Category Archives: Education

The poshness test

If you were in charge of recruitment at a law or accountancy firm, who would be your job candidate of choice? A slightly diffident applicant with a regional accent, a clutch of dodgy A-levels from an inner-city comprehensive, and a first-class degree obtained as a mature student at a former polytechnic? Or an urbane ex-public school boy with an air of easy assurance and a solid 2:1 from a Russell Group university?

New research by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission reveals that working-class applicants struggle to gain access to the best jobs. In some solicitors’ firms, trainees are five times more likely than the population as a whole to have attended a fee-paying school. The Commission concludes that firms are applying a ‘poshness test’, excluding bright young people simply because they come from the wrong side of the tracks.

At this point, I’ll come clean: I’m one of the privately educated elite to whom the report refers. At my fee-paying girls’ school in Manchester, we had elocution lessons – misleadingly timetabled as ‘speech and drama’ – the sole purpose of which was to eliminate our flat northern vowels. But there are degrees of poshness, and I was always aware that my parents – a teacher and a receptionist – didn’t move in quite the right circles.

These days, parents like mine can’t afford to pay for their children’s education. Research published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies in 2010 revealed that school fees had risen at nearly three times the rate of household income since 1992. Average day-school fees now stand at more than £12,000 a year, well out of the reach of the average teacher, let alone a cleaner or call-centre worker. Private education, it seems, is increasingly the preserve of the very rich.

When I started university, I mixed with students from schools that were even posher than mine. You could spot the public-school brigade easily – they were immediately on first-name terms with professors, chatting unselfconsciously at sherry receptions about gap years in Nepal and summer placements in their fathers’ firms. At the age of nineteen or twenty they were already plotting out their career paths, joining clubs and committees and effortlessly forming the connections that would guarantee success in their professional lives.

After graduation I joined a national law firm, where for every clever solicitor from a state school, there were ten affable but academically less stellar public-school types. Pitted against these people at interview, the working-class candidate doesn’t stand a chance. From the moment he walks into the room, he sends out a thousand tiny signals that reveal his background.

The truth is that it feels safer and less threatening for privately educated interviewers to recruit in their own image. That’s why so many law firms are full of clubbable chaps and chapesses who obtain partnership primarily on the basis of their ability to schmooze clients. A group of them once poured scorn on my suggestion that our firm should seek out and offer assistance to socially disadvantaged job candidates – they were against positive discrimination, but they failed to recognise that they had benefited from a far more subtle and insidious form of it over the years.

Still, it seems unfair just to blame employers – in truth, the divide opens up decades before that first job interview. Middle-class parents confer all sorts of benefits on their children, simply by virtue of their money and social capital. Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds tend to have poorer language skills when they start school, whereas middle-class children, who grow up listening to dinner party conversations and Radio 4, seem to absorb their parents’ high expectations.

To compensate for social disadvantage, it’s clear that intervention is needed at an early stage. How unfortunate that the Sure Start programme, with its emphasis on quality childcare and early education, has been undermined by funding cuts, with many centres forced to close down. Another progressive initiative is the pupil premium – school funding targeted at children from disadvantaged backgrounds – but its future is uncertain under a government that has already announced a real-terms cut in the education budget.

There are other, more radical solutions. I don’t suggest that it would be practicable to dismantle the private education system but I do think reform is possible, given the political will. Changes that could go some way towards redressing the balance include removing private schools’ charitable tax status; obliging them to offer a certain number of well-publicised bursaries; or imposing a quota system so that the proportion of privately educated students at the Russell Group universities bears a closer relationship to the seven per cent of pupils in the general population who attend fee-paying schools.

Another means of redress is discrimination law. The Equality Act already rules out recruitment decisions based on a candidate’s sex, race or disability; why not make it unlawful for employers to discriminate on grounds of socio-economic disadvantage? While none of these suggestions is uncontroversial, I believe they deserve to be explored.

Meanwhile, those of us who have benefited from a private schooling, and who now act as gatekeepers to the best jobs, need to ask ourselves some difficult questions. Has our privileged education opened doors that would have remained firmly closed if we’d attended the local comprehensive? Do our recruitment decisions reveal an unconscious bias towards those who look, sound and act like us? And are the qualities we value in a job applicant – such as eloquence, confidence and polish – simply a convenient shorthand for posh?

This article was originally published as a guest post on Mumsnet.


When it comes to education, the free-market mantra of choice often proves to be illusory. In many UK cities, the shortage of school places is such that the closest school is the only realistic option – and if it happens to be a good school, you’re either very lucky or sufficiently well-off to pay over the odds for your house. But in a consumerist world where state schools are run like small businesses, we have to pretend that families are able to pick and choose. That’s why it’s no longer enough for a school to provide a good education: it must also have a mission statement and a set of values.

At my sons’ school, one of those values is ‘respect’. The other day, the school sent out a form asking parents for examples of when their children had been respectful at home. I attempted to complete mine against the backdrop of a charming breakfast tableau in which my elder son (let’s call him Thing 1) claimed that the younger one (Thing 2) had farted in his porridge. Thing 2 promptly dropped his pyjama bottoms to demonstrate that there wasn’t any porridge on his bum-cheeks, whereupon Thing 1 performed a slide tackle and sat on Thing 2’s head. Curiously, I couldn’t come up with a single example of respectful behaviour that morning.

The problem runs deeper than my slack parenting and out-of-control offspring: I don’t really understand what’s meant by ‘respect’. In the past it signified a feeling of deep admiration. My sons have boundless admiration for Neymar and Ronaldo but I suspect that’s not quite what the school was getting at. In its modern incarnation, ‘respect’ is often used as shorthand for discouraging yobbish or racist behaviour on the football pitch, or, more generally, as a streetwise and often-parodied way of referring to inclusion and equality. To me, on the other hand, it encompasses lots of things – being open, accepting, engaged and interested, while maintaining (and this is the crucial part) a polite distance and an observance of personal boundaries.

People are increasingly bad at this last bit. Take the charity fundraiser on our local high street, who wiggles his hips at me as he hollers, ‘Hey, lovely,’ or, ‘Give us a smile, sweetheart’. He doesn’t know anything about me. I could be a surgeon or a High Court judge. Perhaps I’ve just been made redundant, or maybe I’m on my way to my best friend’s funeral. In any case, it feels uncomfortable to be flirted at by a stranger who’s young enough to be my son. It’s just as well for him that – unlike certain middle-aged men of my acquaintance when approached by an attractive younger woman – I’m not so self-deluded that I imagine he’s interested in anything more than the contents of my purse.

Another example is the waitress who hunkers down by the side of our restaurant table and asks, ‘Okay, guys, what do we fancy tonight?’ She’s probably just following management instructions, and I do understand that it can be a tough job. The pay is appalling; the customers are sometimes ignorant, rude and sexist. As a nineteen-year-old waitress working in a Manchester hotel, I was once asked by a diner – a well-known trade unionist attending a weekend conference – to sit on his lap. I told him it wasn’t in my job description. The point is that it would never have occurred to me to display chummy over-familiarity with any of my customers, even the nice ones. It would have felt wrong.

I accept that my advancing years signal a slow descent into obscurity, so on the rare occasions when hip young types deign to address me, I feel they should at least have the decency to be polite. I’m aware that this makes me sound rather old-fashioned. The problem is that, for my generation, ‘respect’ calls to mind the dreaded injunction to ‘respect your elders’. You can attempt to re-brand it all you like, but for us, it’s up there with other parental pearls of wisdom such as ‘because I say so’ and ‘eat your greens’. How can one little word carry so many nuances of meaning? According to Ali G, ‘There is so little respek left in the world that if you look up the word in the dictionary, you’ll find that it’s been taken out.’ As far as I’m concerned, deleting it from the dictionary would clear up an awful lot of confusion.

What’s so British about your values, Mr Gove?

Michael Gove, champion of the education system and teachers’ pet, has recently told school governors to abide by ‘British values’. I’m a parent of school-age children and a firm believer in many of the values he cites – among them, democracy, equality and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs – so you’d assume I might have an interest in those values being promoted in our schools. Instead, I’m irritated and offended by Gove’s hi-jacking of liberalism.

There’s something galling about the Westminster elite acting as a self-appointed barometer of public feeling and telling the rest of us what Britishness entails. Gove’s beginnings may have been humble but in what sense can an Oxford-educated member of the kitchen-supper brigade claim to reflect the mood of the nation? It strikes me that the British character – if such a thing exists – is a stubborn independence of spirit tempered by a certain diffidence and an understated sense of irony. Taken together, those qualities are likely to result in an outright refusal to be told what values to espouse. Perhaps that’s my problem.

But, of course, Gove’s advice isn’t meant for people like me. It’s directed at Muslim school governors in response to the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal involving allegations of religious extremism in Birmingham schools. If a tiny minority of Muslim governors hold illiberal beliefs that influence the provision of education (and Ofsted’s findings in this regard are hotly disputed), we need to be honest and simply say that this is unacceptable. By going further and implicitly condemning certain beliefs as ‘un-British’, Gove creates an ‘us-and-them’ dichotomy that borders on the racist. After all, I don’t hear him levelling accusations of un-Britishness at all those white UKIP voters whose values strike at the heart of his notion of equality.

Anyway, what about Christian governors? Many so-called Church of England schools are happy to accept children of all faiths or none. The parents might tick the ‘Christian’ box on the entry form but the reality is that the vast majority of pupils at such schools are atheist or agnostic. Against that backdrop, shouldn’t we question the role of church-appointed foundation governors tasked with promoting the Christian faith? Such scrutiny is unlikely to be prompted by Gove, who has approved free schools run by Creationists as part of his great drive towards educational excellence.

Inevitably, the identification of Gove’s ‘British values’ is itself a value-judgement. Let’s not pretend that liberal values are self-evidently superior to other worldviews. The reality is that they trump other values because we, as a liberal democracy, decide that they should. And in the context of the Trojan Horse controversy and the rise of UKIP, to dress up these adopted values as somehow ‘British’ is dangerous. It’s a dishonest tactic that promotes religious and racial intolerance, undermining the very values that Gove claims to support.

A letter to my neighbour, whose children go to private school

Dear X,

Since you pulled your children out of our local primary in favour of a private prep school, I’ve observed their growing sense of entitlement. When they brag about their rugby tournaments and skiing holidays, I have to hide an involuntary curl of the lip. Your son carelessly dropped a sweet wrapper at my house the other day and I abruptly directed him towards the waste-paper bin: did he think it was my job to tidy up after him?

Your excuses are risible: ‘We just want the best for our children.’ Does that not include enabling them to mix happily with children from different backgrounds? ‘Miranda wasn’t being stretched.’ Education isn’t just about academic results. Even so, when my sons do well at school I feel a shameful urge to rub your upturned nose in it: see what the state sector can achieve!

What offends me most is that you’re brazenly trying to buy your children an advantage. I admit that state schools, through lack of funding, can’t compete with the private sector on all fronts. Small class sizes can make a big difference to children’s attainment, while professions such as law and politics are awash with the privately educated, not all of them conspicuously talented. Your chosen school, set in acres of grounds, seeks to bolster its charitable status by offering ours the use of its playing fields on sports day. For the rest of the year, we have to make do with a sloping tarmac yard and faded pitch markings.

You might argue that I, too, confer all sorts of advantages on my sons, simply by virtue of my class and educational background. It’s true: I have books on my shelves and the means to buy a house close to a decent state school. I can’t help being middle-class; what I can do is try not to pile on the privilege. Children spend a large part of their young lives at school and what happens there leaves a lasting imprint. If you surround them with the well-heeled on a daily basis, how can they fail to gain a distorted outlook?

Please don’t tell me about all those hard-working families who make enormous sacrifices to afford the fees. Research published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies in 2010 revealed that private school fees had risen at three times the rate of household income since 1992. Average day-school fees now stand at more than £12,000 a year, well out of the reach of a teacher or civil servant earning £25,000, let alone a cleaner or call-centre worker. Bursaries vary widely, and the criteria for awarding them are often not made publicly available – so, once again, it’s the sharp-elbowed who benefit.

In the end, it comes down to one simple principle: education shouldn’t be for sale.