7 March 2023

A cheapened currency – why does the Bank of England think prejudice against private schools is OK?


Imagine the scene: a black Sixth Form student studying A levels in Economics and History, asks her teacher if she and her class can go to the new Slavery and the Bank exhibition at the Bank of England. Keen to support such enthusiasm, her teacher agrees.

The class visit the Museum’s website where there is a bold statement proclaiming: ‘We want everyone to enjoy our museum’, and in a long list detailing the lengths undertaken to ensure that everyone can gain access to the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, the students read about everything from wheelchair access to how to obtain large-print guides, pick up magnifying glasses and torches, ear defenders, visual story guides and so on. Wow, they’ll think, this is such an inclusive place.

And then they’ll read, in total bafflement, that there is, actually, one group of people who are not entirely welcome – and it’s them: the children who attend independent schools. The Bank has said that while all children are welcome to visit the museum, its talks and presentations are reserved for state-educated pupils. So that black student who goes to a fee-paying school, and her friends, some of whom will be from disadvantaged backgrounds and will only be at her fee-paying school because of bursaries, will be barred from accessing all the resources the museum has to offer.

For Alison Cook, the Operations Manager at the Museum this is all completely acceptable in the name of ‘widening participation’Welcome to the new doublethink, where ‘widening participation’ actually means narrowing participation; where prejudice of any kind is abhorrent, except when it is aimed at independent school children. I emphasise that last word because it beggars belief that there are adult professionals working in education today who elect to stop some children learning about their work simply because of the choices their parents made for them. It is a new and virulent form of intolerance. Professor Lawrence Goldman, emeritus fellow in History at St Peter’s College, Oxford, rightly calls it a form of ‘social engineering’ – ‘if you parade your virtues in regard to matters of race and slavery then you should make sure you aren’t discriminating against particular groups in the here and now’, Goldman says.

Can you think of any other group of people in the UK, other than independent school pupils and staff, who could be stopped from attending an event, or an institution, simply because of who they are? I can’t. But in this upside down world of corporate EDI this is the strange, morally-inverted place we find ourselves in. The Bank of England is not alone of course: other, proudly egalitarian institutions such as the MCC and Cambridge University, are rushing to cut the number of ancient fixtures they put on and the number of applicants they accept from such schools. 

Of course, these policies embed prejudice, rather than lessen it – exacerbate class divisions, rather than bridge them. The targets may be different, but anyone can see they’re unfair. Not only that, but they are ineffective. David Abulafia, a professor of history at Cambridge, admitted to The Times that ‘targets have definitely become quotas…You hear stories of really outstanding pupils who have not won a place. This could do harm to Oxbridge later down the line.’ At a time when we need to harness the abilities of all our brightest and best young people we are at risk of marginalising them because of divisive political agendas dressed up as inclusivity.

Abulafia also, rightly, points out that the division between ‘state’ and ‘private’ is too blunt an instrument to base such judgments on. Like some Oxbridge colleges, the Bank of England Museum will happily open its doors to affluent, middle class comprehensive and grammar school pupils who come from families with lots of cultural capital while turning away pupils from non-selective independent schools who rely on their schools for financial support. If it is social engineering then it is a broken form, rusted over with inherited, clumsy preconceptions.

But none of this matters to those behind the new exhibition at the Bank of England. For them such arguments are a distraction, an irritation, which get in the way of a greater crusade that replaces one set of unacceptable prejudices with a different set of, for them, acceptable prejudices. To atone for their old, ‘problematic’ pasts, institutions like the Bank of England feel entirely justified in using such divisive actions. In doing so they cheapen the Bank’s reputation. Perhaps the children barred from the Bank’s talks don’t have to visit it to learn what prejudice looks like: they just have to stand outside and look at the closed doors. 

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David James is deputy head of an independent school in London.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.