Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Ruane could give us all a lesson in snobbery with her class wars

Education Minister Caitriona Ruane

Last week I wrote about a rather melancholy social trend whereby some young girls have babies in order to jump the queue on the social housing list.

I was not calling these single mums "scroungers" , but simply stating that I found it very sad that some young women have no bigger goals (or bigger dreams) than rearing fatherless children on a shoestring budget.

And I did say I blamed the Government fair and square for their relentless push towards a service economy, and their general lack of support for any kind of industry in this country apart from banking and politics.

I should have added that I was in no way condemning divorced mums on benefits. For what else are divorced mums supposed to do when their marriage breaks up? Hand the children over to a children's home, and start selling dusters and clothes pegs door to door?

Needless to say, some readers made their feelings very clear. And one reader mentioned something about middle class snobbery, presumably referring to me. But is the issue of class still applicable in 2009? Do most working class people automatically assume that most middle class people are snobs? I think I am neither middle class nor a snob but it's a tricky one to work out.

When I was growing up, a person had to be in 'the professions' to be thought of as middle class: a doctor, surgeon, solicitor, surveyor, teacher, professor, member of the clergy, high-ranking civil servant or perhaps a gentleman farmer to qualify as middle class. Money wasn't the main thing: a wealthy bookmaker with a string of shops would always be working class while the poorest schoolteacher was still absolutely middle class.

Middle class people tended to keep their business to themselves, obey the law, and wear a hat to church. Everybody else was working class. Except for the monarchy, all aristocrats and major landowners (be they rich or poor) who were of course, upper class.

Now, it seems that anybody who has ever been to university or has a mortgage, is middle class. And since I qualify on both points, it would seem that I am indeed middle class. But am I really?

I've a 2:1 in illustration and own a modest chalet bungalow: does that make me middle class? I like painting, drawing, visiting galleries and museums. Does that make me a snob? I hope not. To say that only middle class people can appreciate art is to suggest that working class people are incapable of appreciating the finer things in life. Which is, of course, utter nonsense.

As a columnist, am I not allowed to comment on 'the dole' because I am not currently on the dole myself? I was on the dole for six months in 1987 and it was a miserable experience. I got £30 a week to cover all expenses. Then I found a sales job that paid me £35 a week and that was even more miserable.

I left the sales job after four months to work in a bar and that was worst of all: £2 an hour, rushed off my feet and often subjected to verbal harassment by inebriated men.

Eventually I went back to university for four years, then was a stay-at-home mum for eight years, and I've been a working mum now for eight years. I still do not consider myself to be middle class. And I have never been a snob.

A snob is someone who looks down on those people he considers socially inferior. An inverse snob is someone who looks down on those he considers socially superior - but only socially superior because they have had an easy life full of old money and privilege. I am neither. I do not look down on anyone. And I do not resent high achievers from any social background; be it working, middle or upper class.

I recently attended prize-giving at a Belfast grammar school. And it was truly awe-inspiring to see young people collecting awards for excellence in academic achievement, sport, music, drama, science and art.

They seemed like mere children, yet within two years many of them would be dissecting cadavers in their first year of a medical degree.

Indeed, afterwards, I was humbled to see several high achievers jump into cars and zoom out of the school gates.

I've never won a silver cup and I still can't drive but I wasn't jealous or resentful. I briefly wished I'd worked harder at school myself. And I briefly wished I'd considered a different career than being a freelance author/illustrator something with a regular salary and a pension plan. But what's done is done.

All I can say now, at this stage in my life, is that I am definitely not middle class, definitely not a snob, and also very glad my name is not Caitriona Ruane.

For one of the defining moments in our history will be the Great Selection Test Debacle of 2009, when the selection test was abolished - but not the grammar schools themselves.

Which brought nothing but stress and confusion to teachers, parents and children alike. And led to a plethora of private selection tests, court cases and counter court cases.

I might tick off the odd reader of this column. But at least I'm not playing party politics with the education system in Northern Ireland.

Now if that isn't inverse snobbery, then I don't know what is.

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