Tag Archives: class

Different class

Often it’s the smallest things that catch us off guard, stirring up old memories and reminding us of our former selves. A childhood friend from Manchester – let’s call her Brenda – telephones one evening to arrange a visit. Pleased to hear from her, but reluctant to chat while my food goes cold, I say that I’m about to have dinner and will call her back in half an hour. ‘Speak to you later – enjoy your tea,’ she replies.

Tea?

A moment of bemusement, followed by a flash of recognition. When we were growing up, tea came out of the freezer and was served at six o’clock. Dry, beige and encrusted in breadcrumbs, it was generally followed by a ‘sweet’ of Angel Delight and Del Monte fruit salad sprinkled with hundreds and thousands. Sometimes, on special occasions, there was a ready-made meringue topped with tinned peaches, the casing soggy from the syrup.

Although I look back on my seventies childhood with nostalgia, I’ve moved up in the world. Dinner at my friends’ houses is rarely served before eight and is invariably followed by pudding – even if pudding turns out to be a piece of fruit. It mustn’t be referred to as a meal – meal is for the chickens. The cruet was banished long ago; serviettes have transformed into paper napkins; and at the end of the evening everyone retires to the sitting room (only hotels have lounges) to sip brandy on the sofa (never the settee).

I exaggerate, of course, but I know of people like this. Language is very telling, and it’s no coincidence that these examples all relate to the domestic sphere: the intimate, mundane details of our everyday lives hold the key to our social standing. Coyly asking for directions to the toilet instead of the loo, or sitting out on the patio as opposed to the terrace, instantly locates a person in terms of their background and aspirations, assigning them (for those who care about such distinctions) to the non-U category.

There’s something very British about this need to place a person within a few seconds of meeting them, but Brenda is unusual in that she defies most attempts at categorisation. Unlike the rest of our group of friends, she didn’t head south after her A-levels. She stayed put, went to Manchester University and raised her family a few miles down the road from the modest semi where she grew up. Although her job involves international travel, she retains a fierce loyalty to her home town and a healthy disregard for what she regards as southern pretensions.

It’s all too easy to poke fun at the blunders and faux gentility of those who call their houses ‘homes’ and insist on saying ‘pardon?’ instead of ‘what?’. I’ve long suspected that Brenda chooses her vocabulary carefully to confound expectations and show that she’s immune to such criticism. When she referred to my ‘tea’, was she making a gentle gibe, designed to remind me of where I’m from and what I’ve left behind?

Whatever her intention, I hope Brenda realises that my apparent social mobility is the thinnest of veneers. Substituting ‘dinner’ for ‘tea’ was an early concession to the sensibilities of my smart new friends but ‘supper’ is still a step too far. For me, it will always be a slice of Lancashire cheese on a Jacob’s cream cracker, swilled down with a glass of warm milk just before bedtime.

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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.

A tale of two football teams

My elder son plays for a local football team – let’s call it Swallows United – that trains on the playing fields of a well known public school. A couple of the players show promise but the rest display more enthusiasm than talent. The atmosphere is firmly inclusive, with an emphasis on enjoyment and team spirit, and for the less able – including my son – there are friendly games running alongside the competitive cup matches.

The Swallows are drawn from the affluent suburbs of north Bristol and their parents, almost without exception, are middle-class professionals. When a child broke his leg in a recent match, two GPs and an orthopaedic surgeon rushed forward from the touchline to offer assistance. My son is a recent addition to the team, and the club was able to offer him a place only because another boy had dropped out owing to the unfortunate re-scheduling of his private maths tuition.

I look forward to Saturday mornings, not so much for the football, but for the chance to catch up with the other parents as they offer polite encouragement from the sidelines. Most of them are relaxed about their sons’ sporting abilities; their competitiveness manifests itself in other ways, focusing on academic success. I’d guess that most of these boys will go to university. Football will continue to feature in their adult lives but it won’t be all-consuming: some might play in a dads’ team or kick a ball around on a stag weekend, while others will draw on their knowledge of the game to form a rapport with clients and facilitate business deals.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, my younger son plays for Amazon Athletic, a club that competes in a regional youth league. All the boys are skilled and a few are outstanding, showing a raw intelligence on the pitch. It’s a competitive environment; at some point, my son will probably decide that he can’t take the pressure and ask us to put his name down on the Swallows waiting list.

Many of the Amazon parents come from tough, working-class areas of Bristol, and a few struggle to eat decently and pay the rent. This isn’t a snotty assumption on my part; it’s what they tell me. Just as grammar school was a passport to a better life for my father’s generation, playing for the Amazons represents a chance of success for these parents, who dream of their sons being scouted and going on to become professional footballers. The game means everything to them, so it’s not surprising that passions occasionally run high. Bad language isn’t unusual in the heat of the moment, and last season a couple of families were asked to leave the club because of a series of angry confrontations with the manager over his selection decisions on match day.

It’s been said that sport is human life in microcosm, and in my more pretentious moments it strikes me that my children’s football teams, with their different composition and philosophies, reflect the divided society the boys are growing up in. The Swallows raise their children to value academic achievement above sporting prowess, but the truth is that almost anyone can go to university these days, provided mummy and daddy have sharp elbows and a fat cheque book. Even the Swallows who don’t shine academically will have their paths through life smoothed by their parents’ money, connections and social capital.

We ascribe high aspirations to middle-class parents, but it’s the Amazons who are truly aspirational, shaming those who peddle the myth of low expectations among the working classes. The sad thing is that, in all likelihood, none of their sons will make it in the competitive world of professional football. In every city across the country, there are hundreds of committed, talented boys just like them. Only a handful will ever be picked to train with the professional clubs, and most of the lucky ones will end up falling by the wayside. For now, the Amazon players have no class consciousness – they’re just a group of small boys who love to play football. They’re a pleasure to watch, but it’s painful to imagine a time in the future when their dreams fade and reality looms into focus.