‘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

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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”.

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