What do The Theory Of Everything, James Blunt, and the British school system have in common?

The release of the much waited for The Theory Of Everything has been a shot in the vein of the debate about the lack of diversity in the arts world and, more generally, elitism in the United Kingdom. In the movie, Eddie Redmanye plays the globally renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking.

Eddie Redmayne and Stephen Hawking. Photo www.milanopost.info

Critiques initially stemmed from the fact that Hawking, a disabled character suffering from a motor neurone disease, was played by a non-disabled actor. Some complained that disabled actors are under-represented in the arts world and that just as nowadays no one would find it acceptable to have a white actor playing a black character, the same argument applies for disabled characters as well. Eddie Redmayne won a Golden Globe for his performance, joining the list of non-disabled actors, including Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man who have won awards for their ability to play “disability”.

Then, in his fist interview as shadow culture minister, Labourite Chris Bryant called for the arts world to hire people from a variety of backgrounds, lamenting that a career in the arts is so expensive that this path has become inaccessible to a majority who cannot afford it. In fact, Bryant pointed out that most people who subsidise the arts are artists themselves: “That of course makes it much more difficult if you come from a background where you can’t afford to do that”. In his interview Bryant cited Eddie Redmanye and singer James Blunt as examples of artists who benefited from their wealthy upbringing, triggering a fierce response by James Blunt.

Finally, Debrett’s, a publisher specializing on British etiquette, published its annual list of the 500 most influential people in the UK. Debrett’s list for 2015 revealed that 40% of the people listed attended private (independent) schools. Eddie Redmayne, who attended Eton and Cambridge, was included in the list under the stage and screen category. The evidence provided by the list just adds to the one already collected showing how fee-paying schools offer great opportunities and provide useful network, leading their pupils towards successful careers. This results in people coming from privileged backgrounds, who clearly constitute a minority, being over-represented in the positions of power in the country.

Education, not only in the arts, is quite a controversial topic in the UK, as it is often seen as perpetuating marked class divisions instead of promoting social mobility. There are more than 200 private schools in the UK, but public schools could be to blame as well. In fact, British kids have to decide at a very young age the kind of career path they will follow. The choice is between grammar schools and comprehensive schools. Grammar schools are selective academically focused institutions, which require applicants to sit an entrance exam when they are eleven years old. Comprehensive schools, on the other hand, do not select its intake on the basis of academic achievement or aptitude. Grammar schools are the more prestigious schools and they better prepare their students to continue studying at university. Several studies, such as the one by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) research, have shown that there is a correlation between wealth and grammar school entry, with children coming from better off families being more likely to attend a grammar school than their poorer peers.

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