Understanding Class | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
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Understanding Class

Students explore class, status, etiquette and hierarchy to deepen their knowledge of the social expectations and values which guide the world in which the characters live.


This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

lesson copy


English — UK


Two 50-min class periods
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement


About this Lesson

In the previous lesson, students began reading An Inspector Calls, exploring the setting and its significance by annotating the stage directions, and examining character through the consideration of symbolic props. This introduction gave them a basis from which to engage critically with the content of the play, and began the process of examining the author’s craft and the play’s larger message. 

In this lesson, students will develop their understanding of the sociohistorical context of the play, focusing specifically on class, etiquette and hierarchy. By deepening their knowledge of the social expectations of the world in which the characters live, students are better able to understand the choices the characters make and the consequences of those choices. This analysis of the play also helps students to consider how our opportunities, choices and values are intricately linked to the social environment in which we are nurtured, and how our identity is both forged from, and influences, our experiences. Such exploration and awareness is a necessary step towards self-reflection and encourages students not only to learn from the characters’ behaviour and choices, but to reflect on modern social norms and their implications. Given the potentially sensitive nature of the class discussion, we recommend that you review your class contract with your students to remind them of the importance of how they communicate their ideas with others. 

In this lesson, it is important for students to understand that class is a social system which divides people into groups according to their economic and social position. In the United Kingdom, society is divided into the following classes: 

  • The working class: those who engage in physical work, are often only paid for the hours they work, and tend to be paid less than other groups in society.
  • The middle class: those who tend to be well educated (they have attended university) and work in roles that require specific skills or qualifications. They tend to earn more money than the working class, but are not regarded as rich.  
  • The upper class: those who are of the highest social status (they may have aristocratic titles such as duke or duchess, lord or lady) and they may possess great amounts of wealth, though this is not always the case. 

Currently in the UK, social class is regarded as less important than it was before the Second World War, but it can still nonetheless impact opportunities and status: it can influence the way others view us and dictate where we fit in the social hierarchy. Different social groups are also expected to behave according to specific social norms and are bound by the etiquette – the codes and norms of behaviour – of their social grouping. Stereotypically, the people of the upper classes are believed to possess the best manners. 

The activities in this lesson refer to pages 1–5 of the Heinemann edition of An Inspector Calls.

  • Application of Contextual Information (Lit-AO3)
  • Critical Reading of Non-Fiction Texts (Lang-AO2/AO4)
  • Evidence-Based Reasoning (Lit-AO1–3/Lang-AO1–4)
  • Reading Comprehension (Lit-AO1, Lang-AO1)

Students are introduced to key vocabulary terms, which enables them to read a range of non-fiction primary sources for both comprehension and critical engagement. Students work in groups to interpret and summarise the content, making comparisons between the conventions of Victorian society and modern society. They then use evidence-based reasoning by applying what they have learnt about the sociohistorical context to rank the characters of the play according to their social hierarchy. The use of discussion and writing throughout gives students the opportunity to verbalise their thoughts and practise turning them into coherent sentences, which will help them across their English GCSEs.

Learn more about this unit’s Alignment with GCSE Specification.

What can J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls teach us about the impact of our individual and collective decisions and actions on others?

  • How does the world in which we live impact our opportunities, choices and values?
  • What messages concerning society and its values does Priestley transmit through his use of setting, language and character, and what are the purposes of these messages?
  • Students will read and discuss primary sources concerning the social expectations and values of Victorian and Edwardian England.
  • Students will examine what messages Priestley transmits about the social hierarchies in the world of the play, linking these messages to language, setting and character. 
  • Students will discuss the impact of class, etiquette and hierarchy in the play and in modern society on an individual’s identity and choices.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 6 activities
  • 6 teaching strategies
  • 1 PowerPoint
  • 2 handouts
  • 1 extension activity
  • 1 homework suggestion

In Edwardian England, social etiquette was hugely important. There were many guides available for people of all classes, which outlined how they were expected to behave in different situations. Those of the higher social classes, in particular, were expected to possess good manners and morals, and abide by strict codes of behaviour. In An Inspector Calls, this is evident in how Mrs Birling responds to Mr Birling’s compliment to the cook, as it was regarded as improper to praise the food in one’s household in front of guests. It is clear from the small interaction, in which Mrs Birling ‘reproachfully’ states, ‘Arthur, you’re not supposed to say such things—’ (p. 2), that Mrs Birling’s manners are superior to those of her husband and that social etiquette is important. Those in the lower classes who worked in the houses of the wealthy were, as exemplified by Edna at this point in the play, expected to be subservient and obedient. 

Class was also incredibly important in Edwardian England. Not only did the background you were born into dictate your opportunities, and how society treated and viewed you, it also was something that was viewed as a firm badge of one’s identity. It was virtually impossible to change class. If someone earned a significant amount of money and became prosperous, but was originally from a lower-class background, they were likely to be regarded as inferior by those who possessed the same wealth, but were born into a family of higher social standing. This is particularly evident in how the Crofts, Gerald’s parents, treat the Birlings. The implication in the text is that they have snubbed the invitation to celebrate Sheila and Gerald’s engagement because they, the Birlings, are of a lower social status.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

Before introducing and discussing the hierarchies present in the play, it is important for students to first consider the word class – a word they will no doubt have heard often, but may not have explored in-depth. To do so, students will each create a concept map that will help them define class, as well as establish the relationship between class, status, etiquette and hierarchy.

In addition to class, the following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson and are explained in the Overview section (above). Consider adding these terms to your class Word Wall:

  • Class
  • Status
  • Norms
  • Etiquette
  • Hierarchy

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides. The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson.

The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plans

Part I Activities

  • Explain to students that today they will be learning about class and exploring how social hierarchies manifest themselves in the play and in the world today. It might be useful to review your class contract and remind students of its content to ensure that they are mindful of how they share and communicate their ideas on this potentially challenging topic. 
  • Project the following prompts and ask students to explore them in a journal reflection. Let students know that they will not have to share their ideas with others if they do not wish to do so. 
    • Have you ever felt inferior to someone else? 
      • What did that person say or do that made you feel inferior? 
      • How did you respond to the situation?
  • Have you ever felt superior to someone else?
    • What was it about the situation that made you feel superior?
    • How did you respond to the situation? 
  • Before having volunteers share their ideas, acknowledge that it can be hard to share our ideas with others, and then model risk-taking by sharing something from your journal reflection with the class.
  • As this topic is potentially sensitive for some students, reiterate that they do not need to share it if they do not want to do so.
  • Tell students that unspoken rules in society, which often dictate our opportunities and experiences, can be connected to class. Most teenagers have heard the word class, but they might struggle to articulate a definition. Tell students that to help them reflect on their understanding of class, they will create a concept map, a visual representation of the word using words, phrases, questions, the space on the page, lines, and arrows.
  • Lead students through the steps of the Concept Maps teaching strategy, first generating a list of words, phrases, and ideas they associate with class, and then representing the relationship between their ideas on the page using spacing, lines, arrows, colour, and sizing.
  • Next, have students share their concept maps in a Think, Pair, Share. Invite them to revise their maps by adding new information they learnt from their ‘pair, shares’ that extends or challenges their thinking.
  • You might then facilitate a discussion in which students share ideas from their maps for you to add to a class concept map that you hang in the room, refer back to over the course of this scheme of work, and modify as their thinking about class develops.
  • Provide students with a dictionary definition of class and ask them to identify similarities and differences between their concept maps and the definition. Then explain the relationship between class, status, etiquette and hierarchy (see Overview and Notes to Teachers sections, above) and have students add these terms to their concept maps. Finally, ask students to share their ideas about where they placed status, etiquette and hierarchy, and how they connected them to other concepts on their maps.
  • Explain to students that they will be divided into groups and will be given a different piece of source material to explore social etiquette rules in Victorian England, which would still be relevant in Edwardian England. You may wish to give students access to dictionaries. Encourage them to keep their concept maps out on their desks and to add to them over the course of this activity if any new ideas emerge about class, status, etiquette and hierarchy that they hadn’t previously considered.
  • Begin by dividing the class into small groups and give each group a copy of one of the four readings from the Social Etiquette in Victorian England handout. Depending on your class size, some groups may have the same one. 
  • Explain to students that each group will read the group’s assigned reading together out loud. As some of the texts have difficult vocabulary and diction, it might be a good time to remind students of the reading skills they employed in the last lesson with the stage directions. Encourage them to pause to ‘talk to the text’ by asking questions and figuring out words in context when they are reading. You might also ask them to consider how this text connects with An Inspector Calls.  
  • After they have read the text, ask students to briefly discuss and respond to the Connection questions on the handout.
  • Give each group a chance to share their summaries of their given text with the rest of the class. 
  • Finally,  lead a class discussion asking students to reflect on the following questions:
    • What does the existence of these etiquette books suggest about Victorian society?
    • How do you think people felt having to adhere to such strict codes of conduct?
    • Do we have anything equivalent to these handbooks today? 
    • How do we learn the spoken and unspoken rules of society? 
    • How does knowing or not knowing them impact an individual’s choices and/or their access to positions of power?
  • If there is time, you may wish to close the lesson with a quick wraparound, in which students share one word to summarise their learning or something from today’s lesson that resonated with them.

Part II Activities

  • Explain to students that they will be reflecting on the characters in the play they have met thus far and how they are impacted by the class system and social system of the society in which they live.
  • First, to get students thinking about the characters once more, ask them to complete a 3-2-1 activity in their journals to reflect on one of the characters introduced in the first five pages of the play:
    • Write down three adjectives to describe one character 
    • Write down two pieces of historical context that you learnt in previous lessons relevant to this character
    • Write down one rule of social etiquette that you learnt in the last lesson relevant to this character
  • Give students the opportunity to share their ideas with each other using the Think, Pair, Share strategy.
  • Tell students that they will now reflect on the social hierarchies present in the play. Encourage them to reflect on and incorporate their understanding of Victorian and Edwardian society, its social systems and its class structures, based on what they have learnt in previous lessons and in their other classes. 
  • Ask students to work in pairs and list the characters in order of their social rank in Victorian and Edwardian society (1 being the most valued by society, 6 being the least). To ensure that students do not leave any characters out, you may ask the students to reread the second half of the stage directions to tell you who is on stage at the start of Act One (Edna, Eric, Gerald, Mr Birling, Mrs Birling, Sheila). 
  • Ask them to select quotations from what they have read in the first five pages of the play to justify their positioning of each character, and to link their ideas to the historical context they have learnt on gender and etiquette. 
  • Invite one pair of students to the front of the class to write their ranking on the board. Give the rest of the class an opportunity to engage with this rank order and to share what they have written. If another pair has a different ranking, invite them to the front of the class to reorder the list and share their justification. Continue this process as time allows, inviting pairs and individual students to contribute. Challenge pairs to support their rankings with evidence from the text and other historical documents you have studied in this scheme thus far. 
  • Ask students to then reflect on the ranking by discussing the following questions in small groups of 3–4 students:
    • What have you learnt about what the society in which the Birlings live regards as important? How are the Birlings’ values influenced by society? 
    • What do these social hierarchies suggest about the power dynamics present in the play? Which characters do you think hold the most and the least power? What makes you say that?
    • What social hierarchies exist in modern society? What impact do they have on opportunities, behaviour and/or values?
  • Give students the opportunity to share their thoughts on class with you in a Class Debrief Exit Card, which uses the following prompts:
    • How might living in a society that has a class system impact the way people see themselves and others?
    • What impact might the existence of a class system have on society as a whole?
    • What are some ways in which the class system impacts your life and experiences? 
  • Collect in these exit cards, so you can understand the students’ personal responses to studying the class system and follow up with individual students as needed.

Extension Activity 

Since students have been exploring the concept of class, which is still present in society, it is important to give them a space to reflect on what they feel about it. Guide students through a Rapid-Fire Writing exercise, where they are able to write and consolidate their ideas and feelings on the following question: How can the existence of a class system impact our choices and values? What makes you say that?

Homework Suggestion

You may wish to ask students to summarise their understanding of class by completing a Colour, Symbol, Image task for homework on the concept of class. Ask students to write a short paragraph explanation of the visual underneath it. You can start the next lesson by having students share their homework in pairs or small groups.

Materials and Downloads

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