If your child’s name is Ariadne, will her best friend be Helena or Charmaine?

Carol Vincent 

Kate Hopkins, a past contestant on reality TV show The Apprentice, caused some controversy last week by stating in the press and on television that she maintains a tight control over the friendships her children make at their state primary school. Suitable friends are those from “like-minded, high achieving families”.

She told the Mail: “I have absolutely no intention of letting my two precious daughters get dragged down into the quagmire of underperforming children. So I work hard at targeting the right sort of friends for them“.  Hopkins claims that her interest is in ensuring her children’s friends are “clever, ambitious children, a euphemism seemingly, as her description of the children of whom she does not approve is infused with class judgments; pink leggings, soft play areas at local leisure centres, electronic toys, and names such as Charmaine are all indicators which spike Hopkins’s disapproval.

“At the risk of sounding snobbish, I also favour children who have good old-fashioned Victorian names such as George, Henry and Victoria. And, if a child has a name with a Latin or Greek derivation such as Ariadne or Helena, all the better. It indicates the parents are well educated“.

A new research project at the Institute of Education, conducted by Sarah Neal, Humera Iqbal and me, sets out to explore whether and how children in primary school, living in diverse inner London areas, make and maintain friendships across social class and ethnic difference. How do their parents view these friendships, and do they seek to manage them in any way? What are their own experiences of friendship as adults?

In socially mixed areas, people often live parallel lives, living close by others from a different ethnic or social class group, but having little engagement with them. Primary schools, especially in inner urban areas, are among the few settings where children and adults do have an opportunity to interact on a daily basis over several years, with those who are differently socially positioned to themselves. Many parents take a more positive view of this than does Ms Hopkins.

Emily, a white middle class mother in our pilot project, said: “When I think about being in London, I think ‘oh it’s great for [son] because he’s exposed to life in all its different ways, and different groups of people, and he knows that everybody is not the same”. However, despite the stated enthusiasm for social mixing, we found in the pilot a tendency for friendships made at school to stay at school, unless the children were from similar backgrounds, in which case the friendship was more likely to cross over into visits to the family home.

Social mix does not automatically lead to social mixing. Efforts to change this situation required open and positive attitudes on the part of parents, usually mothers, and a willingness to make a determined effort to cross social and ethnic boundaries, and to make and sustain contact with families different from one’s own.

Our pilot study was small, and our main study, starting this month, and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, sets out to explore these issues around friendship and diversity in more detail and on a greater scale. We aim to generate qualitative empirical data on how friendships are made, maintained, missed and interrupted in social environments characterized by extensive social difference and division.

Friendship is often assumed in policy and political terms to have an informal “social glue” quality that has the potential to bring individuals together despite disparities and differences in their background. We aim to explore the extent to which friendships across difference can contribute to social cohesion, or whether the desire for distinction and separation, as voiced in a somewhat extreme form by Ms Hopkins, is widely shared.