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What My Time at Oxford Taught Me About Social Mobility

02/02/2016 17:16 GMT | Updated 02/02/2017 10:12 GMT

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After just 56 days at Oxford I noticed something had begun to change. My accent. Growing up in Bradford had equipped me with neither the diction nor the cadence to fit in with the privately-schooled and the social savants. This was a university where yes was pronounced "ears", and where people didn't eat dinner but rather dined at supper.

Two in every three bathrooms I said became a "barthroom", the "a" tripping off my tongue as though I were sat in a dentist chair saying "aaah" while an inspection of my wisdom teeth was carried out. It only served to add contrast to my natural pronunciation of the vowel which sounded more like a small burp.

I'd won a place at the University through academic determination. But I was being locked out by factors I thought would never have a bearing on my time there. The fact that I was from Bradford, and spoke differently. That no one had heard of my school. Mum, who left education aged 15 and raised us solely on the pecuniary kindness of the state, I'm ashamed to say, grew ever more absent from descriptions of life before university. As did dad, an immigrant whose first language was not English.

I'd begun to distend the very things that made up me. The success of my attempt to traverse the social strata so neatly laid out at Oxford was not dependent on how clever I thought I was but by whether others saw me as one of them. I'd become socially immobile.

This weekend's publication of the Government's Social Mobility Index, therefore, made for interesting reading. Bradford, the hometown that gifted me an austere childhood, has been designated a social mobility "cold spot". It is a place with a problem. When compared with the UK's 324 local authorities it came in at 310 in terms of school social mobility performance: the bottom 5 per cent. The salt in the wound is that in the same city which counts the Brontës amongst its daughters, barely over a quarter (26.9%) of children eligible for free school meals achieve 5 A*-C grades at GCSE.

Post-university life has brought me to Tower Hamlets, an area not unlike Bradford in its ethnic diversity. However in contrast children growing up in Tower Hamlets will be the fourth most socially mobile in the country, according to the current Index. More than twice the number of children in Tower Hamlets receive more than 5 A*-Cs at GCSE than in Bradford and the average salary is 40% higher.

Why such a stark contrast between London boroughs like Tower Hamlets and the forgotten cities of the North like Bradford?

The influences on social mobility are manifold and complex. But if my experience at Oxford taught me one thing it is that educational attainment is only part of the solution to unlocking social mobility.

It is here where soft factors come into play. The way you speak. The confidence a young man or woman has, both social and intellectual. The soft social networks of parental groups, now so decisive in determining whether children get pre-work experience through internships and, ultimately, better jobs.

My own careers adviser thought it better to counsel a profession in social work in place of Oxford. There are certain things working class boys and girls outside of London weren't expected to do, or be.

All of these characteristics I considered as a teenager as emblematic of being middle class. They are not taught in the classroom, but observed, imbued or aped. Much like the bastardised accent I had adopted.

The contrast between London and the rest of England is in this respect down to the absence of one simple factor: social mixing.

Where in London one is never far away from social housing, the Bradford I grew in was not close to the affluent suburban dwellings of Yorkshire's middle class. Yet while the youth club dad nigh-on forced me to join wasn't attended by kids from high performing schools, the adults running it were well-educated and the summer camps it ran brought in kids from across the county. Mum's voluntary work with asylum seekers took her, and us, to 'community arts centres' where topics like the reproductive rights of women were discussed without refrain and where we mixed with kids from homes with four bedrooms as opposed to our two.

The architecture of social mixing, the youth clubs, civic centres, the mixed housing communities and social support networks, are definitive. Yet it is no secret that funding for youth services has fallen by more than a third in the past few years. The community projects, once funded by Bradford's local authority, have all but disappeared. And in many of England's urban metropolises, London included, a slow, silent social cleansing is taking place thanks to rising private rents and property prices.

They are definitive in broadening exposure to those soft factors, factors which can make the difference between a confident and intellectually assured kid, and one who restrains him or herself to the expectations of their social class. For without them, I probably wouldn't be here, and you wouldn't be reading this article.