Toffs meet toughs

20th November 1998 at 00:00
George Orwell called Britain "the most class-ridden society under the sun", and in this photograph of boys outside Lord's cricket ground in 1937 the gulf between toff and cheeky-chappy seems huge. Not only are the clothes different, but so are the postures and attitudes. And, what's more, each of them knows it.

This snapshot of class differences recalls characters such as Lord Snooty and the Bash Street Kids in post-war comics, but is the picture still relevant? Margaret Thatcher dismissed class as "a communist concept", and John Major dreamed of a "classless society". Perhaps we imagine social barriers are stronger than they really are.

Yet our continuing obsession with class may be because it gives us an explanation which still makes sense of a fast-changing world. And education is one area where class still matters. Recent research by the London borough of Ealing looked at 5,000 pupils from reception to key stage 2, and found the poorer children did worst in reading, writing and maths. Even more shocking, the Department of Social Security says child poverty between 1979 and 1997 rose dramatically. During that time, the number of children living in families with below half the average income in Britain went up from 9 to 34 per cent.

Class is hard to shake off. The way we look, speak and our chances in life still depend on where we come from. We'll never know what happened to these children, but we can make a fair guess. If the state school boys ended up rich, they were very lucky. If the public school boys ended up serving behind counters, it was more likely to be Harrods than Tesco.

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