The appointment of Boris Johnson raises to 20 the number of British Prime Ministers who attended the elite Eton school. Eton and Oxford university seem to be the education blend of choice for the British elite. No human society has existed without a class system in form but British society remains saturated in elitism.
Among the most influential academics in this arena is Sam Friedman at the London School of Economics. Friedman finds that there is a class pay gap. Those from privileged backgrounds who get 2:2s are still more likely to get a top job than working-class students who went to the same universities and got a first. They will, on average, earn around £7,000 a year more.
Those from upper middle-class origins will earn 16 per cent more annually than those from working-class backgrounds, even in the same job. Women from an ethnic minority are disadvantaged and mix it with class and you have a much bigger disadvantage. “Black British working-class women have average earnings in top jobs that are £20,000 less per year than those of privileged-origin white men,” says Friedman.
The central insight of latest academic work is that people from poorer families are held back throughout their careers because they don’t abide by the behavioural codes that dominate top professions. There exists atop our industries certain knowing practices gained informality in the media, or for example knowledge of ski resorts which working-class students are unlikely to know. They don’t have the same cultural reference points or etiquette.
They lack the polish, that crucial quality of articulacy and presentational confidence that academics have noticed is vital in client-facing roles. This means that even if working-class children get in, they often struggle to get on. They are much less likely to find a sponsor, a willing mentor who can open doors.
Of course, getting the job in the first place is harder if you don’t have the connections that private education can provide. Those who can rely on the Bank of Mum and Dad can afford to try different options or industries or take up an unpaid internship. Whereas those with families to support, and huge debts to pay, often take the first decent pay cheque.
A diverse workforce may be morally desirable. But what does it mean? The diversity agenda has, quite understandably, been dominated by groups who are more visible: ethnic minorities or many with disabilities, for instance. These groups can be highly organised and persuasive. But across many professions, the poor have no collective voice. Class membership is much harder to address.
Since the 1960s, there has been a massive expansion of the higher education sector in Britain. We sell to the young the story that if they get a good degree from a top university, they can become a high-flier. This is at best incomplete, and at worst, downright deceitful.
What needs to be done? There must be more opportunities for Inner city children to be connected with elite professionals if the term “social mobility” has meaning rather than remaining something nice to say. Behavioural codes within industries need to be taught as they are as important as education.
Nearly 80 years after George Orwell who as Eric Arthur Blair went to Eton but not university said Britain is still “the most class-ridden country under the sun”.