Take one of the barriers that came up in my interviews: regional accents. The Scouser journalist Jessica Evans told me how during a stint in London she had experienced almost routine prejudice towards northerners and felt discriminated against professionally for her accent and social class. “It felt like I was viewed as ‘less educated’ and therefore ‘less able’ by some London employers,” she has written elsewhere. “While working on a culture reporting desk a colleague questioned what I could possibly know about culture, being from Liverpool.”
Her viewpoint is corroborated by research from the University of Manchester and the University of Bath and published in Sociological Research Online, which has found that broad regional accents can be a barrier to social mobility; by research from the Sutton Trust, which has shown that there are still many barriers that stop talented graduates from less-privileged backgrounds from accessing top careers, “the accent they speak with being one of them”; and by recent comments from the critic Jonathan Meades that social mobility would improve if more young people put on an RP accent.
Another almost insurmountable barrier: “soft skills”. In 2009 the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions observed in a document entitled Unleashing Aspiration that private schools are adept at fostering soft skills and recommended that they be required to share their expertise with state schools. In 2017 the Sutton Trust complained that the teaching of essential life skills such as confidence, motivation, resilience and communication was too patchy in state schools. The former social mobility commissioner Alan Milburn has spoken about how the working classes need to develop social skills such as “articulacy, tact, team-working” to make it.
The term “soft skills” implies that what is being asked for is insignificant and I guess sometimes questions of etiquette and “life skills” are: they’re about learning, as I have done, what to do when you are presented with your first quail’s egg or artichoke at a work dinner, what you wear on your first day in the office. They are also profound, dictating the way you carry yourself in a job interview, how you make small talk, how you argue and fit in socially. I’m not even sure that these can be taught in an explicit way and yet, the Sutton Trust says, 94 per cent of employers say that such “life skills” are at least as important as academic results for the success of young people. Nearly one third say that they are more important.
Then even if you do manage to do all this you still face the profound challenge of getting your foot in the door. For the working classes to be given a chance the middle and upper classes need to forgo opportunities and I have slowly realised that this is unnatural. The fact that the 7 per cent of people who attended private schools account for nearly three quarters of the top officers in the military, nearly two thirds of top doctors, a third of MPs, about half of the civil service and half of the country’s leading journalists, comes down to the fact that middle-class parents understandably want the best opportunities for their children.