A working class candidate can never compete with an Etonian’s “polish”. Photo: Graeme Robertson/Getty
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While “poshness tests” are still in use for top jobs, social mobility will stay a national running joke

Until top recruiters stop thinking that a candidate’s “poshness” is an indicator of their ability, social mobility in Britain will never be more than a myth.

I am increasingly convinced the concept of social mobility is some sort of national running joke. Granted, only the richest are laughing but then, that is probably the point. 

Elite firms in this country are “systematically excluding bright working-class applicants”, research by the social mobility and child poverty commission (SMCP) has found. Class prejudice about accents and mannerisms are being used by the UK’s top law, accountancy and financial companies to “filter out” working-class candidates.

“Filter out”, like rinsing dirt through a disinfected sieve.

Indeed, as one recruiter put it when describing applicants from working class backgrounds – “how much mud do I have to sift through in that population to find that diamond?”

Certain people really are just better than others and the test is as simple as listening to how rough they talk.

“I recruited somebody… she’s short of polish,” an unnamed interviewer explained to the researchers. “We need to talk about the way that she articulates, the way that she, first, chooses words and, second, the way she pronounces them.”

There is an irony in the self-defined boards of intelligence recruiting its workforce based on whether they put an “r” in bathroom. I would explain to such firms that they are more likely to find the best candidates by looking at a person’s ability rather than class background but to them, the two are tied together. As the masses lament the failure of meritocracy, the elite believe they are already in one. It is the version of equal opportunity where some children have savvy parents, private schooling, and cello lessons while others go through school not even being able to afford lunch and when the former gets the sought after job, it is said to be because they deserve it.  This is not as bad as it gets. What research like the SMCP’s shows is that worse than the game being rigged, most of us – blindly competing for the 45,000 leading jobs these firms hold – don’t even know the rules.

True inequality is not only that a child’s qualifications are largely determined by their parent’s wealth but that, for the wealthy, qualifications determine little. Who needs to be “bright”? The right accent, the right name, the right connections are skills in themselves. They are not the skills the working class are told to cultivate and, if they were, they would be imposters trying on stranger’s clothes.

What counts is not taught. That is exactly how the elite can keep everyone else out.

While the social mobility myth tells the working class to work hard, pass exams, to get their degree, the class system means elite positions are as likely to be handed out on the vagueness of cultural codes.

“When I went home… I could go back to, if you like, my old slight twang,” one successful working class applicant explained to the researchers. “When I’m in this environment I pretend I’m posher than I am.”  

It is 2015 and this is how Britain still works. Social mobility? All it takes is the “wrong” accent to put the working class back in their place.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

A protest in 2016. Getty
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Fewer teachers, more pupils and no more money. Schools are struggling

With grammars and universal school meals, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking.

If you ask people in Britain what the ­biggest political issues are, schools don’t make the top five. Yet last week Labour set its first party political broadcast in a fictional classroom where a teacher described Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for schools’ future. Without a Labour government, the teacher opines, there will be no more libraries, or teachers, or school trips. Though the scenario is a flagrant breach of the law – teachers must remain politically impartial – education isn’t a bad place for Labour to start its campaign. Schools really are quite screwed.

Three things are hitting hard. Schools have less money, fewer people want to be teachers, and an avalanche of under-sevens is hitting the playgrounds and won’t stop for several more years.

How did we get here? In 2015 the Conservatives pledged to keep school funding at the same rate per pupil over the lifetime of the parliament. Yet while the money coming in has remained flat, schools have faced huge hikes in costs, particularly staffing. Big increases in mandatory pension contributions and National Insurance have taken their toll; so has the apprenticeship levy. The
Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that all told, schools will have lost about 8 per cent of their budget by 2020. That’s £3bn of savings that must be found. Or, more bluntly, the starting salaries of 100,000 teachers.

It is worth remembering at this point how huge the schools sector is and how many people are affected. About half a million teachers work in the 20,000-plus state schools. A further 300,000 people work in allied professions. There are eight million children and an estimated 12 million parents. Lump in their grandparents, and it’s fair to say that about 20 million voters are affected by schools in one way or another.

The budget squeeze is leading many of these schools to drastic measures: firing teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting music from the curriculum, charging parents for their child’s place on a sports team, dropping transport provision, and so on. Begging letters to parents for donations have become commonplace; some have asked for contributions of up to £60 a month.

On top of money worries, teachers are abandoning the profession. In 2015, an additional 18,000 went to work in international schools – more than were trained at universities over the same year. They joined the 80,000 teachers already working in British schools abroad, attracted by higher pay and better working conditions.

Graduates are also snubbing teaching. With starting salaries increasing at less than 1 per cent a year since 2010, new teachers are now paid about 20 per cent less than the average graduate trainee. Changes to higher education are also such that trainees must now pay £9,000 in order to gain their teaching qualification through a university. The government has missed its target for teacher trainees for five years now, and there is no coherent plan for hitting it.

No money and no teachers is less of a problem if you are in a demographic dip. We had a bizarrely low birth rate at the turn of the century, so we currently have a historically small proportion of teens. Unfortunately, the generation just behind them, of seven-year-olds and under, is enormous. Why? Because the “baby echoers”, born in the 1970s to the baby boomers, had children a bit later than their parents. Add to that the children recently born to immigrants who arrived in their twenties when the European Union expanded in the early 2000s, and Britain is facing an El Niño of toddlers. By 2025 a million extra children will be in the school system than in 2010.

To keep on top of the boom the government has been creating schools like a Tasmanian devil playing Minecraft. But 175,000 more places will be needed in the next three years. That’s the equivalent of one new secondary school per week from now until 2020.

In fairness, the government and councils have put aside money for additional buildings, and roughly the same number of parents are getting their first-choice school as before. The free schools policy, which delivers new schools, has not always been well managed, but it is now more efficient and targeted. However, many more children combined with squeezed budgets and fewer teachers typically leads to bigger class sizes. Most classrooms were built to house 30 pupils. Exam results may not get worse, but no parent wants their child working on a makeshift desk improvised out of a windowsill.

Instead of addressing these challenges, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking. Theresa May wants more grammar schools, ostensibly because they will give more choice to parents – though these are the only schools that pick pupils, as opposed to the other way around. And she says they will aid social mobility, though all the evidence (and I really do mean all) suggests the opposite.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is offering free lunches to all seven-to-11-year-olds, which sounds worthy until you realise that children from low-income families already get free lunch, and that feeding every child a hot sit-down meal is virtually impossible, given the limited space and kitchen facilities in most schools. Plus, the evidence this £1bn policy would make any significant difference
to health or attainment is pretty sketchy. Labour has also sensibly talked about cash and promised to “fully fund” schools, but it isn’t clear what that means.

What’s missing so far from the Conservatives and Labour alike is a set of policies about teacher recruitment or place planning. The sector needs to know how schools will be built, and where the teachers will come from for the extra kids. In other words, the message to both sides is – must try harder.

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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