Thursday, December 3, 2009

Class of 2009 :: A Class Education #27

Class of 2009 :: A Class Education

December 3rd 2009

The topic this week is more of an observation rather than much food for thought, but it’s one that I find fascinating. Having lived in the UK now for 6 years, I have had the unique opportunity to observe and take part in its cultures and traditions as a foreigner. One of the most intriguing aspects of the UK, is their class system. The class system in this country is as English as the Ol’ Baked Bean herself (that is cockney for Queen for all the Americans gotta love a bit of cockney!). It’s funny, as before I came to live here I didn’t really know anything about it. Even visiting the UK, it’s not something that I feel that you can really understand until you spend a lot of time here. So today I am going to cover some of the differences in the UK and US class systems.

First off, the US doesn’t really have a class system. Well nothing on the level of over here. We have a black President whose father was from Kenya, which is a clear and obvious example of the American dream being alive and well. Also, as the States are not even 300 years old one could make the argument that the entire country is nouveau riche. The closest thing that we have to a class system probably exists on the East Coast and only because that side of the country was settled first. But again, comparing it to the UK class system is like comparing a white Alba truffle to black truffle oil... there really is no comparison.

High school vs Public school. First off, you have to get your head around the lingo. Public school in England is not what our public schools are, which are called “state schools” over here. Public school here is a private, usually boarding school. The public school you go to ends up being much more important than where you go to university (unless you attend Oxford or Cambridge). Over here their public schools are like our Ivy Leagues, the kids you meet and relationships you build presumably will be ones that help you out later on in your career and life. An example of a public school with a large amount of sway may be a school like Eton or Harrow. Both of these schools produce a startling number of MP’s (Members of Parliament). Now in the States, very few people care about where you went to high school or even if it was public (state) or private. The east coast is an exception with a larger number of kids going to boarding school there. However, going to a good boarding school is only to help you get into a top university later on, as our systems places a much greater deal on where you attend college. Where I am from, if you went to boarding school it was not necessarily a positive thing. You were either “sent away” because you were a problem child or in some worse cases you were sent away to military school. Either way, going away to a boarding school was rarely a good thing. So it is very opposite to over here.

Another opposite in the UK class and US class systems are found in their choice of vehicle. Now assuming we are calling the wealthy in the US the upper class, their taste in vehicle will be extravagant and certainly expensive. Americans spend a great deal of time in their cars and there is also a lot of pride placed on what car you drive. An upper class American may drive a Range Rover, Bentley, Mercedes, BMW or even a Ferrari. You would not be caught dead in a beat up old VW. In all honesty, you probably wouldn’t even be caught dead in a last series Merc or Range Rover. A truly posh and upper class English person would rather die than be caught driving around in a Ferrari or new Bentley (an older inherited one maybe). Many of the upper class over here drive around in 10 year old VW Golfs, or old Land Rovers if they are on their estate in the country. Posh people would consider a brand new Range Rover déclassé and would never want to be confused with a footballer’s wife. So in the UK crap old Golf = posh person and new Range Rover = Coleen Rooney. In the USA crap old Golf = not enough money to buy a new Golf and new Range Rover = wealthy to moderately wealthy and likes driving a big nice car.

On to the accent. This one I love. It has taken me years to fully understand all of the accents and dialects over here and there are still some like the Liverpudlian accent, which I struggle with. What I find amazing is that 2 people can grow up within 1 mile of each other and have completely different accents. Now an accent you cannot hide. You cannot ever get away from it and it will always belie your true roots. If you wish to be accepted into the upper echelons of British society, it will be incredibly difficult if not impossible without the right accent. Now for the Americans to understand this, a posh accent is someone who speaks like one of the Royal family, not someone whose accent is like Simon Cowell’s or David Beckham’s. So even though Simon and David are hugely successful worldwide, both are self made and both are at the top of their respective industries, neither will ever be accepted into certain circles back home. Why? Because their accent belies their background and breeding and they will never be posh, regardless of Beckham’s wife’s nickname.

I could really go on forever on this one, from what people wear to where they holiday. Even something as simple as a watch could give your class away over here. But I wouldn’t ever want to change the English class system. Why? Because although it’s very outdated, it’s a large part of the culture and tradition of the country. If people don’t come from a certain background, it doesn’t matter in the real world. The American dream is not just alive in America, but certainly exists over here where there are a huge amount of self made people. I can think of so many more opposites over here from double barreled names to the armed forces. But one thing rings clear, although the US and the UK may be very close politically the 2 countries remain a world apart culturually and the world is the better for it.


  1. Ha! made me chuckle! A few insights into British culture that many may overlook. Working in a state school at the moment, all of this is often at the forefront of my mind, especially as I get a rinsing on most days for my "posh" accent! well, as you say, one can't really hide from it (although mine seems to get stronger when it certainly shouldn't!)

    Very interesting that you compare our Public Schools to the Ivy League status in the US, and thinking about it, I think that is a very accurate assessment, especially when trying to explain our system to those unaccustomed to it.

    Considering there is a very strong anti-elitist feeling about public schools at the moment (look at the stats that universities have to adhere to in terms of percentage of state and public school student intake - A few years ago oxbridge had to have a 70% state to 30% public school ratio), it is nice to hear that you do not ridicule the system.

    There is much that needs to be reassessed in the education system in the UK (the state schools are in need of some desperate help in lots of cases) especially when we consider that 11% of the population go to Public School, and over 50% of the top end jobs (banks, lawyers, doctors, teachers) go to these public school students.

    I must finally add that as one who was public school educated, it is an incredible experience and I enjoyed every second!

  2. Mel, thanks for the interesting comment. Your stats on public school to those who go into some of the top professions are certainly interesting. I imagine that it must be very different working in a state school when you were privately educated.

    Public schools may sometimes get a bad rap, but elitist forms of anything always will. I don't know one person who went to public school who would disagree with your last statement. I think it's important for people to know how lucky they are to be able to attend such institutions and that the real world is decidedly different from the one behind the Ivy gates.

  3. 'Mel J' - teaching is not a top profession. What an absolutely ridiculous comment. Whilst a wonderful profession in itself, to call it a 'top-end job' is rot.