Selection, shoes and class slurs

It was the shoes that made me angry. I’m used to the stuff about accents and schools and family contacts but the mention of a particular type of footwear really pissed me off.

Here’s a selection of quotes from the broadsheets:

‘It is the sartorial sin as old as the City of London itself, instilled from a young age in every aspiring Etonian, Harrovian and Wykehamist gentleman…’

The Times

‘A new study by the government’s social mobility watchdog found that employers are still using unspoken dress codes to weed out the wrong sort of person in City job interviews. Bright working class candidates are often rejected for jobs as they are unaware of the “opaque” dress codes that richer children grow up with, experts found.’

Evening Standard

“If you’ve been to Eton or Winchester the interview is practically a formality anyway. If one candidate has been to Eton and the other to a comprehensive, the guy from Eton gets the job. If both candidates have been to Eton but one is wearing … the other guy will get it”

The Guardian

Yes, here is the recent news that wearing – wait for it – brown shoes to an interview for a job in the synecdochic City is a big enough faux pas to rule you out of the position from the outset.

This genuinely shocked me. Literally took my breath away. I knew that bright types from working class backgrounds – especially those with something as vulgar as a regional accent – are pretty much screwed anyway; the Guardian quote makes it clear: if you’re enough of a pleb to have been to a grotty little comp you’ve got no chance against a public school alumnus (or is that alumni? – I never studied Latin). This is old news. Everybody knows this. It’s an accepted part of our society. Yes, I know certain politicians have been daft enough to have claimed that class is dead but nobody with half a brain seriously believes them. The last time I went to Burnley or Belfast, Richmond or Redruth, Kensington or Knottingley, I checked and class was very much alive and well. But brown shoes? Jesus.

And this is why I was so furious. I know one’s working class background is held against one. I know I was judged on my coalfield accent every time I opened my mouth in an English lecture at my Russell Group university. I know now why people kept asking me during the first few weeks at said university about who else was there from my school.

Yet, I never for one bloody minute thought that the very smart, reasonably expensive, Italian made brown leather brogues that I’ve proudly sported for years would stand against me.

Then I calmed down.  It was stupid getting worked up about the imbecilic sartorial snobbery of mercantile London. I’d never even dreamed of working in the city, let alone in bloody banking. If brown shoes were a sign of the lumpenproletariat then I’d wear them with pride. Not want to become a member of a club that didn’t want me, to (mis)paraphrase the other Marx.

But then  I got angry again. Because, not long after, the spectre of grammar schools, and the iniquity of selection (a different type of selection than fashion and accent but as the earlier quote showed, educational background – not qualifications or competency – obviously affects your life chances. I certainly don’t want to step (beige) foot into the City but what if a disadvantaged young man (or woman – there’s bound to be a female equivalent over high heel length or something) wanted to make it into the world of international finance? I, and we, should be angry on behalf of them.

Now, some people, usually the ones who have benefited from a grammar school education, will argue that more grammar schools will widen the opportunity for clever poor kids. Will bring these barriers crashing down with a tidal wave of social mobility. Absolute poppycock. The quote from the Guardian continues: ‘Of course it’s unfair, it’s bullshit. But the City will never change.’ Neither will grammar schools, or academies, regardless of bogus claims that the system won’t be anything like the bad old days of the 1950s.

FSM (which isn’t even a very good indicator of disadvantage – plenty fall through the net) pupils rarely get into grammar schools, not to mention the damage done to those who fail and are banished to the secondary modern. For FSM pupils there’s safety in numbers; they statistically perform better in schools were there are more of them. Unless we introduce a guaranteed minimum for FSM in grammars then this cycle will continue to perpetuate. And we all know middle class parents will never allow their children to be sent to the secondary modern en masse.

I’ll end on a statistic: in 2015 more pupils from Westminster school went to Oxbridge than all the FSM pupils in England combined.There were roughly 544,000 pupils in Year 11. Fifteen per cent of these are FSM. Meaning roughly 81,000 FSM vs 150 Westminster School pupils for Oxbridge place. Who wins?

My school, a rural ‘bog standard’ comprehensive, sent an FSM pupil to Oxford this year. One of the 45. It’s an incredible achievement beating those kind of odds. Let’s hope they’re thinking sod the shoes.


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