I have recently had a brief social media discussion with others on the issue of class. My contribution was an abbreviated version of my usual description of the UK class system:
“The upper classes do not need to know the answers; the middle classes have enough answers to be able to make choices and stay comfortable; the working classes do not even know the questions.”
One of those with whom I was discussing the issue (a journalist) responded: “that is an awful description” – although he did not clarify whether by ‘awful’ he meant ‘very inaccurate’ or ‘very depressing.’ The other person (a political activist) replied to the journalist “Maybe he means the social capital stuff’ – which may be correct, in modern sociology-speak kind of way.
At this point, it is worth adding that my case in my observations is based on personal experience. This leads to two caveats. The first is that I risk giving an impression that I am being ‘chippy’ and resentful. To this, I would only reply that my working career was very successful, and that I achieved all and more that might have expected. The second is that much of the experience is out of date by some 40 years: one would indeed hope so, but it may not be the case – as I hope to show later.
My own experience was growing up in a loving, secure and comfortable working class home. Neither of my parents had attended a senior school, having left education before the 1943 Butler Act came into force. So my father was a sheet metalworker and my mother a shop assistant. Everything they had learnt which equipped them for adult life had been learned in the world of work, and it was the same when my elder brother left school without having taken any public examinations and took up his apprenticeship. The highest aim in life was to get a trade, preferably avoiding the armed forces, although it was known that there were some people who had O-levels and even that some ‘had letters after their name.’
The reading matter in the house was limited: the Daily Mirror, Exchange and Mart, Angling Times and comics. So I learned to read from those, and the backs of cereal packets and the like (could there really be such a word as ‘riboflavin’?) We watched television all evening every evening as a family, and our cultural outings were to the cinema, to see war films, usually. But I loved school, and having been given a copy of Treasure Island, I began to enjoy reading more than the telly. I was on my way. But here is where class began to kick in.
My primary school was exemplary of its kind: it was situated in the middle of a council estate, and focussed its entire educational attention in getting as many local children as possible into grammar school. Its results were impressive, so parents from all over town sent their children there; these included some taken out of private education. The middle classes knew the answer: why pay fees when you can get the same results for free? The result was also class sizes of 45 (28 girls and 17 boys), and guess who could get more attention and tuition? Noisy inquisitive children like me – and the more assured middle class kids.
I was also struck me later – when I was in the grammar school – that one of my very best friends and his brother had a piano in their house – and a cricket net in the back garden. The latter in particular made me think: although one of God’s triers, I had never succeeded in sport of any kind although I loved it all. In particular, I had concluded that if I practiced enough, I could be a proficient cricketer, and had honed my catching skills by bouncing a tennis ball off our garage wall. But with a net, and brother to bat and bowl against? No wonder they had an advantage.
The penny dropped, and I saw how one’s home (and what I later concluded as class) could help. Academically, the situation was the same: a home where people could help with French and German, and maths and English. In the latter case, when I was doing A-level English, I was amazed to hear Harold Wilson quote King Lear to mock Edward Heath (“I shall do such things, I know not what they shall be, but they will be the terrors of the earth”) – what a coincidence, that he has read that too! I was the only person I knew outside school who had ever read Shakespeare.
In the case of mathematics, I had been reduced to tears of frustration by the binary system, and my father tried to help me. His elementary school education had of course not equipped him to do so. Homework for the middle classes was an opportunity for parental support and even bonding, as in ‘welcome to the world of learning’; for the working class it was a lesson in self-reliance with the possibility of defeat ever –present.
And so it went on. Through O levels and A levels, to pass was unknown territory, and a triumph – while the middleclass kids were pushed for higher grades. To get a place at any university (in my case the UEA at Norwich) was like flying to the moon, while the middleclass kids were aware of the benefits of Oxbridge or Imperial or a particular course at a specialist institution.
There were also some laughs when I got to university. In my first term, my girlfriend’s father owned a King’s Road art gallery – she had to tell me not to applaud between movements at a classical concert. She also told me that there had been a party at the gallery for her going to university: my experience of parties was cider and snogging, hers was wine and canapes. (Unsurprisingly, the relationship did not survive the Christmas break.) I went to my first dinner party held by my linguistics tutor and ate something unknown, which was as delicious as it was exotic: it was moussaka.
So why do I keep on about it, or maybe not keep it for a misery memoir, or a comic novel of the Howard Jacobson/David Lodge variety?
Well, first of all, it was not a misery: my home life was overwhelmingly loving and happy and fulfilling in other ways: I was taken camping, fishing, and we had fabulous holidays; as a teenager I mixed with working adults and learned a lot informally about boats and engines, which I can still dredge up when needed. The homework lessons in self-reliance and independent critical thinking have also been invaluable.
But I have seen throughout my working career how the extra 10-20% of edge given by a middleclass background has given a head start to individuals. Moreover, I was reminded of those advantages by a part of a lecture by Dr Phil Hanlon, Professor of Public Health at Glasgow University, on health and inequality (his “shit rolls downhill” presentation.)
He recounted his dispute with the late Sam Galbraith, who (according to Dr Hanlon) insisted that all working class people needed was a warm dry house, good healthcare and a good education, and they could succeed as he had. Hanlon countered that in the early 21st century, it would also require private tutors, violin classes, hockey or rugby camps, an extensive home IT service, drama productions, Duke of Edinburgh’s Award etc., just to get into medical school. He might have added that not everyone could move their children to Jordanhill School catchment area (as Sam had.)
So the situation is not comic either, and it is verging on tragic if this remains the case nearly 50 years on.
My route through class inequality was the old grammar school system, but I would not want to go back to the downside of selection: 85% of children written off at age 11. But a whole further and more comprehensive raft of routes has vanished or been run down: the extended apprenticeships that brought my family security, local authority night school classes for self-improvement, trade union organisation and the Workers Educational Association, and the type of jobs that you could enter with no or low qualifications and “work your way up”.
Instead, there are graduate-entry jobs (that used to need O- or at the most A- levels) and increasing reliance on unpaid internships as routes to professional employment.
These are the trajectories which mirror my own experience: the middle classes know what you need to do to get on, but even now do working class children know that higher education in a prestigious institution and course is so important? Do they know how important that internship is? And do they have the connections to get one?
In short, is it not still the case that they do not even know those all-important questions?