‘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

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Robert Fisk

Next they'll say an independent Scotland can't use British clouds...

Mark Steel
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year