The future of the left since 1884

A Greek tragedy: Why a rich state education is a ticket to social mobility

This week the Guardian reported that Camden School for Girls might be forced to drop the study of ancient Greek in sixth form, and potentially begin charging parents for their children to take the subject as a GCSE “enrichment activity”,...



This week the Guardian reported that Camden School for Girls might be forced to drop the study of ancient Greek in sixth form, and potentially begin charging parents for their children to take the subject as a GCSE “enrichment activity”, all as a result of increased funding pressures.

Significantly, Camden, one of the highest performing schools in the country, is possibly the last English comprehensive to offer exams in the subject. However, this news story is sadly indicative of a wider problem concerning the declining value we place on the study of arts and humanities, particularly in state education and within social mobility.

Back in 2005, I began studying for my GCSE in Ancient Greek at Camden. It was a small but diverse group of girls, and timetable constraints meant our classes usually began at 8am. Beyond the grammar tables and translations I was later examined on, studying the subject enriched my confidence in using my own languages (English and Croatian). Furthermore, the vocabulary ancient Greek helped me to develop rivalled the independently-schooled students I later went to university with; and I gained the all-important intellectual self-confidence that came with a GCSE in an impressive subject.

But the privileged access I had to the subject is now under threat because of forces beyond my old school’s control – and it’s a pattern sadly replicated throughout the arts and humanities these days. The Camden Music Service, whose subsidies gave me access to music tuition I would not have otherwise afforded, is now also threatened by cuts, struggling to offer the services myself and my contemporaries accessed.

So why is this evocation of comprehensive school life before 2010 relevant? Why should you care about my school’s language and music provision, often associated with the preserve of a North London, middle-class elite? What use is verse translation or transposition within the harsh demands of globalised capitalism?

It matters because we’re beginning to forget the huge importance of the arts and humanities, not only within education, but also to social mobility itself.

Fundamentally, a rich state education is a ticket to social mobility. Such GCSEs and private music tuition eventually gave me a UCAS statement I could use to compete for some of the UK’s most sought-after Russell Group university places. We know that despite the importance of heavy income group analyses, there are different types of poverty beyond the financial, and the absence of cultural, social or economic ‘capital’ (respectively ‘what you know’, ‘who you know’ and ‘what you have’) can fundamentally hinder a young person’s social mobility. Being ‘socially mobile’ is usually about more than just getting a better paid job than your parents: it’s about being empowered (through education or equal opportunities) to lead a life you choose, as much as possible, rather than one you inherit through circumstance or expectation.

The declining ability of people from poorer backgrounds to access this sort social and cultural capital spreads far beyond the gates of Camden School for Girls. Indeed, at a time when the funding of postgraduate study in the arts and humanities is being cut dramatically, our state is making political decisions about what sort of subjects it values, what sort of research it prioritises, and what sort of students it would like to see studying subjects like History, Classics and English (necessarily shifting to be the preserve of the most privileged, given poor funding availability). Indeed, in my undergraduate university alone, only 26 per cent of arts and humanities undergraduates in 2014 had come from comprehensive schools, while only 10.1 per cent of my graduating subject in 2013 came from a poorer ‘social class’ (as defined by the university). And to take the example of classics, those figures are 18 per cent and 9.7 per cent respectively.

These all have huge repercussions for the sort of social mobility we’d like to see: indeed, ‘social mobility’ itself is of declining significance in political rhetoric these days. So the case for the overwhelming importance of the arts and humanities, both at school and beyond, needs to be reasserted, now more than ever.

Apprenticeships, funding for STEM subjects and a real push for quality vocational education remains crucial. Not everyone can go to university, and indeed not everyone wants to. A variety of skills are required to keep an economy going, and there is a wide variety of different kinds of human intelligence beyond the ‘academic’: mercifully, not everyone wants to spend their teenage years tracing the Greek origin of English words.

However, we mustn’t swap employability for social mobility when it comes to political aims. The arts and humanities are not there to decorate fundamental employment skills: they are fundamental in and of themselves. Perhaps those acting with huge repercussions for arts and humanities study would be best placed to remind themselves of the importance of these subjects and follow Camden’s own socially mobile motto, ‘onwards and upwards’.

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Daisy-Rose Srblin

Daisy-Rose Srblin is the 2018 London campaign manager for the Child Poverty Action Group. She previously was a research fellow at the Fabian Society focusing on tax reform and an MP's researcher for the UK Parliament.


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