It’s essential to learn good social skills if you want to get on in life

A class act: Turning up smart in school uniform was one of the ways that Sharon Griffiths helped pol

A class act: Turning up smart in school uniform was one of the ways that Sharon Griffiths helped polish her childhood social skills. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

Polishing your social skills really does matter if you want to beat the class system.

My headmistress certainly liked a challenge...

Faced with a school full of Welsh peasant girls, many of whom still lived in homes half way up mountains and with no indoor plumbing, she was determined to make us into ladies. Ha!

So everything about our small rural grammar school aped the posh private schools where her heart clearly yearned to be.

As well as Latin and lacrosse we had the poncey uniform – felt hats, straw boaters, indoor shoes, outdoor shoes, hideous games kit. At meal times we weren't allowed to stuff our school dinners down our faces but had to make polite conversation, pass dishes along, use our bent old cutlery as if it were the finest silver.

She organised trips to the theatre in Cardiff, forty miles away, and encouraged us to go to concerts and exhibitions. And we all learned to curtsey in case we met the Queen.

If we spoke our local dialect form of 'Wenglish' she simply refused to understand us. She considered us hoydens – one of her favourite words. We just thought she was mad.

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But actually she was brilliant. As was the similar headmaster of the boys' school next door.

Because, although we remained resolutely peasants at least we were peasants with a vague knowledge of another way of doing things. We could make ourselves clearly understood to anyone from anywhere, we had some party manners and weren't fazed by an elaborately-set dinner table. Some of my classmates have since even met the Queen and I'm sure they curtseyed confidently.

Most of all, it made us alert to other manners and customs.

I thought of her the other day on the publication of a report that said poor children – even bright graduates – are being kept out of the top jobs in the city because they haven't got the right social skills, or accents or don't know the subtle drill that helps you fit in. Some of the lads even – horrors!– wore brown shoes…

Yes, of course the colour shoes you wear has nothing to do with your talent and intelligence. Some employers will overlook such things. Others won't. After all, we all feel more comfortable with our own kind.

Then there's that sneaky trick of taking candidates out to lunch so they can check you use your knife and fork correctly. Ridiculous maybe. But if the job might require you to wine and dine clients, you can see that they need to know you're house-trained.

I'm no campaigner to bring back grammar schools, but their undue preoccupation with uniforms, haircuts, shoes and smartness/ladylikeness was their way of trying to make it easier for us to fit in later. Even if, as for my headmistress, it was a bit of an uphill battle.

Whether we like it or not, we still live in a class-ridden society. Back in the 60s we thought it was changing but it hasn't really. If anything, it's worse. Those at the bottom – and even in the middle – need all the help they can get.

Yes, of course, we should all be free to dress and speak and eat exactly as we like. Many of the accepted customs have little rhyme or reason. But if you've spent your school days wearing something as complicated as the uniform at Eton, then life's dress codes presumably can hold no fears.

But if you've been brought up by parents who go to the supermarket or school gates in their pyjamas, however are you ever going to grasp the idea of a world where the colour of your shoes actually matters?

So, for now, at least, such stuff is important. If you want to get on, then you need to polish your shoes and your social skills and not speak with your mouth full.

Then one day, when you've reached the very top, you can re-write the rules – and wear whatever colour shoes you wish.