In examining snobbery, accent and education, Tony Hodgson wonders about the Church of England


In August the successful and acclaimed production of My Fair Lady reached the end of its London run at the Coliseum. Fittingly, the June edition of New Directions included Rebecca Maxted’s wonderful review of the musical. 

Part of the continued popularity of My Fair Lady is its commentary on the snobbery of the English class structure; relating this to the system of education. At the beginning of the musical, Professor Higgins pinpoints Colonel Pickering’s linguistic pedigree as ‘Cheltenham, Harrow, Cambridge, Sandhurst and India’. Then, (during the song, Why Can’t the English?) the Professor tells the Colonel ‘If you spoke as she does [Eliza], instead of the way you do, then, you might be selling flowers too!’ The song had several other prescient phrases. For example, ‘this verbal class distinction by now should be antique’ and ‘condemned by every syllable she utters’. The message is – that a person’s accent relates to their place within the social hierarchy. 

By coincidence, I found myself in the audience at the Coliseum shortly after reading an article posted on The Guardian website last June about implicit prejudiced against northern English accents. According to Dr Robert Mckenzie, expert in socio-linguistics, verbal class distinction, though less than it once was, is by no means extinct. Seemingly, a research team from the University of Northumbria have observed that there remains a concerning implicit bias against northern English accents and speakers. Northerners being perceived as less intelligent, less ambitious and less educated than speakers of regional- neutral, received pronunciation (RP). Significantly, people with ‘stigmatised accents’ are less likely to be offered a job after an interview. Dr McKenzie and his team are engaged in a campaign to have accents made a protected characteristic under the Equality Act. The line of reasoning is – that accent can not only signify the geographical origins of the speaker but also socio-economic background. Arguably, if someone speaks with a strong regional accent there is a high probability that they did not attend a private school or originate from an upper-middle class household.

Back in 1993, I distinctly remember conversing with a distinguished visiting speaker, following his lecture at the Westcott House Theological Society. The priest (who later became a bishop) avuncularly enquired where I was to serve my title? I answered, ‘Chorley in Blackburn Diocese’. He replied, ‘With an accent like yours, I think that’s just as well’. Though I was somewhat taken aback by his directness, there was clearly no meanness intended, it was simply an individual being rather too direct and proffering some honest, but discomforting, unsolicited advice. At one point in his respective journey, he found it prudent to lose his own regional voice and was now advising me to ‘go and do likewise’. Nevertheless, his comment unsettled me because I did, even at that early stage, appreciate the significance of grammar and the necessity to enunciate clearly. Some years later, I became friends with a residentiary canon of Blackburn Cathedral, who (Durham School and Oriel) was the personification of the quintessential, public-school, Oxbridge cleric. Over many years, my friend customarily greeted me (parodying a Lancashire accent) with ‘Ee by gum Lad! How Ye gettin on?’ Always said in a spirit of good-natured jocularity, never with malice. All the same, arising from many similar encounters over the years, I now firmly believe that possessing a strong regional represents a disadvantage; especially when the majority of those in senior positions speak with upper-middle class RP.

Whilst the Lancashire voice has historically been associated with comedy and light entertainment, for instance, Frank Randale, Gracie Fields, George Formby and, more recently, Victoria Wood and Peter Kay, when Lancastrians venture into more serious fields such, as radio and television journalism or academia, modifying to regional-neutral RP seems advisable, as both David Starkey and Baroness (Joan) Bakewell testify. 

When it comes to the Church of England, could it be that, because of its regional and comedic associations, the Lancashire voice lacks perceived gravitas when attempting to articulate profound theological and ecclesiological matters?


Education, class and voice

Around 2004, when simultaneously involved with two socio-economically different Lancashire primary schools, I had first-hand experience of implementing The Department for Education and Skills’ policy Speaking, Listening, learning: working with children in Key Stages 1 and 2. This encouraged all children ‘to make a verbal contribution; nurturing skills of speaking audibly and making meaning explicit in a structured, socially apposite and grammatically correct manner’. Fifteen years later, the primary school programme was recalled, and its long-term ‘effects’ demonstrated, when I undertook a teaching practice on a Level V History module in an FE College in a post-industrial Lancashire town. Many of the undergraduates had inevitably been subject to the Speaking, Listening, learning initiative earlier at primary school.

Since the FE degree assessment included 10% for a seminar presentation, I soon found myself sitting through week after week of student-led seminars. At the start, the students were given a list of approximately fifteen seminar topics; invited to choose one and allocated a date to deliver the presentation. The seminars entailed that week’s student verbally taking the class through a PowerPoint; after which the presenter had to field questions from the group. The tutors too asked questions and it fell upon either myself, or my colleague, to give a vote of thanks at the end. Roughly 30 minutes was timetabled for each seminar; although there was latitude for it to run on longer.

Whilst the students’ written essays and summative examination were frequently of impressive quality, conversely, the seminars, though on paper thoughtfully planned, in practice proved, with a couple of notable exceptions, disappointing, rushed and lacking enthusiasm. Though 30 minutes was timetabled, they often finished in less. Three were barely fifteen minutes in length (including questions and a vote of thanks). Also, there was reluctance from other members of the group to put questions to the presenter, and when they did, the quality and manner left much to be desired. Additionally, some of the younger members of the class were distinctly uncomfortable and markedly inept at receiving and answering questions. This discomfort appeared to heighten when the speaker was interrupted with a point of clarification. Having had their narrative flow interrupted, they showed difficulty getting back on track. Evidently, they had come expecting to deliver an uninterrupted monologue and were taken aback when another member of the group asked a question. 

All the students had been educated within the state sector. Significantly, the age demographic of the class went from early- twenties through to late-fifties; and, from what I observed, it was the two oldest who appeared most relaxed and confident in their respective presentations.

Predictably, it was the younger members of the class who generally created the most technically impressive PowerPoints, clearly displaying their superior IT skills. From this observation, two corollaries emerged: that age and experience made all the difference; and that these two characteristics appeared to count at least as much as (and perhaps even more than) innate intelligence and overall conscientiousness in fulfilling this particular verbal task. This was born out since overall course assessment demonstrated that the highest academic achievers were not necessarily the oldest.

The ability to speak confidently, coherently and convincingly is requisite in many professions, for example, the law, education and the Church; moreover, even in occupations that do not entail public speaking, the capacity to communicate clearly, thoughtfully and courteously with occupational peers is necessary. In face of this occupational necessity, there emerges an unnerving and unprecedented consensus between educational journalists ranging from Poly Toynbee on the left to Simon Heffer on the right, and among popular academics as diverse as Akala to Dr David Starkey. Professor Selina Todd has built much of her career around this particular sociological reality, the journalist Toby Young both talks and writes extensively about it.

In England and Wales, the 7% of the population that are educated privately, and the small minority that attend selective-entry state schools, achieve greater levels of educational and professional attainment than those from the state comprehensive sector. 

When it comes to the all-important (zero sum) interview, the fortunate privately- educated 7% have received the type of social, educational and cultural formation that equips them to be more confident and convincing verbal communicators. The reasons for this seem to be that such activities as: school debating societies, school elections; the necessity for prefects and heads of school to address audiences; reading lessons in chapel; participation in school musical and theatrical productions and membership of the school combined cadet corps all contribute to producing individuals who are confident, articulate and, more often than not, have a convincing command of RP. Admittedly, it is not just about accent, even so, it is unlikely that parents spend eye-watering amounts (from taxed income) on private education for their sons to sound like Johnny Vegas, or daughters, Philomena Cunk.


Two Significant BBC Television Documentaries

In 2014, Andrew Neil broadcast his belief that since the mid-1990s, opportunities for social mobility in Britain have been diminishing with a gradual return to pre-1964 levels of the privately educated dominating the hierarchies of British society. For Neil, it was the system of selective- entry state-funded grammar schools that proliferated throughout Britain, circa 1944 – 1975, that were the engines of the social mobility; from which Neil himself benefitted, but has been continuously contracting since 1997, when the Blair government read the last rites over the 1980 Thatcher government’s assisted places scheme. By 2014 ‘there was nothing in the state sector to match what was offered by the public schools’.

Five years later, Neil’s theme was developed by Amol Rajan (2019) who noted the preponderance of the privately-educated in a number of highly competitive and elite occupations, not least his own, the media. Rajan observed that recruiters to these prestigious ‘first person contact’ occupations often favoured the private rather than state-school educated graduates from the same university, even when the state- educated candidate had a better class of degree in the same subject. Also, Ramel reported, when examining Oxbridge graduates, those who were privately educated on average went on to earn more than their state- educated contemporaries.

When interviewing, recruiters often ask themselves three simple questions: Can the candidate do the job? Will the candidate do the job? Will the candidate fit in? Inevitably, this final question mitigates against the state-educated when competing in this zero-sum game.

Alarmingly, Rajan concluded that many hard-working, highly intelligent and extremely competent state-educated graduates were passed over because they lacked the social and cultural ‘polish’ of their privately-educated competitors. The reality is that state-educated graduates are mistakenly pursuing additional academic qualifications (for example, enrolling for a MA, MBA or doctorate and in the process accumulating a huge debt liability) to compensate for their lack of social and cultural capital.

The concurring messages of Neil and Rajan were later confirmed by Hashi Mohamed (2020) in his semi-autobiographical sociological analysis of modern Britain. He asserts that there is more to occupational and professional success than simply having good qualifications and a high level of individual competence. These qualities are a start, but they are not in themselves enough. In addition, Hashi Mohamed describes the ‘cultural and social capital’ that are essential to gain admission to, and succeed in, certain highly competitive and prestigious areas of English life, for example, the law, merchant and investment banking, the media, publishing and broadcasting.


But what of the Church of England?

The Anglican ordained ministry may no longer be an elite occupation, but it is definitely a first-person contact one and there is much competition for many positions within it. Therefore, possessing the sort of region-neutral, RP voice traditionally associated with the upper-middle class, arguably constitutes the sort of soft skill, polish and social capital to which Rajan and Hashi Mohamed refer. In an ancient and deeply hierarchical institution such as the Church of England, which is by definition affiliated to the Establishment, it is likely that public-school, Oxbridge sounding voices have traditionally carried considerable currency. Although the Church of England has expended much effort to become more ethnicity, gender and disability inclusive, the subject of classism is less frequently discussed. Yet, both Amol Rajan and Hashi Mohamed have convincingly argued that many of the tensions often attributed to racial prejudice are in fact the result of class prejudice.

Despite John Prescott’s assertion in 1997 that ‘we are all middle class now’, a quarter of a century later it seems that accent remains one of the clearest signifiers of social class. This is not accidental. Regionally-neutral public-school English became synonymous with Oxbridge English and this fashion was later propagated through the BBC; thus, by 1945, becoming nationally recognizable as the language of the ruling class. For those who served in the First and Second World Wars, or later had to undertake National Service, this style of speech became associated with the officer class. Arguably, this has historic and cultural implications for the Church even today.

Undoubtedly, when leading worship, preaching, chairing a meeting, pastoral visiting or merely engaging in social conversation, the intonation, clarity, volume and rhythm of the priest’s voice has significant influence and connotations. The ability to transmit a sense of gravitas is an undeniable asset within the field of religious verbal communication. In reality, some voices simply sound more authoritative, educated, privileged and entitled than others. Interestingly, when, in 1946, Bishop William Wand of London was describing Walter Baddeley, the Bishop of Melanesia, to Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher, with a view to finding Baddeley an episcopal position in England, something cited against Baddeley was his ‘hard unpleasing voice’. Significantly, Baddeley came from the provincial lower-middle class and had attended Varndean Grammar School. That was then, even so, it would be interesting to differentiate what percentage of today’s clerical hierarchy today attended – private, selective entry or comprehensive schools ? Moreover, it would be fascinating to ascertain what proportion speak with regional accents? As Jilly Cooper (1980) sagaciously observed ‘when people talk about class barriers, they often mean sound barriers’.

Class allegiances and tribal shibboleths can be exploited; even being turned against the interests of the institutions that foster them. The examples of Burgess, Maclean, Philby and Blunt demonstrated this reality. Comparably, one might conjecture about late Bishop Peter Ball’s career. Undoubtedly, Ball’s path and successful subterfuge resulted from the institution’s lack of procedures and accountability. Still, I wonder whether he would have been encouraged, promoted, and protected by the institutional Church – to the level that he was – had he instead attended a Secondary Modern school in a northern industrial-town and spoken with a working-class accent?


Tony Hodgson is the Vicar of St Margaret of Antioch, St Anne’s-on-the-Sea, Lancashire.