportunity for our students; it is not enough to say that we must get more students from state schools into Oxbridge – there ain’t the room!
What follows is a question that I would like to pose to Mr Cameron or to Mr Gove.
Dear Mr Cameron
Question: Given the composition of the current cabinet and, in particular, given the fact that the vast majority are male, privately educated and possessing Oxbridge degrees, what do you suggest that I say to any highly intelligent student (and we have many) from Heathfield Community School who would like to serve her country by entering politics but who suffers from the triple misfortune of being female, attending a comprehensive school and wanting to attend a University other than Oxford or Cambridge? Should I reassure them that there is no elitism in this country and that, given the ability and the will, there is no barrier to achievement? Should I iterate to them that there can be no doubt that the current cabinet represents all of the best and brightest in our nation and that no-one is there because of their background or connections? Should I continue by asserting that obviously the reason why there are no cabinet members from Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Durham, Warwick, Newcastle, Cardiff, UCL, York, Sheffield, Nottingham, Birmingham, Belfast, King’s College or the London School of Economics is quite simply because no-one educated at these world-class institutions is up to the job? I can then perhaps finish by reassuring them that the makeup of the cabinet is merely the natural reflection of a society structured entirely on merit and that she would find the same principle of meritocracy, with no thought of wealth or background, applying equally in Law or in Medicine.
My bright female students might come back at me by contrasting the situation here with that in the US, where the members of the cabinet come from a variety of educational backgrounds – a few from Harvard, Columbia and Yale (but no-one from Princeton, Cornell or Brown and certainly not 65% from the Ivy League), a few from the Liberal Arts Colleges (but not jut the ‘Little Ivies’) but the rest from a wide-range of higher education institutions from across the United States.
They might also want to point to the far higher number of women in the US Cabinet not to mention the greater ethnic mix. They might also question the wisdom of deriving the overwhelming majority of our current cabinet from an educational sector that deals with 7% of the school-age population and suggest that this is a statistical nonsense and actually represents disenfranchisement on a massive scale.I would be very grateful if you could demonstrate to them with hard empirical evidence that their concerns are groundless and that this is indeed a country of boundless aspiration, because I am having some difficulty in answering their questions convincingly.
Mike Bettles, Headteacher April 2013
_Mike Bettles is Deputy Head at Heathfield Community School in Taunton; his role encompasses Curriculum, Assessment, International Links and Leading Edge. He is particularly interested the international perspective on education and developing creativity within the curriculum. _