‘Train’ working-class kids to be more middle-class? That’s what happened to me

Learning to ‘act posh’ has its place in tackling social inequality


I think I may be the sort of person who Peter Brandt, head of policy at the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, had in mind when he said that working-class children should be taught to think and act like the middle classes – “act posh” - if they want to get on in life. In particular, Mr Brandt warned, poorer pupils are less likely to apply to top universities for fear of “not fitting in”.

Well, there’s a surprise. Of course they are terrified of social isolation. I know, because I was too.

Yes, I was that working-class child, back in the 1970s, at the fag end of the great British state grammar school experiment. When the time came for me to think about university I was fortunate enough to have been schooled at the Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys in Leicester (established 1577, refounded 1876),  that, laughable and pretentious as it may seem, sought to ape the public schools in every aspect of its organisation and ethos. Apart from the fees bit, obviously.

The school spent the best part of eight years getting me to “act posh”. They failed, as anyone who knows me can see, but I, and the few other working-class kids who passed the 11-plus, could essay a reasonable simulacrum of the manners and mores of the middle classes. This was also because we went round to their usually enormous houses in the more prosperous districts of the city, and met their professional parents – university lecturers, consultant surgeons, accountants and the like. We were pumped full of Latin (though I couldn’t stretch to the Greek available in the fifth form; Demosthenes in the original, at a state school. I ask you).

Anyway, the masters all wore gowns, we stood up when they entered the classroom, they were called “Sir”, and we were frit (as we said round our way) of them. At that point there were a couple of masters, the Head of Art and the “Lower School Master”,  who could trace their service back to just before the Second World War, and almost all had been around for decades: There had been only four headmasters in a century.

We had a uniform, strictly enforced, a house system, and formal hall, where tables were chaired by one of the prefects, and we were taught proper manners and conversation for communal meals, a sort of junior dinner party training.  There were plenty of societies where you could learn middle-class stuff such as chess and debating. We went on school trips to the theatre; Donald Sinden, blacked-up and playing Othello at Stratford – I kid you not - was a high point.

Football, regarded as common, was only played informally, during the breaks; rugger (as it was referred to) and cricket were the school sports. The school was rightly proud of its record in sending its boys to Oxbridge. All on the ratepayer. Money well spent I say.

So all this gave me some confidence when it came to thinking about going off to Oxford, which I was encouraged to do. I needed it, even after all that grooming; the class thing was still putting me off. At that time, the Sunday Times colour supplement ran a series about all the “Hooray Henrys” who supposedly populated the university. There were big pictures of toffs in dinner suits and ball gowns chucking champagne around, something I had never encountered in my entire life to that point (though I have seen rather too much of it since).

These were people who, and I can recall the phrase distinctly, got “hog whimperingly” drunk, and were clearly dead rich. God, they had cars. At least I was reading the Sunday Times, I suppose, but it was clear that the likes of me were not going to find it easy to keep up with these types. Socially, at any rate, I was going to be pitifully out of my depth. I prepared for misery and daily humiliation. The LSE looked a better option.

Still, I persevered, and when I arrived at my strange medieval little college I was dismayed by the lack of hog whimpering, and somewhat disappointed by the feeble brainpower possessed by some of the products of our great public schools. Instead, I found lots of ex-grammar school boys and girls who were just as surprised as I was that they had got this far. Like them, I was also able to tell my soup spoon from my dessert spoon, and go for the right knife at the right time, and avoid embarrassing myself at formal dinner. Nowadays, I don’t care much about such things, I’m that middle class, but I know what I need to do to fit in.

Social mobility is a wonderful thing, but, without a school that can help you learn such subtle aspects of proper behaviour, it doesn’t come easy. By the time the grammar school had become a comprehensive sixth-form college, the ladder of opportunity went with it. Michael Gove’s free schools may bring something of that world back. But it will be too late for many who will never get the chance to “act posh”.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Clean energy should be our mission to the moon

Martin Rees
Angela Merkel and David Cameron say goodbye in the Bundeskanzleramt after their meeting in Berlin, Germany, 29 May 2015  

The complacency of Europhiles could lose them the referendum

Steve Richards
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral