John Major: Class warrior

Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major is back in the news today condemning the stranglehold on power and influence enjoyed by the elite:

In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class. To me from my background, I find that truly shocking.

This follows his unexpected intervention in the energy debate calling for a windfall tax on energy companies. In both cases Major seems to be taking on the role of Cameron’s One Nation conscience, speaking up for people in modest circumstances or from modest backgrounds, who aren’t well represented in politics, journalism, or the establishment generally.

We have come a long way from Major’s call in 1990 that

In the next ten years we will have to continue to make changes which will make the whole of this country a genuinely classless society.

…criticised at the time by Margaret Thatcher for failing to assert that class was already no longer an issue. Thatcher herself attracts the occasional, “interesting” class-based analysis of how she stood up for ordinary people and was hated and betrayed by the upper classes.

Speaking up for the privileged, a prime ministerial spokesman said: “What counts is not where you come from but where you are going.” This is itself something of an inversion of old class snobbery whereby where you came from justified your privilege. Now at least you must actively exploit your privilege rather than expect New South Wales to fall into your lap.

While I agree that it is quite wrong to prejudge people according to their social class – and this is one reason I have never been very interested in the Labour Party – Major is right and Cameron and Thatcher are wrong. The country needs to actively promote social mobility, not imagine that the problem has been solved. It needs to understand the challenges to social mobility and the dark arts of entrenched privilege. It needs to be led by (among others) people who understand those challenges from personal experience because the privileged will not be aware of what they have taken for granted.

This is a big demand to make of all parties. Organisations like Unite are attempting to “change” the Labour Party to increase working class influence, albeit with more success in subverting its democracy than in anything else – and in any case with a hard left agenda that is less about social mobility and more about class-based jingoism.

And our party needs to do more. We don’t talk much about our origins, we don’t fetishise our accents, we treat each other as we find us. But this does mean that privilege can be exploited and stronger candidates may be overlooked.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017 and Doncaster North in December 2019 and is a councillor in Sheffield.

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  • jenny barnes 11th Nov '13 - 3:01pm

    The tory party being a coalition of the landed gentry and the new industrialists, you could say that thatcher was one of the neoliberal business / new industrialists. Maybe she saw the landed gentry as the upper classes, but they only used to be.

    Was it Warren Buffet who said “of course there is class war, and my side is winning” ? Class war goes on all the time, mostly by the elite on the rest of us. It only gets talked about when the rest of us resist.

  • Yup. Always said Major was underrated.

  • Melanie Harvey 11th Nov '13 - 3:11pm

    There is without doubt prejudice based on background. This actually prevents matters being dealt with on the merits of what any issue is. We therefore live under a constant falsehood of what in reality does/has occurred within British society. The higher up the ladder whether financially or class wise the more the blind eye is turned in any wrong doing to the point of it is expected. Occasionally one or two may be brought to book but, generally that is only when one of the other so called elite wants to bring issue not the common man. The old boys network brings this country down more than any football hooligan ever did or will..

  • I think one of the key things John Major is alluding to, is the perception ordinary people have of a private education; and hence the aspirational value they place on getting their children/grandchildren privately educated.

    The challenge is restarting the virtuous circle, of getting, suitably able, state education people back into “the upper echelons of power”, whilst at the same time driving up the quality of education and hence ‘product’ from the state sector, so that ordinary people will start to perceive that a state education (at a local school) isn’t a third-class education. (This has parallels with efforts to get more women into senior management and other professional where they are under represented.)

    The challenge for the Secretary of State for Education isn’t that we want one state school to be the equivalent of Eton etc,; but a whole set of schools across the country and can it be well under way by 2015?

  • Now hang-on one momemnt! The Major and Thatcher administrations was equally committed to selection and elitism both were equally determined to continue undermining the local authorities and equally destructive in its attitude to the teaching profession.

  • Tony Dawson 11th Nov '13 - 7:18pm

    Bus conductors of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your ticket rolls! 🙂

  • Melanie Harvey 11th Nov '13 - 7:20pm

    The way it works seems to go something like this – civil and/or criminal. – Common v Common = acceptable -Elite V Common = acceptable – Common v Elite = absolutely not under any circumstances Elite v Elite only in the commons old boy !!!!

  • Richard Dean 11th Nov '13 - 7:35pm

    John Major always seemed to me to be walking around in a dream. Perhaps at last he’s waking up.

  • A Social Liberal 11th Nov '13 - 8:39pm

    “The country needs to actively promote social mobility, not imagine that the problem has been solved. It needs to understand the challenges to social mobility and the dark arts of entrenched privilege.”

    Given everything the coalition has done to subvert social mobiity, I am gobsmacked to see this statement in the article.

  • Steve Griffiths 11th Nov '13 - 9:13pm

    “It needs to be led by (among others) people who understand those challenges from personal experience because the privileged will not be aware of what they have taken for granted.”

    Quite right Joe Otton; it’s a point I have made on several occasions over the years on LDV. Back in the time when there was some social mobility in the land (the 60s and 70s), some of us raised in council housing estates on low incomes were able to get into higher education and move into the better paid jobs. We knew how it felt to be looked down on by some members of society because we lived where we lived, nor were we work-shy and we knew how it was to live on modest incomes. If you want to know what it felt like to be judged on your council house background, have a look of the history of the infamous estate in Oxford where I was raised (Oxford’s dirty little secret). Walls were built across roads and pavements linking a private estate with a council one, to keep the lower orders out. See;

    I, like others, wanted to change things for the people we had left behind. I became a committed Liberal Party activist. Like others we saw ourselves as the libertarian left, not the socialist left and did not join the Labour Party for many reasons. One being that we saw Labour as being illiberal and conformist and we wanted to see a society where none shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance OR conformity”. Because of our backgrounds and experiences we were likely to be on the left of the party, but no less committed activists – the Liberal Party was then our natural home. I became a Lib Dem district councillor and Vice Chair of Housing, then acting Chair during the illness of the Independent Chair. I knew from direct experience and could empathise completely with those I was trying to house, or re-house.

    Sadly in recent years Nick Clegg and Richard Reeves told those of my persuasion that we should go back to Labour – a party of which we had never been members. As we drifted away, so did direct experiences of social housing, low incomes and the fear of homelessness. I have made the point on this website before; that I suspect that those who advise the Lib Dem Leadership, the Parliamentary Party and the policy makers are unlikely to have had these experiences either, or even consult those who have. The party is collectively poorer and more ignorant as a result. The party has made poor judgements in respect of the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and has quite rightly held on to the ‘green taxes’, but has not given much thought to those that will have the choice between heat or eat this winter. I note that Shirley Williams is quoted as saying “Ed Davey is right to say we should have green taxes but it must come out of income tax in the end you can’t hit people with big families and not much income”

    So who are the ones advising the Leadership and the Parliamentary Party on policy? What are their backgrounds and education? There needs to be an advisory panel of Lib Dems who can talk from their own experiences of these things (if you can find any remaining!) Is it any wonder that so many committed activists formerly on the left of the party have departed and the Lib Dems look more out of touch with the real problems of those in social housing and living on modest incomes?

  • I liked John Major, surely the most affable and ordinary of thePMs in my lifetime.
    He wasn’t always right, but he absolutely is here.

  • Steve Griffiths – Head, meet nail. Do you feel that there’s anyone in the current Lib Dems elite (ho ho) who represents such a constituency?

  • Eddie Sammon 12th Nov '13 - 12:13am

    A good article Joe, the only thing I disagree with is the inverted class snobbery claim. I’m from an upper-working / lower middle class background and Cameron’s anti-class war calls resonated with me more than Major’s.

    I don’t actually think Major’s big problem is the lack of working class in the upper echelon’s of politics, but the lack of compassion in the Conservative Party, which he seems to have attributed to the empathy gap.

    It was also refreshing to hear that a senior tory has been “thinking what I’m thinking” that interest rates should be above inflation. I submitted this idea to the Manifesto Group last week!

  • As someone from a ‘modest’ background who has worked in many places that the classiest system of our society thinks I have no right go, the thing that has always frustrated me is that the completely frustrated me is the unfailing naivety of those who have spent their lives living off their royal retainers.

    Whether it is the policy adviser who cannot understand that just because shares for rights was a voluntary scheme does not mean it would not have soon become a de facto binding act upon job seekers.

    Or the regulator who believes that the NHS is the embodiment of evil and that we are all mad for not wanting a private insurance base system as they have in the USA.

    Then there is the researcher who believes that all public money should be withdrawn from public transport despite the obvious flaw here that without public backing none of our public transport would be economically variable.

    Or the barrister who said that poorer students at my law school were not committed enough to human rights because they did not pay to go and volunteer work in Africa. (This last one makes me particularly upset).

    I could go, but the point is there, they all suffered from the same three problems:

    1=They were educated in private schools.

    2=They are provided with unfailing financial stability by their parents well into their late twenties (most having houses bought for them in central London)

    3=They are all taught to believe from the day they are born that they are any more fortuitous than the rest of us.

    The final one is the key problem; they are not bad people, but they have never once had to live in the same world as the rest of us and it leaves them with a deluded sense of glamour about just what it is to face hardship on any relative level.

  • jenny barnes 12th Nov '13 - 9:15am

    Joe “Nick Clegg told nobody to go back to Labour.” He said something very like that at the Brighton conference, though.
    Certainly, the flavour of the leadership of the party recently has been very neoliberal/orange book individualist.
    Anyway, whether he said exactly that or something else, you have to listen to the mood music and the actions of the government.

  • daft ha'p'orth 12th Nov '13 - 9:30am

    @jenny barnes
    This quote?
    “there are some in the party – some in this hall even – who, faced with several more years of spending restraint, would rather turn back than press on. Break our deal with the Conservatives, give up on the Coalition, and present ourselves to the electorate in 2015 as a party unchanged. […] But conference, I tell you this. The choice between the party we were, and the party we are becoming, is a false one. The past is gone and it isn’t coming back. If voters want a party of opposition – a “stop the world I want to get off” party – they’ve got plenty of options, but we are not one of them.”

  • Grimmond and Keynes were Etonians and Beveridge went to Charterhouse…

  • Steve Griffiths 11th Nov ’13 – 9:13pm
    So who are the ones advising the Leadership and the Parliamentary Party on policy? What are their backgrounds and education?

    Anyone know the answer to this question? Anyone done any proper analysis? Are they all public school boys and girls? Or are they all cynical lobbyists working for whichever corrupt big business pays them the biggest bucks?

  • Social mobility is and always has been a symptom not a disease. The focus on “cures” for poor social mobility is a distraction from the fact that people are not given sufficient respect or reward for what they contribute to society and that those for whom social mobility is not relevant have no power to attain social justice. Social mobility being increased will not fix any of societies ills but fixing societies ills will increase social mobility. Making social mobility a goal is to ignore, or more to the point, to try to get others to ignore the failure to be socially just.

  • We are now getting quite a few PPC selections through now. Is there yet any evidence as to whether we are at last making inroads into reducing the reportedly 40% of Lib Dem PPCs educated at independent schools. An awful lot of work has been done on the male-female imbalance (not seen after the 2010 election, when for all our efforts, the electorate overwhelmingly voted for our male choices, but not for our female choices). A little work has been done on racial / ethnic diversity, but last time I saw, the party was STILL dragging its feet on class.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Nov '13 - 2:57pm

    Joe Otten

    Steve – Nick Clegg told nobody to go back to Labour.

    Someone who was headlined as “Nick Clegg’s Director of Strategy” said just that. Here it is. These are the crucial words which to me can only be interpreted in that way :

    “Anybody who wants a centre-left party will find a perfectly acceptable one in Labour. The Liberal Democrats need centrist voters, “soft Tories”, ex-Blairites, greens – and anyone who thinks the Tories are for the rich and Labour can’t be trusted with the economy. There is a new political market for the Liberal Democrats. The party just needs to seek it out, rather than looking wistfully at the old customers who have turned away. The left-wing votes “borrowed” from Labour in 2010 will not be available in 2015.”

    These words ARE saying that the party which many of us have spent our lives building up, painstakingly winning over votes should all be smashed up, and instead a completely new one based on a different sort of principles should be constructed in its case. The work I spent, for example, in the London Borough of Lewisham, starting in Downham ward and building outwards so the Liberal Democrats went from being in a squeezed third place to challenging Labour and getting close second places throughout was all a waste of time, according to Richard Reeves. All those votes won by two decades of work was just “borrowing votes from Labour” and we should let those votes go back to Labour and pick up some new ones which are somewhere else.

    If someone reads the “outgoing director of strategy” to Nick Clegg saying this, aren’t they going to think this is the strategy that Nick Clegg has been working to? Aren’t they going to think this is what Nick Clegg believes?

    If Nick Clegg did not agree with those words, did not want it to be thought this was his strategy, he had a DUTY to come out publicly and say so, to disassociate himself from what was written in this article. He did not. It was an article in a national magazine, which may have a small circulation, but is fairly influential. Someone who was written up as if he was the man behind what Nick Clegg was doing was given as its author. Nick Clegg’s silence on this can only be interpreted as agreement. This article, and Nick Clegg’s failure to repudiate it, more than anything else, was the deciding factor in me deciding not to give any more of my time or money campaigning for the party while Nick Clegg is its leader. So far as I am concerned, it WAS Nick Clegg telling me I am not wanted in the party, I should go off and join Labour.

    Clegg does not value all the work I have out into the party, all the time and all the money, so tough, while he leads it, he will get no more from me. I might relent if he comes out publicly and says he disagrees with that article. Otherwise, don’t expect any help from me in next year’s local elections. They will be the first in nearly 30 years when I have not stood as a candidate for the party. I will not deliver a single leaflet, I will not knock on a single door while Clegg remains as leader and tells me that my support is not valued, that I should go off and join Labour.

  • Let’s also be quite clear, social mobility in a very unequal society implies downward mobility as well as upward. In other words, by saying we want more of it, we want people sinking, not just rising! Surely what we want is a more equal society overall? Which allows more people to do more things they would like to. Yes, Joe, we may have had this discussion several times, but it doesn’t make it any less right that many of us, over the last 50 years have joined the Liberals or Lib Dems because they believe them to be more radical, left, progressive (or however you wish to express it) than Labour. It is not a new phenomenon at all, and anyone wishing to understand the continuing culture of the party needs to recognise that. That is why Nick Clegg and his adherents are doing so much damage to the historic tradition of the party. History shows that when the party moves to the right, it loses support big-time. Those such as Matthew H and myself realise this is off thread. It is nevertheless very important for all of us in the party to fully understand the implications of what we are saying.

  • Robin Bennett 12th Nov '13 - 4:54pm

    In his first speech as leader at a Conservative Party conference, Major indicated his view about Inheritance Tax thus:
    ” I want to see wealth cascading down the generations. We do not see each generation starting out anew, with the past cut off and the future ignored.

    So, in the next Parliament, I believe that we must go much further in encouraging every family to save and to own. To extend every family’s ability to pass on something to their children, to build up something of their own – for their own.”

    Policies such as this are in practice bound to increase the social divide.

  • Joe Otten,

    If sophistry is your goal I think you need to be a bit more sophisticated. I did not say that social mobility is not an issue but that to make it a goal is to ignore the disease that causes it. Social mobility is not the answer to anything never mind all of societies problems. It is like its counterpart, equality of opportunity, a fantasy designed to distract people from seeking to create a fair society of equals. At best, directing policy towards improving social mobility could produce some individuals who will take a higher social position than their contemporaries from equal circumstances whilst leaving those others in an unimproved condition.

  • @JRC, Matthew

    Let’s talk numbers. I just had a Saudi guy in my office who wants to learn English from (any) British person, and he gave me 30 euros as a first payment. Given it is me who is going to teach him, what would be the socially just cut for you and what would be the socially just cut for me out of that 30 euros?

  • Under the 11 plus approximately 25% entered grammar schools and the rest mainly Sec ‘Mods.. When it cam to teachers, most of those at grammar school had gone to what we would call Russell group Universities. many teachers at Sec’Mods had Cert.Eds, not degrees and had gone to teacher training colleges or or polys . Cert.Eds were extended to B.Eds but the academic standards were very similar. After grammar schools became comprehensives , many teachers left for public and other grammar schools.

    One aspect which is ignored are the closure of many reform schools . Teachers were selected and trained to deal with difficult pupils. if 25% of a class or a school are trouble makers, then the teachers are not involved in education but riot control. Many thuggish pupils ruin the learning for academic but weaker pupils. If reform schools are returned , then teachers at comprehensives could being occupied with riot control and return to teaching.

    If one wants pupils to win scholarships to Trinity College , to reads Maths at Cambridge or Greats at Balliol or New Collegs, Oxford or Engineering at Imperial , then one needs teachers from these universities so they can prepare pupil adequately. Someone with a B.Ed in chemistry is not going to be bright enough to prepare someone for a Royal Scholarship at Imperial. The problem is that there are not enough teachers from top universities to prepare comprehensive pupils across all academic subjects . What tends to happen at comprehensive schools is that they have few top teachers but not one each of the major academic subjects in english, french, spanish, german, history, latin, greek, maths, further maths, additional further maths, physics, chemistry, biology, geography, musics, economics.

    One ‘s chances at comprehensive schools are often dependent upon being good at the subjects where there are top teachers. If the there are top teachers in English, French and History but the pupil has the potential to take additional further maths, further maths, maths, physics and chemistry but is taught by teachers in B.Eds from ex-polys ,then the chance of going up to Trinity College, Cambridge to read maths or engineering at Imperial are reduced. Further Maths is particularly important at top universities for maths, physics and engineering and is not taught at many comprehensives or if is , very poorly.

    A possible solution is to create 6th form colleges who have teachers ,specially selected and trained for preparing pupils for entry to top universities.

    Liberal Al
    You you ignore all the public school boys and aristocrats who have served valiantly in the Special Forces/ Commandos Sterling founded the SA S and included many Etonians( Fitzroy MaClean, Thessiger, Sutherland,) Jellicoe(Winchester); Lord Lovat was a major Commando Leader, Ashdown Bedford School and SBS and more recently, Brig’Eddie Butler , old Etonian, grandson of Rab’ Butler and former CO of 22 SAS.

    Jenny Barnes
    It was individuals who created the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. Craftsmen ,mainly , Non- Conformists set up Dissenting Academies to train pupils in the subjects required to run businesses. I wonder if the LDs have forgotten our party’s Industrial heritage. The Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions were engines of massive social mobility

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Nov '13 - 11:37pm

    Joe Otten

    Reeves was not working for Nick when he spoke, was not Nick’s spokesman, and, frankly, the fact that he was no longer working for Nick ought to tell you something.

    Yes, I am aware of that. Please try reading what I wrote. This was an article in an influential publication, published on the eve of the party conference by someone billed as “Nick Clegg’s former director of strategy”. Someone reading it who did not know what you know WOULD assume that this was the person who had been directing Nick Clegg’s strategy, would assume that what was written there was what Nick Clegg believed. If Nick Clegg did not want that assumption to be made, did not want the damage that would be caused by many casual readers seeing it that way, he could have responded by disassociating himself from the sentiment of the article, by stating that the did not agree with it, and that it did not represent his strategy. But he did not. As I said, his silence can be taken as consent.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Nov '13 - 11:42pm

    Richard S

    Let’s talk numbers. I just had a Saudi guy in my office who wants to learn English from (any) British person, and he gave me 30 euros as a first payment. Given it is me who is going to teach him, what would be the socially just cut for you and what would be the socially just cut for me out of that 30 euros?

    Well, I’ve just taught a class of about 100 students who pay £9000 a year for it each, or rather for eight classes in the academic year, and this is one of them. What is the socially just cut you think I should have from that?

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Nov '13 - 11:46pm

    Joe Otten

    Nick is clear enough, when you ask him, that there is no future for this party trying to be further left than Labour (competing with the SWP and Respect).

    Well, perhaps you see politics in one dimension, but I do not. I think I have made very clear on numerous occasions in the past my disdain for Leninism and the Leninist model of political party. Your comments are made on the basis that anything which is “to the left” of Labour must also have the dictatorial top-down attitude that we see in parties like SWP and Respect. I don’t agree that is necessarily so. In fact I see the top-down model of political party as imposed by Clegg and the Cleggies as closer to the SWP and Respect than my own politics.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Nov '13 - 12:00am

    Joe Otten

    We don’t talk much about our origins, we don’t fetishise our accents, we treat each other as we find us.

    Consciously, perhaps not. Unconsciously – my experience is that there’s a huge amount of snobbery in the party, and I’ve known many other people of working class background who’ve tried to get on it it say the same. In this country, as soon as you open your mouth, you’re judged. If you have one sort of accent you’re thought to be clever and able, obvious leadership material if you have another you’re thought to be good for nothing but hard work and following what you betters say. One need only look at the person leading us – a man whose incompetence becomes more and more obvious every day he stays in that job. If he had a working class accent and demeanour, he would never have made it there.

  • Steve Griffiths 13th Nov '13 - 9:26am

    …and my question above still remains unanswered and it is fundamental to the subject of this thread. What are the backgrounds and experiences of those that advise the Leadership and the Parliamentary Party? Does Nick’s team surround themselves with advisors that come from backgrounds similar to their own, and with whom they feel comfortable, or do they also have people with direct experiences of social housing, modest incomes and state education? It seems to me that a balanced pool of experiences will make for better policy making and would go some way to arresting the concentration of the elite in positions of power.

    I am certain that some of our parliamentarians must read LDV, and possibly their advisors too. So come on then, tell us about the backgrounds of the experts the Lib Dems in power choose to take advice from.

  • @Matthew Huntbach
    If you and the other 7 lecturers can organise the course yourselves then you would presumably agree an eight-way split, perhaps cut in a ninth person to do admin, marketing etc., so the students apparently think the fair rate for your one class is about 100 000 UKP (as an employer I don’t think university degrees are worth anything like as much as students seem to assume). It’s up to you to decide if it can be taught like that or if the other things the university offers (oarticularly the diploma-printing machine) are actually worth cutting the university in too.

    As it stands now, the students are not your clients, the university is your client, so the relevant amount of money is what you have negotiated with them.

  • Matthew Huntbach.

    The Soviet Union was very good at teaching Russian so everyone spoke clearly. In the Soviet Armed Forces , there were people from Baltic States to Mongolia and everyone had to speak clearly so they could be understood.

    Some of my Grandparents and their siblings came from a poor background in the East End of London but they all spoke clear English and some became officers in WW1 and WW2. Since the introduction of comprehensives in the 60s,elocution lessons and teaching children to speak clearly in public has been removed from their education. If one listens to people brought up in the 20 and 30s in poor parts of London , they often speak far better English than those brought up in the late 90s and later. Major and, Starkey were both brought in poor circumstances and both speak clearly.

    Sometimes , I wonder whether the Inst of Education , union leaders of NUT and Dept of Ed have been infiltrated by secret supporters of public Schools whose aim was to reduce standards in comprehensives in order to greatly reduce the competition to Public Schools. In Sampsons Anatomy of Britain 1965 and Changing A of B 1982 the re are extensive interviews with leading people. In the60s Anderson of Eton was predicting 60% of public schools would close because of competition from grammar school.. In the 1965 edition, p210 , lists % of 6th form winning scholarships to Oxbridge : after Winchester and Westminster , most were Direct Grammar Schools . Direct Grant Grammar Schools educated 2% of the population yet produced 16% of Oxbridge . 7% of the UK was educated at Public School and educated 54% of Oxbridge . Based on pro rata if 7% had gone to DG Grammar , they would have educated 56% of Oxbridge. Historically Manchester Grammar School( a Direct Grammar School) vied with Winchester for the numbers entering Oxbridge.

    Many public schools were kept going because of parents working abroad- diplomats, armed forces, international companies, missionaries etc, etc. As the percentage of parents working abroad declined , the reason for many public schools declined. However, teachers strikes and the poor standards of many comprehensives meant some parents were willing to pay fees for Public Schools. Many public/private schools have closed because they were academically poor and parents no longer worked overseas. If grammar schools and especially those with boarding houses had kept going , then I think many more public schools would have closed. In the late 70s, many public schools , Eton and Tonbridge are examples , greatly increased their entrance standards , from about 50% to 65% in Common Entrance. Westminster increased the pass rate at CE to 70%. The Big Bang in the City in 1986 also changed recruitment. The days of private partnerships were largely over , with recruitment , often after A Level from a few schools, in particular Charterhouse, Dulwich and Eton : now City Firms recruit engineers from Oxbridge/Imperial.

    Parents who send their children to private schools have been successful in life and appreciate how much stiffer the competition has become. At Dulwich, the former head of Chemistry had a B.Sc and doctorate from Imperial. Consequently, they know what is required to obtain a job with Shell, BP , Glaxo , etc,etc.

    If we are to reduce inequality , then those attending primary and comprehensives need to have the same high level of aspiration, the same rigorous education by teachers of the same ability as those attending prep and public/grammar schools. Most prep school pupils at 9-10 are two years ahead of those attending most primary schools. I have never understood why primary and comprehensives schools have shorter days and require less homework to be done and yet believe they can out perform prep, grammar and public schools.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Nov '13 - 4:32pm


    Since the introduction of comprehensives in the 60s,elocution lessons and teaching children to speak clearly in public has been removed from their education.

    Maybe, but there is no law banning comprehensive schools from giving elocution lessons.

    At Dulwich, the former head of Chemistry had a B.Sc and doctorate from Imperial.

    Well, I only have a BSc(Eng) from Imperial, and my doctorate is from Sussex. Do you think I would have done better if I hadn’t gone to a comprehensive school? I teach at university, and have been heavily involved in admissions to my university, I work with recruiters from top City companies who take on our graduates. I regret that what you write owes more to Daily Mail sensationalism than to reality.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Nov '13 - 4:40pm

    Richard S

    If you and the other 7 lecturers can organise the course yourselves then you would presumably agree an eight-way split, perhaps cut in a ninth person to do admin, marketing etc., so the students apparently think the fair rate for your one class is about 100 000 UKP (as an employer I don’t think university degrees are worth anything like as much as students seem to assume).

    Er, yes, but that’s for one year of a three year degree, so we need more lecturers to do the rest. Plus we need IT support, building maintenance, quality control etc – with most of these things there’s an economy of scale.

    As for whether what I teach is worth it, the cost of a commercial training course covering the same thing but in a much more shallow way, with no guarantee of quality control, no detailed one-to-one long term supervision is about £2000 per head – I mean for just my module.

  • Matthew Huntbach
    Many teachers never corrected poor diction or language.

    The problem is that very comprehensives have the staff to offer teaching across all academic subjects to high enough standard to achieve entry to top universities. How many comprehensives teach Additional Further Maths and Further Maths to high enough standards for entry to top universities?

    Where comprehensives were former grammar schools , retained their staff and are located in middle class catchment, they can produced high standards : an example would be the Camden Girls School. The net worth of the parents of girls attending Camden Girls School is probably higher than most public schools.

    If one compares the comprehensive in N Oxford , in the leafy suburbs , attended by the children of Dons , then of course it offers a high standard of education. A friend who attended a comprehensive in S Oxford near Cowley Car Works had a very different experience to those attending schools in the north of the city.

    A friend who attended a comprehensive in inner city Liverpool said he only came through unscathed because he was trained in full contact martial arts : those who were academic but could not fight had an awful time. It would be interesting to know how many children from Liverpool attend Oxbridge compared to when Quarry Bank Grammar School and Liverpool Institute High School were in existence .

    It would interesting to know how many comprehensives offer the same breadth of A Level teaching to the same high standard at A Level compared to grammar schools such as Manchester, King Edward VI Edgbaston, Bradford , Leeds , Judd or St Olav’s and St Saviours . Until a child in Peckham can receive the same rigorous A Level education as one attending St Olav’s and St S aviour’s , Orpington, Kent , there will be inequality. A friend who taught in Peckham Comprehensive was criticised by the Vice Principal for giving a pupil extra Physics tuition in order to help them achieve the B Grade in Physics required to read Biomedical sciences at King’s College. When this happens what chance does a pupil have when in competition from top grammar and public schools?

  • @Matthew, I think Charlie does rise a fair point, but I also think your point about accents and the way we judge individuals in this country is completely correct, as well.

    My dyslexia aside, when I used to compare myself to most aspiring barristers, there were two big things which split me from my fellow students.

    First, most of them went to private schools or, possibly, public schools, where they were given the kind of in-depth training they needed to succeed. They were sent to debating and even mooting competitions before my school had even managed to teach me to read. That kind of experience I simply cannot contend with, not due to a lack of ability, but due to the fact I was never even given the chance. This was a massive disadvantage to me when I was studying because Universities are very selective about who they send to mooting competitions, so, generally speaking, only those with mooting experience can go, which means that those who never had the opportunities to get that experience early on find themselves struggling to ever get it. This is a very narrow example, but nevertheless, I think it does highlight what Charlie is trying to say, which is that Comprehensives do not offer the specialist training that many of the professions and top universities want to see.

    Of course, the second thing which divided us was our general demeanours, typified by our accents. I once had someone say to me, “Oh, it is interesting to see you are going for the Bar, we do not have enough working class, northerners do that”. I do not know which incensed me more, the mistaken presumption that I am from the North due to my accent being different (aka, working class) to my classmates’, or the fact this individual thought that I would believe they were paying me a compliment.

    Social mobility (both up and down) will never be achievable whilst we make it that the prerequisites for success are things that one can only attain if they have the wealth to fund it. We also need to ensure that we allow the old stereotypes to die, otherwise the status quo will only continue.

  • liberal is the same in most countries. In India it is best to have a pale complexion. In the USA very few upper middle class people are overweight. In the USA there is large difference between a blue collar Bronx accent and someone from an upper middle class background in New England. In France , the country is run by the products of about 12 Lycees and a few Grand Ecoles and many come from , Bon Gen Bon Chic families.

    I cannot understand why state primary and comprehensive schools do not copy the syllabus of prep , public and grammar schools: that way we can reduce inequality. As Anderson of Eton was saying , 60% of public schools were expected to close in the late 60s because grammar school were offering a better and cheaper alternative. After all, how many public schools offered a better academic education than Manchester Grammar School: probably only Winchester and Westminster. If one looks at Rugby , the main reason why England won in 2003 was Woodward spent 5 years in Australia and he learnt how intensely Southern Hemisphere Nations trained. Woodward said it is not improving one aspect a 100% but improving a 100 aspects by 1%.

    It is time that all children in the UK had access to the same rigorous education ,including sports and extra-curricula activities as those at prep, public and grammar schools. Why is it so few comprehensives offer public speaking and debating opportunities?

  • Charlie, I do not disagree with you at all and I know it happens in other countries, as well. While I was living in Taiwan, I saw the same thing with those from the North looking down on the ‘primitive’ Southerners. 😛

    Exactly the same, only the opposite way round.

    However, I have never been one for thinking that other countries are worse (or just as bad), so that makes it all OK.

    I also completely agree that comprehensive schools should be offering more of these specialist classes, but the problem is that they lack the facilitates, teachers and funding to do it. From what I am told, many private and public schools have professional debating instructors training their students for competitions. Most comprehensive schools just do not have the money to compete with that and are, therefore, forced to turn to charities for these sorts of classes. That being said, it is better than before on that front because more and more of these charities are being formed. I, myself, volunteered for a debating charity while I was a student. I now volunteer for a business charity which aims to provide specialist business and careers training to students. These things are making a big difference, but there are still not enough of them.

    Another thing is class sizes; most private classes can give far more focused attention to their students due to simply having fewer of them.

    Finally, the most important thing is – as you previously said – the culture. Private sector schools (and the parents who send their children to private sector schools) have ingrained into them a culture of valuing these specialist classes. On the flip side, most comprehensive lack this vital cultural aspect.

  • Richard S,

    Sorry it’s taken me a bit of time. Given that my time is more valuable than yours I wouldn’t get a cut at all but your cut would be €9.32. Using the cut taken for legal justice as a societal norm and extrapolating my calculations from there the cut for social justice plus legal justice and defence would be €20.68. I know €9.32 doesn’t seem a lot but remember I’m paying more than you for your schools, roads, hospitals, police, army, etc.

    It’s a bit long and complicated but do you want to see my maths?

  • Liberal al. The idea of charity teaching debating is excellent. When it comes to debating The English Speaking Union runs competitions between schools and universities. When it comes to universities , I think Glasgow was won more than Oxford or Cambridge . Glasgow tends to produce debaters who are quicker witted and more funny than Oxbridge , C Kennedy is product of Glasgow debating .

    When it comes to improving standards in Comprehensive Schools , I think Reform Schools should be introduced. Most teachers cannot deal with thuggish and especially large pupils who often come from disfunctional families.
    Every person has right to ruin their education BUT not others. Having 1 or 2 reform schools per county , probably make them boarding , would make life much easier for teachers. The inability of teachers to expel thuggish pupils means that a few percent can ruin the education of others. If one looks at Schools such as the Oratory, London , part of it’s reason for it’s success is that it can expel thuggish children, as can grammar and public schools.

    I think we need to look at The Netherlands children can leave school at 16 provided they enter a trade and still attend classes. At the comprehensive I attended many of the thuggish pupils left as soon as they were 16 which made it easier for teachers to cram those pupils willing to learn , for the exams.

    When it comes to class sizes ,as friend born in Sri Lanka says , it is down to concentration of pupils. In Sri Lanka parents have to pay for education directly and children concentration and the class sizes are up to 50 . Their are sons from Roman Catholic Families who pass O Level Latin!children from . A major problem is low level disruption and a lack of concentration. If there are 10 minutes of disruption in 40 minute lesson , this is 25%. If one takes 25% of 11 years of academic study, this equals 2.75years. In SE Asia , children pay attention far more and their is less disruption. In SE Asia there is a culture which respects scholarship.

    The reality is that The UK has up to 20-25% of the population who are uneducated ,unskilled and have no wish for themselves or their children to become educated and skilled and who are aggressive towards those who do. Until we introduce Reform Schools it is almost impossible for a comprehensive with up to 25% disruptive children being able to offer the same rigorous education as Westminster or Winchester. A family friend was a specialist reform school teacher who finished his career as headmaster of a reform school for London Borough and he explained the different approaches and skills required. As someone who attended a grammar school from a working class background said ” Grammar schools offered an escape fro children away from a nihilistic attitude to education” . Harold Wilson , grammar school educated appreciated this aspect;, S Williams and A Crossland , both privately educated, did not. S Williams “Climbing the bookshelves” ” demonstrates her bookish background. She has never shown she has appreciated what it is like, especially for a girl to be the only person from a family and neighbourhood, who wants to be educated . ” Educating Rita ” is the only play or book which shows the problems of working class people who want to be educated escaping from those with a nihilistic attitude to education.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Nov '13 - 8:17pm


    If one looks at Schools such as the Oratory, London , part of it’s reason for it’s success

    Grammar, Charlie, grammar …

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Nov '13 - 8:22pm


    A friend who taught in Peckham Comprehensive was criticised by the Vice Principal for giving a pupil extra Physics tuition in order to help them achieve the B Grade in Physics required to read Biomedical sciences at King’s College. When this happens what chance does a pupil have when in competition from top grammar and public schools?

    There is no school called Peckham Comprehensive. Perhaps there was some years ago. The fact that you use the name of a school that has long ago disappeared suggest you are re-telling old anecdotes, rather than telling us about things now.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Nov '13 - 9:55pm

    Liberal Al

    I think it does highlight what Charlie is trying to say, which is that Comprehensives do not offer the specialist training that many of the professions and top universities want to see.

    Well, perhaps you don’t regard Queen Mary, University of London as a “top university”, though it is now in the Russell Group. However, during the ten year I was admissions tutor for my department there, most of our applicants and most of our students came from London comprehensives. For plenty of those who applied to us, we were their insurance choice after Imperial, or UCL which perhaps you would be more willing to call “top universities”, so I saw the A-level results they got, even if they didn’t come to us because they made their first choice.

    From this I KNOW it is absolute nonsense to say that children from comprehensive schools can’t get into “top universities”. I saw them going there – hundreds every year.

    I’m not saying there isn’t a problem of poor attitudes to education amongst those lower down the social scale, particularly those of white native English origin. I’m not saying either that these schools gave the best education or advice to their pupils. However, I find what is being said here, this idea that no-one who goes to an sort of comprehensive school stands a chance of getting into a good university, to be a gross exaggeration.

  • Matthew, when I say top, I mean top, not good. Right now, your point is only supporting Charlie’s, IE, these students ended up going to Queen Mary’s because they did not get into UCL or Imperial.

    As for their A-levels, I am sure many of them got fantastic A-levels, but that is not enough. Someone can easily get 4 A* at A-level and still not get into Oxford, Cambridge, UCL… etc.

    Furthermore, I was not actually commenting on their attitudes, I was merely commenting on the fact that the odds are stacked against them from day one because they get punished for not doing something they were never given the opportunity to do. I believe that was Charlie’s point, as well. We are not trying to bash those from comprehensives or say they stand no chance, I went to a comprehensive and succeeded; however, I also had too work twice as hard as many of the others in my Law School because, both economically and culturally, there is such a disparity between the life chances of those who go to private (or public) schools and those who go to comprehensive schools. I may not agree with all of Charlie’s ideas on how to close that gap, but I do not think there is anything insulting about saying the gap needs closing.

    A child’s destiny should not be predetermined before it is even born; however, in far too many cases, it is.

    @Charlie, I cannot speak on Glasgow’s debaters as I am never seen them debate, but I will keep an eye out for them. As for those charities, they are indeed fantastic. I had to endure more than a few jests coming my way after two 12 year olds beat me and another graduate of the Bar once, haha. However, in all honesty, it was great to see students from comprehensives getting that level of exposure to something like debating and something I hope will become a very normal thing.

    However, in relation to South East Asian, well, as someone who was both a student and a teacher in Taiwan, I can assure you that their discipline is no better than our’s. Students in the UK are less naive and slightly harsher than many South East Asian students, but the basic stereotypes are all still there, as is the same lack of concentration.

  • Matthew Huntbach

    I deliberately did not say which comprehensive it was in Peckham because I did not want to damage the reputation of the school.

    Some employers only recruit from Cambridge and Imperial. In fact, in some companies entry requirement is distinction in a masters from Imperial.

    Comprehensives such as Camden Girls School, Haberdashers , London Oratory, Dame Alic Owen were all former grammar schools , have had a large middle class catchment and had an expulsion policy which meant unruly pupils could be removed . One trick is to select 10% of children on musical ability. Once the oldest of siblings is in the school , then the younger ones can automatically gain entry. Proof of good comprehensives is that houses in the catchment are up to 20% more expensive.

    Labour MP who lived in Islington sent son to Dame Alice Owen, Blair’s who lived in Islington sent children to Oratory, Harman sent one son to Oratory and one to St Olav’s and St Saviours Grammar in Orpington, Abbott( Hackney) sent son to Cit y of London and R Reeves went to all girls comprehensive(former grammar school) in Bromley yet family lived in Lewisham. If Labour MPs thought all comprehensives were the same , they would send their children to the worst one where they lived or in their constituency. Blair employed a tutor who was a master at Westminster.

    The reality is that comprehensives vary massively from former Sec’Mods in poor areas to former grammar schools in affluent middle class catchments( compare comprehensives in N Oxford where dons send their children and that in S Oxford near Cowley plant) . In many large cities , many professional middle class people have moved from the inner parts to the outer suburbs. In addition, what impacts on children’s future is whether their are top teachers in the subjects in which the pupils are good at . The Guardian had a piece which said Public School children take twice as Maths and Science and three times as many Modern Language A Levels as those in comprehensives. There are not many comprehensives which offer Oxbridge standard language training other than in French, certainly not in Russian or Latin or Greek. Most grammar schools used to offer French, German, Latin A Levels and the top ones offered Greek, Spanish and Russian : I doubt many comprehensives offer this range. There is now research which suggests that to learn a foreign language fluently one needs to start before puberty. Consequently prep schools which offer French from 7, Latin from 8 and Greek from 9 or 10 may be providing advantages which primary schools have difficulty competing with. There is also the cultural aspect: many middle class families assume one must speak French
    as minimum. Historically French and German was taught at Sandhurst before WW2, young ladies went to Finishing schools ( learnt French) as minimum or went to the Cordon Blue school in Paris. Girls tend to be keener on languages and I doubt whether there was any girl at a grammar school who did not study French to O Level and probably Latin for at least 3 years. There is also the issue of poor selection of GSCEs and A Levels , too often children do take rigorous A Levels and therefore miss out on degrees , especially Law. I also repeat, Additional Further Maths and Further Maths is not taught or very poorly, at at many comprehensives which precludes reading Maths, Physics, Engineering at Cambridge and Imperial and Maths at Warwick.

    Classical music and ballet ate increasingly dominated by middle to upper middle class es, mainly because children are given tuition at young enough age , to high enough standards than at most state primary schools. Nichola Benedetti has said children are practicing enough to become professional musicians .

    There is also the issue of physical fitness: entry to Royal Marines and Parachute Regiment as officers is basically county rugby standard. As armed forced decline in size and move away from training using tanks and large artillery, promotion is likely to depend upon serving in Commando/Para/Special Forces . Paddy Ashdown was at Bedford School which has high reputation for rugby , rowing and entry into the armed forces. Very few comprehensives produce sports teams with high enough physical fitness-rugby is good training for entry to Paras/Commandos due to upper body strength. It is fine if there are local sports clubs but often this is not the case and it often depends upon keen parents taking their children along. If one looks at the Olympics athletes ,many are children of sporty parents who took their children along to clubs.

    Look at Rose, Jackson, Richards, Thompson, Peter Wall, they have all passed through Para/Commando/SF . Once again this is favouring public/grammar school over comprehensives . Many tough boys from public and grammar schools join the Royal Marines /Paras in the ranks which means they can receive top level training not offered to other units . Consequently when they leave the Armed Forces they can enter well paid jobs. A Royal Marine who has undertaken Fleet protection work can end up in well paid job in security in oil companies protecting installations , something a NCO from an average unit would not be qualified for.

    Unless all children in British primary and comprehensives schools , whether in poor or affluent areas, receive much better teaching , at young enough age and accurate guidance on choosing academic subjects , then there will be inequality. Though is no point some flabby teen age girl deciding to become a ballet dancer when they are competing against those who started at at 4 or 5 and were then being trained by professionals from the age of 8. There is no point in some weedy or flabby 18 year old boy suddenly deciding he wants to be an officer in Paras or Commandos because he is not going to be fit enough.

    Liberal AL.

    I am not saying that all children in SE Asia concentrate for their school years but overall the stats, especially in maths and science show more do, for longer periods.

  • I think Charlie brings up another major issue facing those who from poorer backgrounds, a lack of future planning. Very few of their parents have the knowledge and experience needed to guide on how to shape themselves for the more exclusive careers.

    As such, comprehensive schools need to fill that gap, but, unfortunately, many do not in my experience.

  • Liberal Al
    Thank you for mentioning ” Future Planning”. You have summarised in two words an issue which I think is neglected and causes much social inequality. My comprehensive , a former Sec ‘ Mod’ provided very poor career guidance , as did the County Council.

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