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Best of British: Britain’s got talent, but are we recognising all of it?

Category: Blog
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Lee Elliot Major and Philip Kirby on what our Leading People 2016 report means for access to top professions.

Britain’s got talent: that’s the powerful message the privately-educated pop mogul Simon Cowell has cleverly embraced to produce the successful television show that plucks unknown talents and thrusts them into the limelight. But what exactly is ‘talent’? And how is it recognised?

They may seem straightforward questions, yet the answers are anything but. The way talent is discovered in one field can be very different to how it is judged and identified in another. The consequences for the educational and social backgrounds of leading people in a particular profession are profound.

The point is illuminated this week by the contrasting award ceremonies in the arts and entertainment industry. Tonight the latest BRITs will be awarded to celebrate the country’s brightest musical talents; they come on the heels of last week’s BAFTAs for leading lights in the acting profession.

Research published by the Sutton Trust today finds that 81% of BRIT winners since their inception went to state schools, which make up 93% of the country’s schools. In acting however, a different picture emerges: just under half (42%) of BAFTA winners and about two thirds (67%) of British top Oscar winners were educated privately – even though fee paying schools educate only 7% of students. During the last 25 years, these proportions have barely changed.

So the data appears to justify the popular stereotypes. Successful soul singers such as Adele are all the more credible for coming from gritty working class backgrounds. Yet soul searching of another kind occurred when it became apparent that the race for the 2015 Oscar best actor award would be fought between an old Etonian, Eddie Redmayne and an old Harrovian, Benedict Cumberbatch.

Why should this be so? In pop music, school and social background are clearly less important than in acting. What record producers and television ‘talent shows’ are after is natural musical ability. What they’re also after, though, is youth and beauty, with the former often deemed a prerequisite for the latter. In other words, pop musicians start younger, because they have to.

In acting, it takes longer to find your lucky break. For those from less advantaged backgrounds, this means a potentially long period with little income; it’s simply not so easy for them to keep auditioning, waiting for that killer role. By the time that role turns up, they might have already needed to leave the industry to find stable employment elsewhere. Most of the auditions moreover take place in the most expensive city in the world: London. Is it surprising that so few working class actors now make it, as Helen Mirren, Julie Walters and others bemoan?

What is troubling for social mobility is that our report, Leading People 2016, suggests that acting, rather than popular music, is more indicative of the trends observed for a host of professions offering some of the country’s best paid and most influential jobs. Of the top judiciary (High Court and Appeals Court), about three quarters (74%) attended private schools; of the top military brass, 71% were privately educated; of a sample of top doctors, nearly two thirds (61%) went to fee-paying schools. Similar figures are repeated for leading lawyers, journalists and politicians.

These stark figures suggest we are missing out on an awful lot of talent from the 93% of the population that is state-educated. Part of this can be explained by the impressive academic achievements and extra confidence and ‘polish’ that a private school education can bring. But there are also systematic barriers that echo the experiences of the acting profession, such as surviving in London during the early stages of a career with little security and pay. They also beg the question as to whether the professions are looking hard enough to identify talent from where-ever it comes?

What can we learn from pop music’s social mobility success story? One obvious area for other professions to explore is identifying talent earlier, perhaps through apprenticeships rather than relying so much on graduate pipelines. At the same time we have to be careful what we wish for. While a few fortunate ones will be picking up BRITs tonight, the hard truth is that the vast majority of aspiring pop stars do not make it. Yes Britain has got talent, but we need to do much more to ensure it is nurtured in all areas of public life.