Hierarchy in the UK

One of the things I love about Canada is the relative freedom from snobbery and classism. In the UK your accent gives away so much about your class, your education, and your region of origin, and people do judge you based on this information. I know, because I used to do it too.

In my case, inverse snobbery was deeply ingrained into me by classmates at my state (=public, in North American terms) comprehensive school*, and it took a few years to start to erase those impulses. “Posh” was used as an insult, and we mercilessly took the piss out of the kids from the city’s public (=private – yes, posh schools that you have to pay for are called public schools in the UK, don’t ask me why) schools whenever we met them on the streets or on the hockey field. As a frequent piss-taking victim myself, for my good grades and perceived “posh”, non-local (at first) accent, I had to work a bit harder than normal to prove my inverse snobbery credentials to my peers, and consciously changed the way I pronounced certain words in order to try and fit in with everyone else.

I didn’t really encounter classical (i.e. top-down) snobbery and classism until I went to University. Former public school kids who heard my accent and learned I was from a state school in Yorkshire assumed I was “thick” (direct quote), and were “amazed” (another direct quote) to hear that I was one of the top three students on my undergraduate degree course. Others saw my grades before they really knew me, and assumed I was from a public school “because you’re intelligent” (yet another direct quote). My sister, who moved South instead of North, had an even harder time; some of her peers had never heard a real-life Yorkshire accent before, and actually laughed out loud when she spoke. She also blames her accent for her failure to get into Cambridge, despite getting straight As and being on multiple city and county sports teams and two musical ensembles.

Oh, and I’m sure I unfairly disparaged plenty of people with posh accents. Sorry.

But really, despite this divide persisting well into my undergraduate years, I’d barely thought about state vs. public school education since moving on to grad school 11 years ago. I was under the naive impression that the further you get from your school years, the less they matter. Surely, once you have a degree or two and a few years of real-life work experience, no-one cares where you went to school.

But this report on the BBC website yesterday gave me a wake-up call. How depressing that this state of affairs still persists:

Granted, I have no idea how the corresponding Canadian or US figures would look. Maybe they’d be quite similar. But somehow I suspect that the depressing graph above is an indicator of a very British problem. Both top-down and inverse snobbery, along with that pervasive British anti-intellectualism streak, contribute to this sad state of affairs, and to the waste of far too much potential.

Ugh. Now I feel icky.

ETA: this new article is an interesting take on social mobility. Canada is in the top five countries for social mobility, alongside the Scandinavian nations (yay socialism!) The US and UK are at the bottom. There are some very interesting points about how state education is funded, and the relative influences of parents vs. the state. Highly recommended if you’re interested in this issue!

*charitably described as “mixed ability intake”. Two thirds of kids in my year left at age 16, and only about half of those who continued went on to University at 18. Three girls in my form of ~25 kids were pregnant by 14; one of them was divorced with two kids by the age of 19. But, thanks to some wonderful teachers, those of us who did well, did very well. The opportunities were certainly there for people who had the ability and the desire to take them.

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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15 Responses to Hierarchy in the UK

  1. Anonymous says:

    I wonder whether British public schools refer to times when only the wealthy were educated. The really wealthy had private tutors, whereas the rich attended schools for the general public.

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Maybe! (Note to self: look this up some time when judgement not clouded by anger)

  3. Bob says:

    Nice to see that universities are more egalitarian than the other professions presented. Yay us for not being quite as bad as everyone else.

  4. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Yup, not even a three-fold enrichment for toffs!

  5. EcoGeoFemme says:

    Interesting. The limited mobility in the U.S. is surprising to me as someone who comes from a blue collar background but is on track for a white collar career. The school-funding thing makes a lot of sense. I am much, much more educated than my parents, and all seven of us kids do better than our parents (at least I assume that I will once I graduate). But mine was one of the least wealthy families in an affluent suburb, so we went to schools that were well funded and very good.I've been thinking a lot about privilege in science, and how assumptions about the backgrounds of scientists may not represent reality. I've been contemplating a post on that topic, but I haven't really settled on what I want to say.

  6. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Yeah, the UK version surprised me too. My Dad's Dad was a coal miner, like all the men in the family before him. My Dad went to a state (grammar) school, which selected the brightest kids, and got a full government grant that covered his living costs while he went to University (no tuition costs in those days). He worked in the open-face coal mines during every vacation to make up the rest of the money. When he graduated he became a teacher, and met my Mum, also a teacher and the daughter of two teachers, who themselves were each from a coal mining family. Between them they were able to give my sister and me financial security and lots of encouragement wrt our educations as we grew up, and could afford to send us both to Uni despite the absence of government grants by then (tuition was still free when I went, but there is now a charge) and the end of the grammar school system (my school did not select based on tests at age 11). Something has obviously shifted since those days…It's hard to reconcile the findings in the second article I linked, given that Canadian tuition fees are much more expensive than in the UK. If I'm reading that article right, I think they're saying that it's because it's much harder in the UK/US to make good wages without a professional qualification, i.e. they're looking at social mobility in terms of wages, not education level. I think. It would be nice to see the full report.

  7. ScienceGirl says:

    Ukraine has gone through crazy changes in terms of education; I mean, private schools didn't even exist before my lifetime, and now I understand that if you want to be anybody, you better be able to afford one. Bleh.I am surprised about the social mobility stats for US. I know plenty of families who shifted from farmers to blue collar workers (optional) to white collar workers with each new generation.

  8. chall says:

    Even if there is an easier social mobility in Sweden there is still a huge gap between the ratio of people from families with parents with a uni degree and not. But sure, it is probably less static than in UK/US. Maybe also because we don't have too many aristocratic families and less of a pay difference between people (apart from the really rich and powerful families).I need to read that BBC article now….and I understand the accent thingy though. Seems to be a very British thing. In sweden everyone just hate people from down town Stockholm …. it's fairly easy to spot a Stockholm accent…. something aobut "big city vs farmer"

  9. chall says:

    and with the gap comment I meant "looking at the people at uni and their parents' education level".

  10. chall says:

    ..and after reading the article I see that Sweden isn't part of the top 5 but the other three (Finland, Denmark and Norway). In any event I do think the child care and access to health care does level the field a bit. And that the three countries mentioned probably have way better odds ratio than Sweden. THey are fairly small however, might be good to consider when comparing to US and UK. Although I may be wrong in assuming that the mobility would be easier in a smaller country …. with less than 6 million people?

  11. The Ridger, FCD says:

    "Public schools" are so called because they were a better alternative to private tutoring. They were, of course, only for those who could afford it, but that meant the name wasn't available for free schools for everyone.

  12. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    SG, that sucks about Ukraine. Not everything gets better with time, I guess. Do you have family still going through the education system?Regarding the second part of your comment: I know, it does seem odd. BUT I wonder if there's selection bias for the kinds of people that you and I (and most readers of this blog) know? If you mostly know very well educated people, a few of them will be from blue collar backgrounds. But if you mostly know people from blue collar backgrounds, how many of them will have gone on to higher education? Or something like that ;)Chall, it does seem as if they're looking at wages, not education level – so countries like Sweden/Canada with smaller differences in pay between professional and non-professional jobs will be classed as having higher social mobility? I wonder if this has anything to do with the strength of the trade unions in different countries…Good point about the population size, I wonder if they took that into account when they came up with the rankings.Ridger, thank you!

  13. ScienceGirl says:

    I have a very large (and very close-knit) extended family, so there is a dozen or so kids in the school system at the moment. Public schools are doing pretty poorly – computers are hard to get, teachers are disgruntled, etc.; I guess it is to be expected when the country has to borrow money from international emergency funds just to pay the gas bill… The small percentage of very rich people that came into existence after the SSSR fell apart is the reason behind the excellent private schools; unfortunately it is way to early to talk about the middle class who could afford them as well.I think you might be onto something with the biased sample we observe, though!

  14. JaneB says:

    Well, I went to an independent school in the UK – on a full government bursary, based on my performance in an entrance exam and our very low family income. My school was typical of many ex-grammar-schools in having chosen to go independent rather than comprehensive, but doing what it could to offer an academic education to people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The government scheme, needless to say, no longer exists… but I wonder how many people around my generation (say 35-55 years old) who are classed as priviledged benefited from those sorts of supported places?My family background was… I don't like to say underpriviledged because I am hugely aware of our many advantages, from literacy (free grammar school education for my PARENT'S generation) to never actually being in serious debt or at risk of eviction, to living in a drug-free, gang-free suburb, but there were weeks at the end of months when we ate whatever was left in the cupboards and walked to school if we'd run out of multi-buy bus ticket, because we were waiting for my Dad's pay to arrive. We were very short on 'stuff' for a time, but education was important.I would also LOVE to know how they classified people who were educated pre-comprehensives at free local grammar schools, where those schools are now academic independent schools like my old stomping ground?

  15. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Interesting points Jane. I would imagine they would count the classification of the school at the time the person actually went there – but I don't know for sure as the full information wasn't available. I know a couple of people who went to private schools, either on scholarships or on the old assisted places scheme. They all had a hard time at school due to the stigma of being the "scholarship kid". Was that an issue at your school too?

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