At the chalkface: Because you’re poor

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:
Ian Whitwham is a teacher of English, now retired, who spent many years working in the state school system of inner city London.

I still can’t do enough penance. I should have been burned in the last circle of hell. She never quite forgave me...


A confession. My grammar school in the 1960s was on a mission to morph me into the middle classes. It succeeded. I lost my working class accent – and much else.

Then I went to a fancy university with dreaming spires, knee-deep in privilege and casual snobbery. Servants made our beds. I saw nothing wrong with this. My mother did. She took a very dim view of it.

She’d left school at 12 and was invincibly working class. She didn’t speak proper. Still, she once felt compelled to visit me. She was hugely ambivalent about this. So was I. She was uncomfortable. So was I. I discouraged her. In vain.

She caught a bus, took one look at a dreaming spire, bottled it – and took the next bus home. I was so relieved by her absence. What a pillock!

Never again.

I still can’t do enough penance. I should have been burned in the last circle of hell. She never quite forgave me.

Ah, the pernicious English class system.

Still, by the mid-1960s things seemed to be getting a lot better. Suddenly cut-glass accents and deference seemed to matter less. The likes of The Beatles, Terry Stamp, Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy, David Bailey were working class, cool and cultural icons. Once I met John Lennon outside the Bodleian library. “Hello” I said in a prissy, southern RP accent.

“Hello” he replied in a bored, northern Liverpool accent.

This felt thrilling and symbolic. Surely class boundaries were disappearing for good. Surely comprehensive schools would see them off. Surely pillocks like me would no longer occur.

Things did get better for years.

But they never quite went away.

And now it seems to be back with a vengeance. Check these quotes gathered by working class northerner Lauren White in a recent article in the Guardian.

“People thought I was plumber because of my accent.”

“I’m making fun of you because you’re poor.”

“I was told I was part of Isis because of where I went to school.”

So where was this? A primary school playground? The Bullingdon Club?

Nope. Durham University – centre of academic excellence and privilege. Freshers and staff. Eh? Staff? Staff?

And there’s a wizard wheeze, a competition to “sleep with the poorest fresher”. And it’s still, apparently high jinks to call some students “chavs” and “dirty Northerners”. Moreover, it would seem most common in posh Russell Group universities. I’m incredulous, stunned.

Who or what nourishes this poison? Tuition fees? Savage inequalities? Crazed Tories? Rank stupidity? Eton? It can’t just be public schools. Aren’t they hip and liberal these days? And what’s going on in our state schools, those Gove-inspired academies? Producing pillocks like me.

Is it just a few Bad Apples? Who knows?

Let’s hope so, but this new year doesn’t look too promising...

  • Ian Whitwham is a teacher of English, now retired, who spent many years working in the state school system of inner city London. He has written for SecEd since 2003. Read his most recent articles at http://bit.ly/2UIMd1O


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