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A response to the NWCC Class in Classics report 2024




The results of the 2024 Class in Classics report by the Network for Working Class Classicists (no affiliation) come as a welcome confirmation – but small surprise – to those who have long believed that class status has a significant determining part to play in the opportunities to study and succeed in the field of Classics.


Analysis of the sector has revealed that it comprises a disproportionate number of students, academics, and teachers from affluent backgrounds, while those from working class origins are represented at a level far lower than in comparable sectors. Working Classicists was started because of this inequality – we knew it, we saw it and felt it first-hand – and this report gives us concrete data with which to paint a more accurate picture.


While some universities are discussing protected characteristics more than before, class rarely features in these dialogues. For a discipline which is so visibly associated with class as a barrier, this is astounding. One respondent to the NWCC survey explained that class is “sometimes raised; normally dismissed as ‘class war’, ‘revolution’, ‘socialism’ or ‘tearing down British institutions’, or just a joke.” The underlying theme seems to be that unless the professionals in situ have experienced deprivation or economic difficulty themselves, they are incapable of the empathy required to address the difficulties that students experience. 


Worryingly, the NWCC report reveals that even when Equality, Diversity and Inclusion policies are in place at a university, they have benefitted working class people less than their colleagues from more affluent backgrounds. One respondent tells a depressing anecdote: “At an EDI meeting I raised the issue of socioeconomic inequality at my university. I was told it wasn’t the type of inequality they wanted to discuss. I was the only working class person in the room.” If EDI policies are not achieving equality for all (and factoring the intersectionality of class with other protected characteristics) then it is a policy which is not working.


Universities seem unable to understand the poverty trap, whereby opportunities are denied students and professionals from a working class background because they do not have ready money. The financial outlay required for attendance at conferences or field trips is seldom given the sensitivity necessary, leading to many being excluded. Parallel to this, there is an ongoing assumption within Classics that money is readily available for such outlays, and thus the presence of one group is bolstered while the other is diminished.


Three years ago, we conducted a small study looking into the number of state-school vs. private-school alumni that attend university to study Classics or Classical Studies in Scotland. The results were aligned with the findings of the NWCC report: just 31-33% of students on the course were from state-schools, despite 96% of pupils in Scotland overall attending state schools. Somehow the private sector made up a huge majority in these subjects, despite just 4% of all Scottish pupils being privately educated. There is a two-fold disadvantage suffered by state-school classicists in Scotland: they are less likely to be offered the subject at school, and those that do receive disproportionately fewer places at university.


When undergraduates from working class backgrounds somehow manage to battle through and complete their degrees, they are far less likely to get on in the academic field. To put this in brutal context, the study reports that at professorial level, 82.5% of respondents came from affluent backgrounds; 11% came from the working class.


At a school level, which is where our primary interest lies, investment and adequate funding has dried up. This means the number of state-school pupils even being exposed to these subjects has diminished, making it even less likely that such pupils will go on to study or have a career in the Classics. If pupils become what they see – which is ever my mantra – then vast numbers of state-school pupils will find it impossible to experience Classics simply because their school does not offer the subjects. This is a stark contrast to almost all independent schools.


Vitally, with many schools currently “rationalising” their curricula (dumping subjects, in common parlance), the fight to keep Classics going becomes harder. One response hits the nail on the head: “[Classics] is not considered important enough in the current climate of insufficient funding and focus on Maths and English.” I won’t go on about this forever,  but you can read a wonderful piece by Andy Robert here if you’d like to learn more in the meantime. 


The most uncomfortable reading comes in the sections of the report reflecting personal experiences of snobbery and exclusion, an isolation we have grappled with before at Working Classicists. In 2021, we asked our followers on Twitter/X to share the worst examples of snobbery they’d ever encountered in the field of classics. We received almost 100 responses in just a couple of days. These responses detailed job adverts specifying where a degree should come from in order to be valid, comments about peoples’ language skills “not being where they should be”, or stories of students being excluded from events because “it wouldn’t be your sort of thing”. Perhaps one of the worst examples of this throwaway, casual classism was in this response: “I vividly remember someone telling me that people who didn’t study Greek at school shouldn’t be allowed to study Classics at ‘top universities’. Keeping in mind that I didn’t study Greek at school, and I’m fairly sure this person knew that.”


This anecdote crops up again in the 2024 NWCC report, whether from the same person it’s impossible to say, but it speaks volumes that this could easily be a shared experience. In the report, the participant goes on to say, “this led to me feeling like I wasn’t good enough to be there, and it was a struggle to get out of that.” The report abounds with references to being treated poorly as a result of not having the “right” education, accent or presentation. Honestly, I struggled to hold my vomit as I read.


In an essay written for us by Samantha Sharman in October 2021, she explains how “imposter syndrome haunts Classics”. Her testimony was full of heartbreaking recollections of moments she faced as a working class classicist that almost led to her dropping out of the field altogether. We see this time and time again.


This survey and report are not definitive, nor complete, but they serve an important purpose. The report will stir up a response from the institutions which are currently failing, and they might try to defend the status quo, but they would be fools not to acknowledge that the cat is far, far out of the bag. The time for denying the problem is gone. It is also possible that the institutions and establishment may use this data to try and whip up the bare minimum of support then call it a day, so we cannot let this be the only time the working classes are represented publicly in Classics. The need for more of these surveys, more exposure, more pressure, is self-evident. 


The survey might also open a dispute about what it means to be “working class”. The NWCC have used the Social Mobility Commission’s definition of “working class”, “intermediate” and “managerial and professional” types of employment, which is flawed. I’m not sure many would agree that “call-centre agent” or “nursery nurse” fits into the middle category, or that “teacher” belongs in the top category. It is further confused when some of these professions appear in more than one category. That being said, it is hard to put a stamp on what it means to be working class. We at Working Classicists have had to come up with our own working definition, which is also, I am sure some would say, flawed. For us, the key was to create something tangible, examples that could be easily read and applied by those with no background in sociology. So my hope is that this report – along with the ongoing work of Classics for All, the NWCC, The Classical Association, and of course ourselves – opens a discussion about class that bolsters a wider sense of class consciousness if nothing else. 


The report was undoubtedly a tricky task. We see in our own surveys and articles that with the words “working class” plastered all over our material, many respondents are bound to have some flavour of bias from the off. The report may be accused of inviting a disproportionate number of working class responses. However, as it turns out, even with this bias taken into account, the working class responses total only 22.3%, suggesting that the problems for working class Classicists go even deeper than those highlighted in the report. If more working class people than average are responding to this type of survey, the numbers are more grim than we could have imagined. 


Despite these potential imperfections, the overall effect is startling and this is undeniably important work. The data paints a grim picture, albeit one we have been aware of for years. It is a vital confirmation that Classics is absurdly out of touch with the working class, and institutions are not doing nearly enough to accommodate those from poorer backgrounds, in terms of financial support, equality of opportunity, or perhaps worst of all, fixing the sometimes-poisonous snobbery which makes working class classicists feel unwelcome in the discipline.


So, are there solutions? The report makes sensible recommendations: More Classics in more schools; better and more outreach from universities; embed class in EDI policies; amplify working class voices; have institutions reflect critically on the economic circumstances of their pupils, students, post-grads and employees… It’s a long list.


We have our own list of demands and beliefs, our own desires to help and expand access, but a large portion of change needs to come from within the field of Classics itself. From out of those institutions, from the old guard, from the universities, and from government budgets. The report was a fascinating insight into further education. Our focus at Working Classicists often starts before university is even in the picture, seeking to push the vital study of Classics into state-schools. In our minds, it is unlikely that a teenager from a state-school will apply to study Classics if they haven’t heard of it before. 


As Robert Verkaik, the co-founder of the Private Education Policy Forum and author of Posh Boys, states in his article A Class Apart-heid: “Millions of people will go to their graves never knowing there are charities called Eton, Harrow and Charterhouse whose sole purpose is to improve the life chances of rich and privileged children. Worse still the Government subsidises these schools to the tune of £200,000 a year. 


The widening gap between a morass of indebted state schools and the elite private schools means that a child today has less chance of breaking through the class and career barrier than their grandparents born in the 1950s.”


I hope that the work done by the NWCC is an alarm loud enough to catch the attention of policy-makers from government to academia, from schools to outreach charities. I hope that this is another step toward understanding that the discipline has been allowed to become the reserve of the privileged, and that the lucky few who have broken into it have largely thrived in spite of existing policies. The report confirms and exemplifies the inequity in every corner of Classics. It might be uncomfortable reading for heads of institutions, but that’s very much a problem of their own making.


For more information on the NWCC visit their website or follow them on Twitter/X


We’re always looking for working class classicists to platform and elevate. If you reckon you could write an article for our Zine on any topic regarding the ancient world or class consciousness, email us a pitch at subs@workingclassicists.com


If you are an educator in Scotland or England and would like a chat about introducing Classics, Classical Studies, or Latin to your state-school, drop me a line at george@workingclassicists.com





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