Sunday, January 17, 2010

The British class system

A Guardian article on certain failures of the UK education system caught my eye, and then got me wondering.

Apparently a very large portion of top judges and doctors went to UK private schools. Still. In this day and age. So much for Maggie Thatcher and Tony Blair's classless society.

One of the reasons I was glad to escape the UK was because I was glad to escape the boundaries put on my potential achievements in life by my working class background; boundaries of which some were real, others imagined, some self-enforced, or enforced by society.

In any case they were all shed by the simple procedure of walking off an airplane in San Francisco one sunny evening in August 1986. Immediately on arrival in the US, my class became invisible. Even when my own self-enforced limitations held me back, only I could see the chains. Americans couldn't see them.

Perhaps If I were black, they might have. In America, social and economic class still exists, but is constructed out of other stuff, like race. And it isn't as difficult a barrier as it was in the British 1970s.

And so in America I "went to college," finally, by which I mean, in the British idiom, I went to university and got a baccalaureate degree and then a master's degree and then a PhD and then became a professor. Was this impossible for me to do in Britain?

No, but it was very much more difficult an outcome. The comprehensive school I went to, Tapton, in Sheffield, was the best or second-best in the city. It sent several pupils out of my year to Oxford and Cambridge. But they were mostly students from the better neighborhoods and the better primaries. They had parents who made them study.

My parents didn't make me do my homework.

They did make me work. I helped my dad rewire houses in his weekend electrical business at the age of 10 or 11. By the time I was 13 and we had a sweet shop, I was loading and unloading goods much of the weekend. By the time I was 14, I'd quit working for my dad, where the pay was low and irregular, and begun working for a nursery, where the pay was better, and more regular. It just made more sense. If I was to spend 15 or 20 hours of my spare time each week, and most of my summer holiday, working, I'd at least get paid well. My friends at school laughed at me for my weekend job at the nursery, "shoveling shit" as they called it.

And they were right to laugh. They went on to get degrees at age 21 or 22, and middle class jobs right away. Seven O-levels later, only one "A," I went into the RAF and became, instead of a shit-shoveler, a glorified grease monkey. And my parents and grandparents, all solidly uneducated working class folks, never questioned the move at all. While most of my friends at school went to Uni.

The term "grease monkey" is of course to belittle the superb engineering training system of the RAF in times past, of course. Attending Number 1 Technical Training School Halton provided a much better education in many ways than my friends got at the various top-flight and also-ran colleges they went to. We not only learned math, physics, English, and engineering, but also discipline, confidence, fitness, and a work ethic. And although we were worked hard, we also played too. I made a few friends who lasted a lifetime there and in the RAF camps where I later served, and especially in the RAF Mountain Rescue Service, which became the greatest and best part of my education.

But I still identified very closely with the lower rungs of the British class system, while the RAF officers at that time were very clearly from the upper ranks, especially the senior officers. This whole circus was reinforced by the arrival at RAF Leeming of Prince Andrew, then a naval midshipman, for his basic flight training. By then I was a lead engine JT in the Bulldog scheduled servicing line.

Sure, I got to fix the prince's plane. But I never talked to the guy and he never talked to me. Which, on reflection is probably a good thing.

If I had been in the American military I would have had encouragement and later funding to go to college.

So, despite the high standards of training and discipline, the RAF was still somewhat class-ridden. Probably not as bad as it had been in the past. But still bad.

With seven O-levels, even only one "A," of course, a borderline score, there was nothing in my grades at all to stop me staying on at Tapton for A-levels and going to a second or third-flight university. Nothing except the obvious and unstated requirement that I get a job. And by the time I left the RAF and did want to go to university, there was no way to get in without waiting another two years to get those A-levels, which was difficult because I had to work for a living while getting them. The only alternative was night school, and/or the Open University.

I emigrated instead.

A couple years later, after I had found my feet in the new country, the University of Montana accepted me easily on the basis of only five out of the seven O-levels, which was held to be the equivalent of an American high school graduation, the American government gave me a Pell Grant and Stafford loans and Work Study, and the class barrier was at last penetrated. The US government, and a Japanese philanthropist, found me worthy of more help towards my MS degree, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made me a Sea Grant Fellow so I could get the PhD. The Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy made me a research assistant, and when I got done with that after a few years, the Institute of Ecology allowed me to teach my first graduate-level class. Top flight stuff.

Not too bad for a grease monkey from Sheffield.

But why was the American response so very different from the British one, when I started from exactly the same point?

At Unity College, as a professor, most of the students I see are from the rural and suburban lower and middle classes of America. It's easy to spot the middle class kids, the ones whose parents made them study. They still do well enough without really trying, most of them, because they do their homework. The kids who have to work have to struggle a little harder and get worse grades as a result. And the solidly working class kids, especially the younger males, hold themselves back by adhering all too well to what they tend to see as their "redneck" anti-intellectual message. It isn't so very different.

But one difference is pretty clear: their high school performance does not necessarily impact on their later achievements. Although high school GPA and SAT scores are important for getting into college and are part of the way that entry into the best colleges is negotiated, these scores won't follow you around your whole life the way a bad set of GSCEs will. Even with a poor high school record, any American with a high school graduation or equivalent will be able, at pretty much any time in their life they choose, to get into a four-year baccalaureate-level program. From then on the only thing that matters is how well they do in the program.

The difficulty comes in paying for it. But you can usually find a way. Actually, one very secure way is to join the military, and then get GI Bill money for college.

In Britain, where these top doctors and top judges are so solidly from the upper socio-economic classes, hundreds of thousands of bright-but-lower class kids each year will not gain qualifications sufficient to get them into university because they went to poorer schools and had parents who didn't make them study.

And they'll be stuck with that for the rest of their lives. Without any better support system, they won't find a way out.

Which is very bad because those British doctors and judges who went to those top-flight private schools and Oxford or Cambridge and medical school or law school, and even Prince William, now joining the RAF Search and Rescue system...

....they're not that smart, you know. At this point I know. I've met enough of them. The emperor's clothes were shed long ago. Some of the stupidest, nastiest people I've ever met in my life are upper class Britons who have good degrees and nice lives.

They're just lucky. And we'd be better off as a whole with a few less of them and a few more of these working class kids who are being left behind right now, some of whom almost certainly are smarter.

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