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If you want social mobility, teach kids at the bottom end to write thank you letters

11 July 2014

Last week’s readers tea party at The Spectator was a delight. You always suppose that the people you’re writing for are interested, intelligent and nice….and there you go: they are. But after meeting them, I’ve been brooding about the importance of, how can I put it, charm, as a class issue. One attractive woman – who had been telling me how, in the Sixties, she thought something was wrong with her if she didn’t get groped on the Tube – encouraged me to move on with the observation: ‘I must let other people enjoy you’. Graceful and expert.

For ages, coming from a background that was the reverse of grand – my parents both left school at 14 – I was always a bit on my guard when it came to charm, feeling vaguely ill at ease with those Etonians who would, in discussing an issue, remark: ‘Do you really think so?’ My own approach was a bit more gloves off. But then again, with an Irish background, you are used to a different kind of social ease; the sort that turns everyday conversations into a humorous exchange. It’s kind of good manners, making the best of things.

But what strikes me in the context of one of the most important social developments of my own lifetime – the transformation of the working class into an underclass – is the extent to which fluency, articulacy and manners are a class thing. It’s hard to say what I mean without sounding preposterous, but I can only say that there’s been a generational change; that the grandchildren of some working class people I know are significantly less able to handle social encounters well than the older generation did. It’s not mere etiquette; it’s a shared notion of good behaviour. It’s not true across the board – lots of young people from badly off families have lovely manners – but it’s a shift that I’m conscious of whenever I return to my home town – where jobs are, not coincidentally, far harder to come by than they were.

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Last week, the editor of Tatler, Kate Reardon, observed that good manners are more important than good grades when it comes to forging a career. And in quite a different context, Professor David Metcalf, head of the Government’s Migration Advisory Committee, that the British school system’s betrayal of less academically inclined pupils is forcing employers to look overseas to fill low-skilled jobs.

Too many school-leavers, he said, lack not only the rudiments of literacy and numeracy, but even the most basic skills to ‘look people in the eye and get out of bed’.

So, let me make a modest proposal. Let’s make socialising the young part of schooling. I’m not talking about anything terribly fancy, like how to handle a fork and spoon when eating your afters – though I remember how very intimidating that once was – so much as the really, really basic things. How to say how do you do; how to shake hands; how to make eye contact. I remember my first meeting with perhaps the best-known newspaper editor in Britain when he first took over the paper I worked for. It was a textbook case of eye contact plus firm handshake and smile. And it was a social skill that had been learned.

What I want is for children in bad areas, in poor schools to be given those skills. The Evening Standard, my own paper, has launched a programme to promote apprenticeships to bring together employers and young people whose job prospects are slim. Well, in some cases, part of the business of preparing them for jobs by the partner charity that runs the scheme is teaching these young people awfully basic things, like punctuality. It shouldn’t have been necessary after twelve years or so at school.

So here’s something concrete. Teach children from primary school the importance of thank you letters. That’s the pre-eminent middle class skill. In the first week at school after Christmas, get the entire class to write a thank you letter to some relation who gave them a present. When the class goes on a museum trip, get the whole lot of them to write to the people who took them round telling them how they enjoyed it. Every term, one thank you letter. And then, in secondary school, teach them how to write to would-be employers. Teach them the devastating skill of writing to thank their interviewer for seeing them. Teach them how to reply to a job refusal with the request that the firm bear them in mind for the future. Teach them how to write, Kind regards, and Yours faithfully and Yours sincerely. And teach them how to lay the thing out and check the spelling.

We all know that social mobility is slowing up. So we need to equip children at the bottom end how to close the gap. You do it in all manner of ways. But social skills have to be part of it. They’re a class thing, and the people who need them most are those at the bottom of the pile.

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Show comments
  • Mrs Josephine Hyde-Hartley

    But what if young people don’t want to close the so-called gap between us?

  • Liberty

    We of course have a problem in that our teachers no longer have the skills themselves having been through the de-social skilling process themselves, too often thinking that subtle social skills were a MC affectation. In the 60s it was an affectation amongst the middle class to swear and curse like a navvy, being ‘authentic’, breaking down class divisions as they imagined it. I have a sister in law, well educated and intelligent, full of wooly minded Lefty nonsense, now in her 60s who has never let it go. She swears, is rude, her children call he by her first name, etc and all the while she is imagining that she is just being authentic when it comes accross as offensive, rude and she can’t control her temper. My children hated it, they thought she was horrible witch.

  • CharlietheChump

    Good idea but problematic because we don’t yet manage to teach enough pf’em to write at all, never mind thank you.

  • Liz

    Jobs are advertised and recruited via employment agents these days. Precisely because employers want to avoid the onerous task of having to receive letters and emails from candidates. It would be the height of bad manners, and would quickly get you blacklisted if you circumvented the agent and contacted the employer directly.

    • Mrs Josephine Hyde-Hartley

      Blacklisting is illegal. Besides clouds are the thing nowadays, I understand.But luckily, common sense prevails.

  • Conway

    But what strikes me in the context of one of the most important social
    developments of my own lifetime … is the extent to which fluency, articulacy
    and manners are a class thing.
    ” It may be now, but it never used to be. How about bringing back Grammar Schools so bright, working class children get a foot on the ladder? Then there is a chance that they will be fluent and articulate. These days, just teaching them how to write and spell would be considered a good start.

  • Winston Burchill

    I’ve heard worse ideas.

  • Matthew Stevens

    This piece of ignorant, anecdotal, whimsical, snobby and above all, naive and trivial drivel does nothing but reinforce the stereotypes about anyone who feels that they’re vaguely successful being there because of nepotism, privilege and luck and therefore hopelessly out of touch and unqualified to speak on any issue of social mobility.

    Sometimes I think you’re actually a left-wing troll pretending to be some nonsensical conservative stereotype straw-man the opposition!

  • swatnan

    as if … whatever … thanx

  • Smithersjones2013

    All this tells us is that McDonut is an inveterate snob, something elitist luvvies have been guilty of since time immemorial and to prove her wrong here is someone from the old aristocracy who is amongst the rudest of individuals:

    I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly.</i

    The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

    You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.

    He was also the greatest leader and politician this country ever had and possibly one of the few politicians who instinctively grasped the concept of the classless society! RIP Sir Winston.

    • eclair

      Rubbish! Who’s talking about charm or smarmyness. Good manners grease the wheels of all social intercourse including work, marriage and weekend boozy binges. It helps, thats all.
      Would you employ someone who couldnt rub along with the rest?Just the same as you wouldnt employ someone who was crawling or crap at their job. Winston had a gift with words and an education that taught him confidence.. Schools too often in my experience are taught by officious nerks with little wit or social grace of their own. What chance do kids have?I can just imagine the teaching of manners to student teachers and what that would consist of but a start needs to be made somewhere. The problem is that neither kids nor teachers seem to have a lot of respect for each other.
      By the way, classlessness doesnt mean sliding into the pit of boorishness.

    • Liberty

      This is crass. WSC had great manners, charisma and expert at putting people at their ease. Sure, he would make clever put downs of those who insulted him [‘I may be drunk…’] or make rude comments about ordinary people out of their earshot [but I am sure you will admit, he had a point] but when he met ordinary people and VIPs he was attentive, curteous and they came away thinking that he was interested in them and them alone.

  • HookesLaw

    I do not think that when Metalf said that too many people lacked the ability to ‘look people in the eye and get out of bed’ ” he was suggesting they develop social skills. he was suggesting they develop some backbone.

    I think you need to look a bit more deply into the increasing obsession with TV and computer games and ‘social media’, which is of course really ‘antisocial media’.

  • Kitty MLB

    Some of us never got a invitation to the readers tea party, so never met dear Rod.
    Indeed manners have nothing to do with class and would be somewhat preposterous
    to make that assumption. May I ask why do we still have “class” I know its awfully English, rather like warm beer and the stiff upper lip. But it does somewhat box people. ” Under Class” ghastly word and utterly insulting.
    Its not the responsibility of Schools to teach manners and social skills. Their
    job is to educate.
    Manners and social skills are those children learn by example of their parents.
    Sending thank you notes, yes they should do this but would probably send a e-mail
    The demise of the actual written word is another debate. Parents should encourage
    children to look others in the eyes at a very young age . And hopefully they will
    carry that into adulthood.

    • telemachus

      Kitty dear, your airs and breeding tell me that you could not understand the underclass
      But it is there alright
      I Tower Hamlets where children still attend school without proper shoes
      Or in Stretford where there are houses with no tea on the table
      Or in Toxteth where drug crazed mothers do not recognise their own children
      Let them rot I hear you say
      But it is not the fault of the children
      We must protect them

      • eclair

        Telemachus, I dont think Kitty would let anyone rot, after all, she doesnt even squash wasps, just bats them away with a pale airey hand when we all know that all wasps want are other peoples picnics handed to them on a plate.
        You dont know when you are well off.
        Incidentally, having lived in Toxteth for some years I and the other drug-crazed mothers think you talk crap!

      • grammarschoolman

        ‘Tower Hamlets where children still attend school without proper shoes’

        Probably because they’ve all left them in the mosque.

    • John Dalton

      I’m afraid the above article is another load of woolly-headed drivel that creeps around the real issues.

      Until we bring back meaningful discipline and teach our over-indulged, self-entitled, celebrity-obsessed kids the meaning of real respect (not “reespec’-innit”) then we are on a hiding to nothing. They need rules, discipline and rigour and adults who are not afraid to put them firmly in their place.

      This is the product of years of left-wing bleeding heart infiltration of our education system and look where it’s got us.

    • Conway

      It would help if the role models they saw portrayed on television gave them some help in the manners and social skills department, too.

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