We are the 93%

Tania Robertson, AUE Member

This short article is a request to members of the AUE and those associated with its work and campaigns to debate the role and influence of private education in the arts in England and Wales.  As a system of education it is generally recognized as anachronistic yet its influence over the working lives of artists remains strong.  Private schools educate less than 10% of the nation’s children1 but these numbers become bizarrely reversed in the arts which employs a disproportionately high number from their rank.  Tackling this complex and emotive subject is vital if the visual arts, and artists, are to remain relevant at a national and international level both today and in future.


This extract is from Bridget Riley published to accompany the artist’s exhibition at Tate Britain:-


Education at Cheltenham Ladies’ College.  Thanks to an understanding headmistress she is allowed to organise her own curriculum, and chooses only art lessons in addition to obligatory subjects.  Her teacher, Colin Hayes, later tutor at the Royal College of Art, London, introduces her to the history of painting and encourages her to attend the life class at the local art school.  The van Gogh exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1947 is her first encounter with the work of a modern master.2


As outlined by the artist’s friend and biographer Robert Kudielka, Bridget Riley benefited from an art education tailored to develop her individual promise.  This degree of attention is expensive and, especially in the immediate aftermath of war, could only have been financed privately.  When the Education Act of 1944 came into effect after WWII it heralded the beginning of the modernization of education in England and Wales which continues to this day.  However, it still remains unlikely that a gifted and dedicated child would receive the type of bespoke art education Bridget Riley enjoyed at Cheltenham Ladies’ College within the current state system.


When the subject of private (or independent) education is raised it can be deluged by the passion it invokes.  Together with the sly manipulation of selective facts and dubious argument, it seems difficult to engage in a serious and objective analysis of the sector and how it shapes the public sphere3.  However, in 2016 the present Government launched a consultation paper ‘Schools that work for everyone‘4 to address the issue of private school’s ‘public benefit’ a response, in part no doubt, to the result of the referendum to leave the EU [aka Brexit]; a result which clearly revealed serious problems some of which relate directly to low levels of social mobility.  One aspect of the consultation paper which is also relevant for the arts is the sector’s claim to be classified as ‘charities’ to qualify for tax relief.  How does such ‘charitable’ work improve access to the arts?


As in any other business private schools generate income in order to cover their overheads.  To get an accurate picture of the income of a private school would require access to the accounts of an amenable institution which is not feasible here but using a little educated guesswork, it is probable that private schools generate income from a number of sources including:-


  1. Direct income from fees
  2. Direct income from donations and legacies
  3. Indirect income from tax relief
  4. Indirect income from assets and asset management


For artists 4. Income from assets and asset management is of particular interest.  Artists, as a general rule, make things  These things have potential worth which, with careful management and marketing, may eventually represent significant financial value.  Private schools invest in managing the early careers of artistically gifted pupils not simply for the benefit of the pupil but as a potential future source of revenue.  A useful example of how such asset management works in practice is the case of the Atkinson Gallery at Millfield School5.  Established in 1992 the gallery boasts excellent facilities, regularly hosts exhibitions of work by recent postgraduates and owns a substantial collection of sculpture.  Together this represents a considerable investment in art.  Is this ‘charitable work’?  If it seems to fit a private enterprise model investing in its own future should the same model exist within the state sector?  How and where are state schools establishing art galleries, investing in art collections and exhibiting the work of up-and-coming contemporary artists?  Where this is the case what are the benefits to each pupil, their families and local communities?


The asset management of art and artists by the private education sector has a number of repercussions one of which could loosely be described as ‘the incest of taste’.  Private schools are well-established and run substantial networks which place a disproportionately high number of their alumni in the arts.  This results in a certain type of art being produced by a certain type of artist for a certain type of audience.  ‘The incest of taste’ works to exclude art and artists outside this network and may well contribute to what has been described as ‘the demonization of the working class’6.  This reliance on cliché to designate and represent those educated through the state system fails, possibly intentionally, to allow for the fact that intelligence, ambition, dedication and natural talent, are as much part and parcel of the lives of those nurtured through the state, as through the private, system.  In the hands of the cynical this ‘demonization of the working class’ may well have contributed to our current levels of inequality and weak social mobility7: if the cultural climate implies you’re worth is low it is more likely you adapt to fit low expectations.  There is no reason whatsoever for the state-educated not to become scientists, solicitors, judges, general practitioners, surgeons, accountants and, of course, artists, but their number in these fields continues to fall short.


A core argument used to defend private education is that it represents choice.  This statement begs a question – choice for whom?  No child chooses to be born into poverty.  The ‘choice’ argument used to justify private education favours the ‘choice’ of parents over the rights of the child8.  Moreover, this ‘choice’ is only open to parents on a high income.  Where this ‘choice‘ is open to parents on a low income it comes with strings attached.  The child from a poor background can ‘choose’ to access private education if he or she shows academic promise.  This ‘choice’ creates further division; between the academically gifted and the rest.  Pursuing yet more social engineering, the private education system is open to accepting the bright but poor not, as it would seem, for the sake of the child.  Bursaries and scholarships for the gifted are used to ensure the schools’s kudos, particularly in higher education [Oxbridge9].  Private schools are fully aware that the children of the rich are not necessarily bright.  Since they must accept offspring of the rich to balance the books they are prepared to accept the bright but poor as a means of securing the academic reputation, and therefore the future, of the school.  ‘Choice‘ is a smokescreen used to defend institutions deeply out-of-step with a modern democracy which requires transparency and accountability.  ‘Choice’ fails to acknowledge the right of the child to remain where he or she feels safe, secure and loved10.  The private education sector has little or no claim on either ‘choice‘ or ‘charity’ creating, as it does, such division within the young the rifts ripple throughout society as a whole and last a lifetime.


How should art and artists move forward constructively?  Since they will undoubtedly encounter the effects of private education during their working lives it is perhaps up to visual artists to spearhead a campaign which demands that all roles in publicly-funded museums, galleries and libraries across the country, be they junior or senior but most especially senior, are filled by those educated by the state.  Only by ensuring 93% of the workforce running public arts organizations are state-educated11 will we finally establish a diverse, healthy, accessible and relevant arts ecology in this country.







1 https://www.isc.co.uk/research/

2 Biographical Notes – compiled by Robert Kudielka 1946 – 1948, p.221 Bridget Riley 2003 Tate Publishing

3 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/29/is-it-right-public-schools-charitable-status


5 atkinsongallery.co.uk


7 https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/how-has-inequality-changed

8Ref. United Nations convention on the rights of the child – ref. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/feb/18/iceland-ban-male-circumcision-first-european-country

9 https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/cambridge-and-oxford-among-worst-universities-for-state-school-intake-5f3hrq3fx

10 http://www.itv.com/news/2018-02-18/shocking-scale-of-sexual-abuse-at-uk-boarding-schools-revealed-by-itv-documentary/

11 http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2017-09-15/too-many-of-our-staff-come-from-a-privileged-background-bbc-admits/