Britain’s class ceiling barely has a crack in it

Class ceiling
Class ceiling

Sometimes you spot something so ridiculous that you have to question whether or not it is satire.

Last week’s head scratcher was a job advert for a joint chief executive that sought applicants from the “criminal class and/or underclass” – a phrase so bizarre and insulting that it was quickly ridiculed.

“The classification is reminiscent of Charles Booth’s 19th century poverty maps,” wrote one social media user. “Who identifies as ‘criminal class?’ The Krays?,” asked another.

It is obviously derogatory to associate being working class with being a criminal, but depressingly this is no one-off.

The Camden People’s Theatre changed the phrasing of its advert a few days after we reported on it, but the fact nobody thought it might be offensive to lump “working-class, benefit class, criminal class and/or underclass” into one category highlights one of the many reasons why Britain’s class ceiling barely has a crack in it.

The Camden People's Theatre was ridiculed for 'Victorian' terminology
The Camden People's Theatre was ridiculed for 'Victorian' terminology - Camden People's Theatre

This might be a niche example from a small and no doubt well-meaning charity, but it does suggest that the arts industry is shot through with elitism.

Despite its efforts to diversify, examples such as this highlight a fundamental misunderstanding about what needs to be done.

Using Victorian-era language about class is clearly not going to inspire anyone and only highlights the divisions in our country.

“I’d bet a small underclass fortune that not a single working class person looked at this ad before it went out,” said Sophie Pender, the founder of state school network the 93% Club, among the many arguing that this is part of a wider problem.

When she asked at a London art fair this year where she could find pieces from working class artists, she was told that there was “a charity that sells work from prisoners”.

Botched efforts to shatter the class ceiling have caused working class representation to plummet.

In film and TV it is at its lowest level in a decade, according to research by the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre, with fewer than one in 10 UK arts workers now from a working class background.

Vicky McClure, the Line of Duty star who grew up in Nottingham, argued last week that the industry has “gone backwards” in terms of opportunities as working class actors are priced out.

It is not the only field that is becoming closed to poorer students. Spiralling student loan costs are discouraging working class young people from going to university at all.

On average, students now leave university in England with £44,940 worth of student loan debt, compared to £3,190 20 years ago. One graduate reportedly has a £231,000 bill.

Class is the forgotten corner of diversity. Elite professions across the country continue to miss the mark.

Despite spending millions on their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, businesses hire people from the same backgrounds over and over again.

Lady Blair, one of the UK’s top barristers and wife of Sir Tony, made this point last year when she said the lucrative legal sector has just replaced “posh boys with posh girls”. It’s all about who you know.

Politicians are aware that this is a subject which could win people over as the nation prepares to go to the polls on July 4.

What exactly has happened to social mobility and where do the problems start? It’s a question voters are increasingly asking. A poll published late last year found that only 44pc of working class voters who voted Conservative in 2019 say they will do so again this time.

Improving opportunities from an early age is the most obvious starting point. Labour has vowed to smash the class ceiling via an education overhaul, noting how private schools “sell themselves” on teaching the things which employers in the arts industry want such as confidence and public speaking.

Speaking skills are a “massive part of the class ceiling,” Sir Keir Starmer said at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama earlier this year.

A lack of arts subjects in state schools puts students at a further disadvantage to their privately educated peers, and there’s a valid argument in the long-running battle over grammar schools that they can transform the lives of working class children who go to them.

The ideal scenario is that the standard of all state schools increases, something Sir Keir is hoping Labour can achieve via a tax raid on private school fees – although the reality is far more complicated.

The fear is that an exodus of pupils from private schools to state schools will offset any increase in funds.

In the meantime, businesses need to recognise their own failings in this area. The employee class gap is all around.

A report published last year by diversity group Progress Together found that socio-economic background has more of an impact on career progression than gender, ethnicity or sexuality.

Only 7pc of the general population went to a fee-paying school, but around 65pc of senior judges, 48pc of FTSE 350 chief executives and 44pc of politicians, newspaper columnists and top actors were privately educated. There’s little sign of that changing.

The Social Mobility Commission found in 2020 that teenagers growing up poor in the 1980s were four times more likely to be poor as adults, whilst in the 1970s they were only twice as likely. Class should be becoming increasingly irrelevant. Sadly, the opposite is happening.