On Monday night the BBC aired a programme called How to Break into the Elite, the premise being that only 10% of working class people end up in the perceived ‘top jobs’, the ‘elite’ professions. So how do you break the mould and become the exception to what seems a very unfair rule?
I grew up working class, went to a bog-standard (some would argue sub-standard) State School and now work (for the second time in my teaching career) in a Private School. I see on a daily basis the differences afforded by paying for an education but rather than vilifying this type of education the State Sector could actually learn much from it. Rather than shouting out for the abolition of Private Education, Comprehensive Education needs to come up to meet it.
On How to Break into the Elite the old adage of who you know being more important than what you know was trotted out and to a certain extent that is true. The people you meet in your formative years could be important links as you enter the world of work but it is the presentation skills which were shown to be the make or break if you want to make it to the top. Case in point, Amaan Abdulrahman, an ambitious young man from a working class family in Birmingham with a first class degree from a Russell Group University. Has it helped? No, because he folds in interview, stumbling over his words. His answer to this? Get a Masters degree putting him even further in debt.
So where do you learn how to present yourself appropriately? That ability to speak confidently and unabashedly about your achievements and conform to those unwritten social codes that will help you achieve. Some are born with it no doubt, some learn it in the familial home for sure but for others it is school where they are taught it and I’m afraid to say, Private schools are just better at it.
High expectations of confidence are bred from a young age. At my own school, for example, all children, from age 7, take part in an annual public speaking competition. Nobody wriggles out of it, it is a clear expectation that this is part of school life and, get this, parents don’t write letters complaining about the process either! So many times I heard in my teaching years in the state sector that “we can’t force them to do it”, “it makes them anxious” and parental objections were a sad reality at ‘solo talk’ time. (Even the name is in stark contrast to the ‘Spoken English’ title it is given at private school.) The children prepare for it conscientiously, choosing their own topic, their style of delivery and in many cases memorising their words. It is a quite exceptional competition (yes, competition, another clear difference between sectors) and just a small part of what makes these young people a step ahead of their peers when they head out into the world of work.
Manners are taught. One of my favourite lessons when it comes to my day job in Learning Support is taken from a quote by Tom Herner, former president of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education in the USA. He said that if a child can’t read, we teach them to read, if a child can’t count, we teach them to count, if a child can’t swim, we teach them to swim but if a child can’t behave we punish them…? No, we have to teach that too. We cannot assume that these skills are already embedded and it is the same with manners. Simple things like holding a door open, saying good morning and keeping elbows of the dinner table are expectations and when this is embedded day after day in a child’s life they grow to become polite, well-mannered young people which unfortunately is not always the case in my state school experience.
As an English teacher I have various pet hates including: ‘I seen’, ‘I would of’ and ‘yous’. The amount of people who believe these things don’t matter (including English teachers!) is astounding. They do matter and could be the difference between making it into the top jobs (if of course that is what important to you).
It might seem unfair but rather than this culture where people are hated and abused purely for the type of school they went to maybe instead we could just learn from the basic good things being done and replicate them. If state schools were doing it better maybe the perceived need to pay for an education would start to lessen.