BRIDGING THE 'WALLS' THAT DIVIDE CITIZENS
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Yet at the top of society remains a small elite able to boast family pedigrees, titles, university educations, the ''right'' accent and clothes, and fashionable travel. Below, British society is still hierarchical. People in general show a marked deference to rank and title whether based on solid achievement or merely on family tree.Skip to next paragraph
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In July 1982 the BBC asked several of its radio correspondents abroad to assess class in their areas. London anchorman John Clare summed up with some comparisons.
Class in Britain, he said, was ''more sophisticated . . . than in Australia; more sure of itself than in Japan; quite as alive as the caste system in India; sometimes, especially if you are black, as deadly as tribalism in Uganda - and much more pervasive than in West Germany.''
On a 12-passenger Finnish container ship in 1980, I joined officers at a single round table, to be served a fixed menu by a lone steward. On a later voyage on a British sister ship, I found separate tables for captain, first officer, chief engineer, and junior officers, as well as two stewards and a menu.
Meanwhile, twice each year (in the Queen's honors list at New Year and on her official birthday) the class system is perpetuated by the award of hundreds of titles - both ''spoken'' (''Lord,'' ''Baron,'' ''Sir,'' ''Lady,'' etc.) and unspoken (Order of the British Empire, Royal Victorian Order, etc.).
Higher awards go to older, wealthier, more professional people (retired ministers, diplomats, civil servants, lawyers, physicians, bankers, company chairmen, scholars), while lesser ones go to charity workers, bandleaders, athletes, pop stars, and others. Few disagree with the concept of rewarding good works in a nonmonetary way. But some argue the system is too political.
The respected Financial Times newspaper sees the honors system as perpetuating snobbery, having too many categories, and being too much in the hands of the prime minister of the day. It would be better, the paper says, to have a nonpolitical, independent commission in charge. Education
The gateway to class and status remains a ''public school'' (in US terms, a private, fee-paying school) and university education - and remarkably few are able to enter. So the British elite stays small.
''Public schools'' - Eton, Harrow, Winchester, and the rest - educate only about 5 percent of British young people, yet they provide 50 percent of the students at Oxford and Cambridge.
Research by the BBC shows that a smaller proportion of ''working-class'' children entered British universities in 1982 than in 1932. Only 7.5 percent of British 18-year-olds enter any university at all. The comparable figure for the US is 40 percent. For France it is 30 percent.
Even when all forms of higher education and vocational training are included, the British figure rises to only 12.5 percent, according to the Education Ministry.
''In the end,'' says the BBC's John Clare, ''social mobility - breaking out of your class - does depend on education . . . Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge) does remain a gilded gateway to wealth, power, and privilege.''
Figures are also disturbing for secondary education. Only 38 percent of school-leavers in 1981-82 had obtained a pass in English in the ''O''-level exams all children take at about age 16, or in the equivalent Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE). Even fewer - 28 percent - passed in mathematics. A mere 15 percent passed in physics. Fifteen percent passed in French.
These figures were confirmed by the Education Ministry, and they underlie deep concern by the minister, Sir Keith Joseph. He has just announced a sweeping new plan to try to upgrade standards and make them more uniform nationwide.
The figures help an outsider to understand the depth of the unemployment tragedy here. Half of all those out of work are under 25 years of age. They have had no real training for any career. Only now is the government launching the kind of blue-collar training programs long in place in France, West Germany, and Japan.