Our Founder and Chairman, Sir Peter Lampl, touches on his experience as he reflects on our latest research on accents and social mobility.
For 25 years, the Sutton Trust has engaged in understanding the barriers to social mobility, from early years through to the workplace. But beyond the grades you achieve and the educational institutions you attend, there are barriers to mobility that aren’t discussed – accents.
How people speak is an extremely important part of how they are perceived. Accent is key to how someone is viewed. Our ears are finely tuned to the wide variety of accents heard across Britain. This leads us to make all sorts of value judgments about where someone is from, their education and their class. It is inevitable that some of these judgments, often made unconsciously, are likely to be wrong. Just because someone has a working-class accent from, say, Leeds or Liverpool, doesn’t mean they’re less capable.
Yet as today’s research shows, there is a hierarchy of accent prestige entrenched in British society, with ‘BBC English’ being the dominant accent of those in positions of authority. This is despite the fact that less than 10% of the population have this accent. Many young people who don’t feel like they have the ‘right’ accent are worried about the impact on their careers, and many have been mocked, criticised or singled out during their education, work and social lives.
I faced this myself when I was 11 years old. When I moved from Wakefield to Surrey, my broad Yorkshire accent stood out at my new school and resulted in me being mercilessly picked upon and ridiculed, and I learned to develop a Surrey accent in order to fit in. This is a common experience for those who are geographically or socially mobile. But this need not be the case.
Talent in Britain is spread evenly, but opportunities are not. That means there are talented young people with every kind of accent, but for many, they need to work harder to prove their worth, just because of how they speak.
This country has learned to be more diverse in many respects, but there remain taboos about accents. We must embrace the diversity of accents to enable those from all backgrounds and parts of the country to have the chance to succeed.