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The Great British Class Survey

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Clive Edwards Clive Edwards | 09:00 UK time, Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The Great British Class Survey


I was surprised to see in a recent survey that well over half of the British public would categorise themselves as ‘working class’.

It’s a rather high proportion, and it includes a vast range of people: anyone from a building worker to a cabinet minister can it seems describe themselves as working class. There’s an enormous variation in income, power and influence in that group.

How much does the division of British society into working, middle, and upper classes still reflect today’s Britain? Does our society really work like that? Does class even matter at all in 2011?

Today we are launching The Great British Class Survey, a nationwide interactive study, to look for answers to these questions and many more. The survey will examine what class really means, and whether it still matters, in 21st century Britain.

British society has gone through profound social and economic changes since the Second World War. Once, the vast majority of people laboured in factories and fields that were owned by an aristocratic ruling class but managed by a clerical and professional middle class. That society has disappeared. Several major studies suggest that the 19th century division of society into working, middle and upper classes is no longer relevant in post-industrial Britain.

Despite this, our national fascination with class carries on regardless; you only have to look at the huge popularity of programmes like Downton Abbey for evidence of that. On the other hand, some people would argue that class simply doesn’t matter anymore. It seems the nature of Britain’s class system today is very much open to debate.

When it comes to making policy decisions, or having a proper debate about the class system, we need much more than stereotypes and received wisdom. We need a proper fact-based assessment of what ‘class’ really is, based on the data. That’s exactly what we intend this survey to produce.

To do this we have worked with Mike Savage of York University and Fiona Devine of the University of Manchester, leading experts on class, and the BBC’s own LabUK, which conducts mass participation research studies online. The Great British Class Survey has been thoroughly designed to uncover the complexity and subtlety of class.

The survey approaches class from a new angle, as a function of three factors: wealth, social connections and cultural range. Until now, most major studies focused on economic factors such as income and occupation. Social factors, such as networks of personal contacts, are also beginning to be studied as important components to determine class.

But there is increasing evidence to suggest that what we know and do - our culture, as expressed in our interests, activities and hobbies – also influences our life chances. For the first time, this study will investigate all three factors together and see how they inter-relate. With the help of your participation, we’ll be able to discover how wealth, social networks and culture interact to generate social advantage or disadvantage.

You can do the survey on LabUK’s website now – it’ll take around 20 minutes.

As part of our class theme, around the launch of the survey we are also showing two films on BBC Two examining what it takes to get on the career ladder in today’s Britain, and who has access to the best jobs, including that of the Prime Minister.

In Posh & Posher: Why Public School Boys Run Britain (BBC Two, Wednesday 26th January 9pm) Andrew Neil hits the road to find out what’s happening to the background of our leaders and if British politics is dominated by posh people.

In Who Gets The Best Jobs? (BBC Two, Wednesday 2nd February 9pm) Richard Bilton explores to what level people’s backgrounds still dictate the opportunities open to them in leading professions. 

We’ll be publishing the results of the survey this summer on our website – thanks for taking part!

 Clive Edwards, Executive Editor of Current Affairs


  • Comment number 1.

    Well done Andrew Neil for your programme. It is staring us in the face that too many able and gifted young people have been cheated by the system of comprehensive education, which has the natural effect of keeping too many from achieving their true potential.
    This is very dangerous for society at large not just the political class, which the programme addressed.
    We must have selection in state education to allow the best to fully develop. I hope the programme will fire some debate.

  • Comment number 2.

    I think I was fortunate to grow up in the 60's where a Grammar School education was available at no cost and where class barriers disappeared in a cloud of hash. I enjoyed the survey especially the crest. I would have liked to link to this on facebook but the link wouldn't work. I enjoyed the two fingers up sign you put in my crest. Lets face it - entry into the controlling class is easy - just needs money. Look at the Middleton girl - parents worked for BA then made enough to put her through a 'good' school and hey presto.

  • Comment number 3.

    The issue of class certainly does still dominate the British psyche. Even though at times we may allow ourselves the luxory of thinking it has gone away, an old fraud like Andrew Niel will always come back to re-awaken the ghosts of that totally irational, deep seated, crazy ignorant belief, that the minority we see ourselves as part of, is superior to all the other minorities that we have no wish to understand so well.
    It makes us all, the English especially, a laughing stock throughout the rest of the world and harms nobody more than it's hard core believers, the self proclaiming English Middle Class. Made totally oblivious to the less fortunate of their own kind, by a sad belief in the natural justice of their elevation by luck, to pot carriers for the really, really posh, they live out their lie, in a strange, spite-filled land of self deceipt. Improving nothing,for all their education, least of all themselves.

  • Comment number 4.

    What do you Grammar School boys know about the working class?
    To the REAL working class, ex Grammar School Boys ARE the Posh.
    How many remember when children of eleven years old were tested and separated out, the ones that had been taught a little, from the street kids, who knew a lot, but nothing about exams. A few bright conformist's sons went to Grammar school and the others hated them for it and took it out on each other, then went to feed the coal mines and the factories.
    Since then most of us got lucky somehow and moved on to better things, but it was more thanks to Harold Wilson and despite any English class, education or most other systems and certainly without any help at all from wanabee-posh grammar school boys.
    Old memories run deep, but experience teaches best, especially the tolerance we need to grow old happily. Workers are always the workers and get over it. Something the Middle Class have never worked out how to do.

  • Comment number 5.

    Wonder, just for a second, how much pure, virgin genius, is wasted on the various alters of the English class bound educational establishment.
    The young man from Eton bound for Oxford will do very well (no doubt), to think a moment on what competition he thinks he’s in.
    Even heavens own incumbent deserves better than such shabby glory as the winner’s accolade in a fixed race, even though the prize is already on his fathers mantle-piece. A contest where most of our ‘lower class’ opponents are halted by having their legs tied, one semi literate to each aspiring comprehensive office worker's child, three legged to the two unfretted of the rich, who have only the middle classes grabbing at their coat tails to contend with. And just to make doubly sure of the outcome, the poorer worker must balance an egg on his spoon for sustenance along the course.
    That Sir, is not so much a fair competition as an Old English farce.

  • Comment number 6.

    Part 1.

    I went to a County Grammar School in the late 1940s. It was the era of a three pronged secondary system: grammar, technical, modern.

    The first very important observation to make is this: when I mix with contemporaries from any such stream, I note that they are articulate and numerate, their use of English is fluent and correct, and they possess a formidable vocabulary. They have a lively interest in many aspects of life whether historical, political or artistic. They are more often than not self-improvers.

    In a sense, to betray my origins, "put that in yer pipe and smoke it!"

    Grammar schools were centres of excellence. Centres of excellence are an essential ingredient of individual progress and national interest.

    We were told in the early 1950s that the three pronged system was essentially unfair, and that it must be changed. Who did the telling? Educational theorists. What is an educational theorist? I'll generalise unfairly, and say that they were, and probably still are, at the logical end of the sequence "those who can, do, those who can't teach ..." The sequence goes on "those who can't teach, teach teachers, and those who can't teach teachers are educational theorists".

    O.K. It's a jibe - for how did the three pronged system develop: presumably there was some logic underpinning to it? But, having developed - to a peak of utility; having proved itself, it was condemned after about ten full years of operation.

    I want to comment more fully on Andrew Neil's programme "Posh and Posher" with a subsequent post, but my first point is that the pre-Comprehensive system was destroyed at the peak of its efficiency. It was destroyed with no very good reason.

    Andrew Neil's analysis is timely and it reflects the story of how the respectable working class has been squashed in the post-War and post-Imperial age.

    I detect no conspiracy, but rather the forces of history, but it is easy to see which party creates the greater obstacles to social mobility.

  • Comment number 7.

    Andrew Neil summed up within the hour what I have come to realise over the last 10 years, after taking early retirement and having time to think, rather than do battle in business. The story was only 5 minutes old when I said aloud, "the dissolution of the grammar schools and the ramifications, plus the unintended consequences".

    The program went on to confirm my theory. I was a grammar school boy 1954 - 1961. I was born into an ordinary family, the first and only child of several in my generation to get the free chance of a better education.

    Fewer grammar schools has forced parents to turn to the private costly education service, often making considerable sacrifices. Fee paying education has continued unabated whilst free education service has been down graded, all for the Socialist dream of equality. In reality even more advantage has been passed to the wealthy, who have been quick to grab the benefits.

    The so called "posh" people in the program are focused on the Houses of Parliament, but similar activity is taking hold in Local Government. What primarily attracts candidates to become councillors at City Hall is the basic pay and special responsibility payments, plus the semi secret fees from Outside Bodies, of which the taxpaying public have very close to no knowledge. Where there is money there are public school educated products lapping up the cream.

    If the money in politics was significantly reduced the public school sector would precede the rats fleeing a sinking ship. However as it is MPs in the Commons who make these pay level decisions, it is unlikely they will revert to the methods of remuneration of 50 to 100 hundred years ago. The gravy train will expand to the detriment of the tax and rate payer.

  • Comment number 8.

    Part 2.

    There is no conspiracy of Old Etonians to govern the country, they know they rule the place in any event, by their continued presence in land ownership, in wealth, in the Law and in the Army. There is really no conspiracy to keep working class lads and lassies away from power, but you have to fight for it. Eton is a centre of excellence, and long may it continue. But my descendants and yours are not going to go there, so I want centres of excellence for them.

    We are treated to the fatuous statement, enunciated with the pride of the magnificently ignorant, that "we have eradicted selection from the secondary education system".

    No you haven't, dummie, selection is hale and hearty: it is by wealth and privilege. Get it!?

    Which group of schools has not followed the Gadarene herd toward change and 'relevance' in pursuit of fairness and uniformity? No need to answer. What about social mobility in the part of society that is ours, the majority's?

    The group of public schools of which Eton is an exemplar do not oppose social mobility; generally speaking, they ignore it. Social mobility is a slowly acting process. They are not threatened by it, they can live with it. But I think social mobility is important and necessary – for us, the rest of us – the overwhelming majority.

    The incontrovertible fact is this: social mobility is not a one generation process. We change, we provide for our kids – they change, and so on. It takes time. It is an uncontrovertible fact that the process is slow, and a very uncomfortable one.

    In passing, another relevant fact, public schools are 11 – 18 training programmes, as grammar schools used to be.

    Now, we have middle schools and sixth form colleges, with the politically correct notion that kids want this, so they must have it. Public schools have no truck with the theory that kids will not wear school uniform and will react badly to staying in a society that is built on mutual support and increasing responsibility: the sort that the 11 – 18 model engenders.

    Students learn far more about operating in the STRUCTURED ORGANISATION THAT IS LIFE in the 11 – 18 model than they do in the disruption of the middle school sixth form college model. That is clear only in hindsight.

    These are minor points. What are the major points? Eton and the others simply confirm in a scholar poise and self-confidence; in addition they further scholars' progression within the network of privilege into which they are born. They do it by having total command of language, more often than not languages, and command of a great collection of facts. Remember them – SELF CONFIDENCE, COMMAND OF LANGUAGE, NETWORK OF PRIVILEGE, FACTS.

    The selective state system, of which I was a beneficiary, tried to match some of those achievements. It has been dismantled.

    O.K. So there is little or no chance of re-establishing the 11- 18 selective centres of excellence: the forces of reaction, loosely known as those of political correctness, more accurately as the last refuge of muddled marxism, are against it. So, what to do? I'll address that in my next post.

  • Comment number 9.

    Part 3.

    Those who now run and have run the major Public Schools must have looked on with some bemusement as the State wilfully dismantled its own selective system, although senior civil service mandarins clearly had a hand in it.

    It is over-dramatic to say that within the Public School collective there is a conspiracy of SELF CONFIDENCE, a conspiracy of NETWORKING, a conspiracy of PRIVILEGE, a conspiracy of COMMAND OF LANGUAGE, but let's do it anyway.

    Accept that they exist. Now, how do we match them? Accept that there is no overt conspiracy AGAINST US, there is a conspiracy FOR THEM. The Grammar Schools were a conspiracy FOR US. What to do now?

    Well, who can you trust? Very few people currently in politics, and of the unconscious agents of reaction the most important is undoubtedly the Labour Party. It has severely let us down - we, the majority.

    The Tory Prime Ministers Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, the Labour ones Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Gordon Brown all benefitted from the grammar school system but were partly instrumental in dismantling it. It was the politically correct thing to do.

    And what happens after John Major? When the selective system has virtually disappeared? Tony Blair and David Cameron. Fettes, Eton.

    The way forward is this: regional, county, city, centres of excellence – inevitably selective. Yes, inevitably selective. Inevitably skewed toward family achievement. Inevitably skewed toward the middle class: what, would you have NO conspiracy FOR US!? I can hear the squeals of "what 'us'? You haven't got the right 'us'". Oh! But I have. This is our conspiracy, the conspiracy of the majority.

    The goal is simple; these selective schools must aspire to reach the standards that existing centres of excellence take for granted.

    Not everyone in every generation will get into our state centres of excellence.

    So, what about schools for those that don't get in?

    Firstly, ASSOCIATION as satellite schools in the share of facilities; with possibilities of individual association and transfer throughout the school career.

    Get back to me on share of facilities: I have some ideas.

    More. Each school place to attract an individual contract between parent(s) and school insisting on cooperation, behaviour, tolerance and safety. Access to education throughout life, but seriously funded.

    Oh! You say that we have that already!? Pull the other one!

    It plays FLOREAT ETONA.

  • Comment number 10.

    Andrew's programme was a personal essay; maybe someone will actually look at a place which still has Grammars and Secondary Mods, Trafford in Greater Manchester is on such area and another is Kent. Private Schools of course need to be added in to understand the impact on mobility

    Further there are in East Anglia some Campus School (almost birth to death) which offer co sites Primary Comprehensive and FE/6 Form colleges on the same site. These are of long standing (the three fold division was never a legal requirement.)

    Politics is everything. For those interested in ancient history,another essay programme might be built on the Rolling Stones Mick ( grammar) Ronnie (Tech) Charlie (Secondary Mod) and Bill Wyman (Grammar but left at 15 (allegedly at his dad's request.)

    And school is not the only route. I was at a lecture today at Oxford University where I met some adult students from the 'access programme' from which the University may permit those who do very well to join the second year of its degree programme.

  • Comment number 11.

    Part 4.

    You'll tell me my scheme is fantasy. I'm not living in the real world: of poverty, broken homes and poor housing. I know it, but you have to start from where you are, and have a direction of travel. Or continue with the muddle. And call on those from Eton, Oxford and the Bullingdon Club to govern us.

    Them and Us, we the PEOPLE, they the TOFFS.

    Look at that Eton, Oxford and Bullingdon Club picture: it is arrogance personified.

    Why did they get back into government? Because WE have no-one to challenge them. They are informed, articulate and more or less able – and possessed of membership of the NETWORK. We are too often ill-informed, untried and inarticulate – and we don't belong to the NETWORK.

    And who are WE? Whether Labour, Tory or Lib-Dem voters, WE, THE PEOPLE, 99.8% of the inhabitants of this nation; we are far too little seen in the corridors of power.

    Hacks, chancers, incompetents abound, as do those of faltering poise and articulacy, as do self-serving lawyers, as do expenses cheats. As do those loaded with opinions but very short on knowledge, and those whose networks are only local: local authority, trade union, small business. Then there are those with family connections and safe seats. Those who live in castles and shoot grouse; and those who "own half the county". And a mandarinate distinguished by its arrogance and its ability to reward itself.

    In principle, can WE, the majority, work with the Public School/Oxbridge types? The Toffs?

    Of course we can; but it must be on the basis of parity, not on the basis of subservience.

    It starts with education, and centres of excellence.

  • Comment number 12.

    its not great at all I have emailed them five times to tell them that I cant get past the second page because I never eat out. you arent allowed options other than how much you pay when you never eat out and whether you prefer steak or pizza - I cant fill it in - It would be great to do it but I am not being given the chance because I dont eat out? I wonder what will happen if I am ever allowed to get to the part where I dont watch T.V?

    Even when being helpful an automated e-mail is sent but nothing has been changed what does this say about the integrity of the research that it isnt available to all?


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