On Friday, I was angry. I don’t find anger a particularly endearing trait, and it has taken me a weekend to try to work out why. It is an extremely complex issue and I am still not sure about any of it, but I am going to try to articulate it today.
In the Times, under the heading “Middle-class BBC ordered to reveal social background of its staff” was a paragraph which read “the chief executive of Ofcom yesterday said that she would require broadcasters to begin collecting and providing information on the social background of their employees. Precise measures have yet to be agreed, but they could include whether staff attended private schools or were raised by parents with professional jobs”.
The obvious inference from that statement, and one which certainly raised my heckles, was that no matter how good an individual person might be, he or she will be judged by their background and a percentage of jobs allotted accordingly. Naturally standing where I am today, in front of 700 independent school boys, the vast majority of whom I know will be good people and good citizens of the world, this is incredibly frustrating. And indeed this focus on class has intensified considerably in the last two or three years in so many areas of national and global life. On a macro-level, class divisions were manipulated appallingly in the American presidential elections (ironically in that instance by an individual who went, unusually for Americans, to a private boarding school) and they keep cropping up in the European debate; on a micro level, they appeared in no fewer than 6 different stories in the Times on Friday alone. One I find particularly interesting is ostensibly to do with the salary of the Vice Chancellor of Oxford University, who reportedly (and intolerably to some commentators) earns more than the Prime Minister. This is a woman who runs the University most recently ranked Number 1 in the entire world, and yet you can find footballers who earn more than her annual salary in a single week! The fact that she is singled out and not the footballers seems to me to show quite clearly that this has nothing to do with money; it is to do with class – a University which is, dangerously, perceived as the preserve of the middle classes, matched against a sport which is, no doubt equally dangerously, seen as the preserve of the working class.
The reason I describe this as dangerous is because it seems to me that there is an almost wilful attempt on behalf of various governments and the press to promote social division. Read Rod Liddle’s response to that BBC article in the Sunday times yesterday under the amusingly stupid, but insidious, headline “Tristan, Poppy – you’re out. What the BBC needs is a few more Sharons and Waynes”. You need to be aware that Rod Liddle writes in a particular way, and it is not always easy to decide what is meant to be serious and what is not, but what follows is the stuff of extreme stereotype about what he calls “the preponderance of public school monkeys” – “not all of them”, he writes are “fantastically stupid” (as if you can normally assume that), but they nearly all subscribed to the same political agenda – a sort of self-effacing, if not self-hating, limp-wristed Corbyn-lite”, an “anodyne morass”. He then goes on to describe women, Asian people, working class people as if they all came from their own stereotypical boxes.
This is what I am angry about. We don’t seem to have learned from the past – it seems to me, at least superficially – and this is where I remind you that the complexities are way beyond my own intelligence, that we are simply repeating the mistakes of the past. For too long have individual groups been stereotyped and pigeonholed. Black people, women, gay people, lepers, foreigners, aristocrats, religious minorities, religious majorities – you name it – have all had periods, and many continue to have periods, of oppression, of hatred, of being cast out. The world still contains, of course, extreme unfairness and possibly the biggest financial inequalities in its history – it is a massive challenge for all of us; yet your class background is something, like colour, religion, race, gender, which you are born with – and blanket stereotyping should have disappeared years ago. We are who we are. Nobody should be ashamed of that; nor should anybody be singled out in a negative way for their birth. It is what happens next that matters; how will you contribute to society; how will you treat those around you; how will you “love thy neighbour”. As individuals, as I said at the start of term, who are amongst only 7% educated in the private sector in the UK, the need to act responsibly and for the wider good falls to you even more prominently.
I have calmed down. Ms White, the admirable Chair of Ofcom, is in fact right in what she says – all causes in history have needed somebody to stand up for them and well done to her for doing so – and I strongly suspect that her sentiments have been sensationalised in a typically journalistic fashion. I suspect what she has been saying is that the BBC needs more diversity; and that the selection panels need to be better at recognising unconscious bias in order to pick out the best people irrespective of background; and that the organisation itself needs to be better at managing inclusion of all employees. As a school, with both boys and adults, we too must always aim to see people, and celebrate people, as individuals, and not as stereotypes.