Respectable – The Experience of Class

This is a very personal account of the author’s own life and her move into the middle classes.

Covering her time growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, there are plenty of references to life then and pop culture that anyone who grew up at that time will recognise. The suggestion that Erasure were a working-class version of the Pet Shop Boys was a particularly imaginative way of highlighting how the culture and mindset of becoming middle class is at odds with being working class. The author suggests that part of her journey to becoming middle class was having to choose to be different to her classmates and that social mobility is in fact a lonely experience. She argues becoming middle class involves accepting the norms of being middle class and an effective repudiation of working-class culture.

At times the book read like the memoirs of Adrian Mole with added grit, providing an intriguing mix of the personal and political. That strength was also where the book fell down a bit because, although it switches from the personal to the academic narrative seamlessly, being a personal account it sometimes failed to address the wider questions around social mobility. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on social mobility we are currently conducting an enquiry into access to the professions and have already received considerable evidence on schemes designed to widen participation. What this book tells us is that those schemes are only part of the story and that if the author’s experience is commonplace that ability and opportunity are not enough to achieve social mobility. There has to be significant determination from the individual not to succumb to the approach their peers take to education (as the author puts it, ‘you are taught how to be inarticulate, and you learn how to be ignorant’) and indeed a general willingness to be ‘different’.

Throughout the book the author expresses her anxiety of ‘being found out’ and being sent back to the working classes, although by the end of it she seems more relaxed and able to reconcile her past with her current position. She argues that education is a finely tuned replica of the social system it serves, which goes some way to explaining why mobility is so difficult to achieve despite the considerable widening of access to higher education. The upper echelons are still out of reach for most. Recent research by the Sutton Trust found that almost a third of members of parliaments in the 2015 intake and nearly a third of FTSE 100 chief executives were independently educated. They also found that nearly three-quarters of High Court and Appeals Court judges attended private schools, as did over half of the top 100 news journalists and over two-thirds of British Oscar winners.

The book does not offer solutions as to how that state of affairs can be addressed but instead highlights what the author considers to be the psychological impact of leaving your class behind and how society reinforces class separation through housing, schooling and myriad other structural and psychological ways of keeping people ‘in their place’. These are as much cultural as institutional and for that reason will be so much harder to break down.

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Justin Madders MP is chair of the all-parliamentary group on social mobility. He tweets @justinmadders

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