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Worried about Britain’s poor social mobility? Here’s a way to change things

28 August 2014

Today’s report about the penetration of the privately-educated at the top of British society should be familiar: the Sutton Trust has been producing this study for years and the picture seldom changes. By its nature, of course, this survey says more about educational opportunity decades ago than today – but does anyone really believe the system has improved?

Britain has the best private schools in the world, so it should be no surprise that their graduates flourish. It would be perverse to discriminate against anyone, and bigoted to think less of them, because of their CV: you play the hand you’re dealt in life. The aim should be meritocracy.

At The Spectator, we now have a specific recruitment policy for jobs and internships: we ask applicants not to include education on their CVs. It’s just not a factor in journalism: Frank Johnson didn’t even finish school and he was one of the greatest editors of this magazine. We have an intern starting next week (who responded to this blog), and none of us have the faintest idea about his background. Just his abilities.

But there is something else we do, which has worked out really well for us – and I’d like to recommend it to any employer, anywhere. For some years now, we have collaborated with the Social Mobility Foundation who send us work experience kids each summer. Anyone who has had to look after a ‘workie’ will know that it can be an annoying experience if you’re landed with someone only there because Uncle Henry called in a favour for his son who is kicking about with no direction in life.


But to spend a week in the company of an SMF student is a joy. They’re from less-advantaged backgrounds, but are only taken on to the scheme if they’re super-bright and mustard-keen. The SMF are quite rigorous about this, so any employer can be pretty sure they’re getting kids who treat work experience for what it is: a golden opportunity, so often beyond the reach of those without the family connections. Especially in journalism: a recent survey found that 83 per cent of journalists who started work in the past three years did work experience first, 92 per cent of which was unpaid, before getting their first paid job. But this set-up obviously works in favour of those who can afford to work for nothing. We do pay our interns (although not very much) and do what we can to accommodate (sometimes literally) those who struggle to see out two weeks in London.

The Spectator has (so far) hired two of the bright young things the SMF has sent our way. We have also set up our answer to the old school tie: a Spectator/SMF alumni event, where we invite back those who have passed through our doors (normally when they were at GCSE level) and keep in touch to ask what more we can do to help. In any situation.

As Andrew Neil put it at our inaugural alumni meeting, they should use us, at The Spectator, as their network because the people they’re up against will be using their contact network too. If we can use our connections to do them a favour somehow, we ask them to let us know.

Andrew Neil with the Spectator's SMF students (Photo: Charlotte King Photography)

Andrew Neil with the Spectator’s SMF students (Photo: Charlotte King Photography)

Many employers allow staff to act as mentors to SMF students. Some of us here at the Spectator do this, and it doesn’t take much: emailing advice, helping with these ‘personal statements’ the poor things have to write nowadays and answering questions about their careers. To give these fiercely bright kids the kind of help that the private schools specialize in.

The SMF are expanding out of London, and I’d urge other employers to learn more. And this can be in the self-interest of all companies – we wouldn’t be hiring SMF graduates if they weren’t the very best.

So if you’re an employer reading today’s newspaper reports and lamenting Britain’s poor social mobility, then you can do something about it. Email the SMF today.

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  • kefp

    Direct grant was the most egalitarian educational policy this country ever had. It mixed up classes from 11 – it meant the public school was not short hand for privilege, but able. Bring it back.

  • English Majority

    Fraser: I’m ultra working class, from a disadvantaged, crumbling Northern council estate.

    Yeah, I’m Nationalistic, but is it any wonder? I see devastation, despair and darkness all around me.

    Anyway, what I’m saying is: it’d be proper mutually fabulous if you gave me a blog on here.

    I’d be writing from a very different stance from the vast majority of Spectator writers.

    Plus, I’d be adding a vibrantly gritty narrative to the entire situation.

    : )

  • john

    Finally we’re beginning to get to the real malaise in Britain. The average punter still doesn’t get it that a rigid class structure – headed by by an antiquated monarchy and titled hangovers – exists entirely at their expense.
    The 95% of Brits who don’t have a priviliged background need to force radical change and demand that merit and achievement determines selection for top positions – not inherited status and connections. (Hello Boris – I’m thinking of you).

  • Roy

    Why not set up a stall at the local market and sell what you can gather. Start your own business and laugh at ones paying off their exorbitant educational fees. In no time at all you can earn what a professional can bring home. All it needs is verve and a simple work ethic.

  • Conway

    If you want to improve social mobility, bring back grammar schools. Selective education has been proven to eliminate the effects of wealth disparity.

  • Lydia Robinson

    In am descended from dirt poor Oirish peasants and I don’t believe that things are worse than they were 45 years ago when I went to University. I call Bullsh**t on this one.

    • isthisreallife2

      I am also descended from poor Irish ancestors. Do you own property and if so did you buy before the booms of the 80s and 2000s? The difference between now and then is even if you were poor back then – you had a better chance of securing permanent secure work then. And if you were able to get work you it was relatively affordable to buy property.

      Now its difficult to secure good permanent work even for talented graduates who are up to their eyeballs in student debt. And near impossible in many parts of the UK to afford to buy property. If you dont recognise the difficulties todays youth face then I would suggest you have a narrow social circle and are not the best at keeping up with current affairs – pertinent issues like underemployment, household debt and food banks etc……

  • Peter L

    As someone who sounds off regularly in Comments on the topic of politicians who talk but don’t do, can I say “well done“ to the Speccie’s management team?

    If you ran a similar scheme for cynical fifty-something Northerners I’d love to apply – though I guess Rod Liddle got that gig.

  • Christopher Gage

    That’s all very nice. Though, I’m not convinced others following the same system as The Spectator would do much for social mobility. I suspect these SMF prospects also hail from middle class backgrounds and have parents with sharp elbows and minds more savvy than the truly loaded.

    The same with excellent London state schools being state in name only; they’re dominated by the middle classes. Though, as mentioned, you can only play hands dealt.

    The commitment from The Spectator to somewhat address this problem is commendable, but don’t hold your breath on a working-class editor, of any big publication, any time soon.

  • isthisreallife2

    Building academy schools in impoverished areas would help immensely. Once, it can be shown that poor children can succeed given the opportunity then the government could be persuaded that these areas are worth investing in. There needs to be more collaboration across state schools also. This goes for any public sector body and especially the NHS. There seems to be an attitude that is is OK for certain schools and hospitals to perpetually fail. Why?

  • Simon Maynard

    Does the policy of asking applicants not to include education on their CV achieve its aim? I would fear unintended consequences. In my case, for example, I attended a state school but graduated with a first from Cambridge. This helped me differentiate myself from potentially less able, but perhaps more polished, public school contemporaries. Is there not a danger that the policy favours those with exactly the qualities (self-confidence, presentational skills) which public schools tend to instil so much better than their state-funded counterparts?

    • the viceroy’s gin

      …in bogus “professions” like journalistas, it doesn’t really matter, because the “education” involved will inevitably be fluff anyway.

      Trust me, in the professions, education will be of prime concern, always.

  • Will Honeycomb

    If this Government was serious about social mobility, Michael Gove wouldn’t have been sacked.

  • E Hart

    Can I request that first person who mentions the return of you-know-what should be employed at The Spectator forthwith? On condition they never mention it again.

    I love your SMF initiative. The gentle murmur of wings above the jam tarts; somewhere in the garden a Church of England vicar is discussing the merits of incense with Charles Moore; the sound of leather on a willowy backside; a whiff of Hermes wafts under a Paisley syrup and the rich unmistakable aroma of freshly rolled, ready-rubbed tokenism fills the air.

    Given that 93% of the population is state educated and just over a third of that goes to university, how long will the planet have been sucked into the black hole before this makes any difference? It took a meteorite half the size of Yucatan to wipe out the last lot of dinosaurs and it’s going to take a similar re-calibration of the social pyramid (power, patronage and privilege) before change is likely to occur in society as a whole. The existence of an establishment is predicated on the three Ps. Any such structure (whoever runs it) is antithetical to threats to its existence. To cede space is to cede power. Is that about to happen here? No. In The Spectator’s case any movement will be marginal (as already indicated). Even if the SMF initiative operated successfully across the board – its effect would still be negligible.

    You are forgetting one very important element to you and all hierarchies: all have an intrinsic interest in employing those who conform to the orthodoxy (be it political, cultural, social, sexual or whatever); although token mavericks are tolerated. It’s not and never can be meritocratic because it’s constitutionally/inherently flawed. The same applies to most organisations and societies. However, tokenism is not amelioration because it can never address the fundamental issue; it is not intended to and its scale clearly precludes it. It’s pissing in the wind in other words. Meritocracy exists where it can – science, music, sport, art – and gets dumped on where it can’t.

    • Nicholas K

      I’m sorry to see The Spectator repeating the “only 7% attend private schools” line; as far as entry to the professions is concerned, this is misleading. Entry to the professions depedns on a university education, which in turn depends on results at 6th form level. At 6th form level, the percentage is significantly higher than 7%; the Independent Schools Council estimates it to be more than double that figure.

      • E Hart

        God, it’s worse. I wouldn’t know. Thanks for the pointer.

  • Dominic Adler

    This is a jolly good post and kudos to the Speccie for it.

    • monty61

      Indeed. Gaue yirsel Fraser.

  • commenteer

    There are plenty of disadvantaged children being educated by public schools.Anti-public school prejudice, particularly if they are male and white, will hurt these children the most.

  • Treebrain

    Brilliant article and good to see The Spectator actually doing something positive to address this issue!

  • John Cronin

    A somewhat self congratulatory article. Anyone who applies for an intern job is likely almost by definition to come from a fairly privileged background, since they can afford to work for nuthin, or almost nuthin. If you can’t include your qualifications, then what other criteria should be used? Somewhat patroning, methinks to those working class kids who do manage to overcome what the state “educational” system in this country throws at you and actually beat the odds.

    • Dan Grover

      I can’t tell if you actually read the article, since all of the questions you asked or issues you brought up were explained either in this post or in the blog post linked in to in the second paragraph.

  • sfin

    Whilst I applaud this initiative of The Spectator – it doesn’t address the fundamental cause of the recent decline in social mobility. Namely that education is now selective only on the parent’s ability to pay and not on the child’s academic ability.

    The fall out from the grammar school system saw every elected Prime Minister of this country, from 1964 to 1997, educated at one. The fall out from the vandalism of comprehensive education has seen a return to the privately educated elite (or “5th rate men with 1st class educations” as Tony Parsons so deliciously put it when describing Cameron and Clegg).

    The 11 plus had its flaws – I personally would prefer to see a French style college/ lycéé system – effectively a three year selection process – but we must return to ,academically, selective education if we are to return to the sort of opportunities enjoyed by the grammar school generation.

    Crossland, Williams et al failed generations and that should be acknowledged.

    • Graham Cresswell

      Exactly! It’s the elephant in the room. The “grammar school in every town” allowed the bright children of the deprived classes to escape the prevailing anti-achievement ethos and to be educated in an environment in which aspiration was unremarkable and middle-class professional values were the norm. Certainly the 11-plus was a blunt instrument and should have been replaced by a more fluid mechanism for moving children between schools. That said, even the 11-plus was better than “selection by house price”, which has replaced it. Call me a cynic but it can’t have escaped Williams and Crosland (who famously wanted “to close every f*cking grammar school in the UK”) that those schools allowed children from the Labour heartlands to move up in society and perhaps even vote Conservative. Much better to put a stop to it.

    • Donafugata

      The grammar school created real social mobility, I know from my own experience.

      Sadly, there were never going to be enough grammar school places for all
      but because not everyone could go to grammar school, the labour government decided that no-one should go.

      Condemned as elitist, hilarious coming from the likes of champagne socialists like Crossland.

      While some argue that a single exam at age 11 is unfair it is a preparation for all further education which consists of many more “unfair” tests of learning.

  • dado_trunking

    Social mobility is poor in Britain, and it hits the poor far harder than in other comparable European nations. To pick one example and set up the scenario: a season rail ticket from Liverpool to Manchester (a mere 45min commute) will set you back more than £3,000 nowadays. Never mind the poor – who, given they were paid an average national wage in Britain, could afford to commute? So what does that mean?

    • the viceroy’s gin

      …that you socialist nutters will import scads of illiterate foreigners to do that work, rather than let a natural wage inflation take effect?

      • dado_trunking

        … the businessman speaks as he declares the interest of business. He is a Labour voter, clearly.
        Oh hang on, the resident nutjob got it all wrong, again! His mind boggles without end.

        • the viceroy’s gin

          …maybe it’s the goat you hear shrieking. Leave the poor thing in peace, lad.

          • dado_trunking

            er … er … shriek shriek shriek, like a pork escalope at slaughter.

            • the viceroy’s gin

              …so you engage with all the barnyard ungulates, lad?

  • Gwangi

    One point never addressed if how the diversity worship of the media, the government and big business too has led to unfair advantage and extra opportunities being given to ethnic minority and women candidates – yet MOST of these are from privileged and often private school backgrounds.
    But never mind eh, we have met the diversity targets – ironically by discriminating against the ordinary white working class and lower middle class males who now get regularly demeaned and insulted by our ‘politically correct’ diversity-worshipping political elite. White men are 40% of the UK. Look at ANY prospectus of ANY university or college or council – white males are 10% of faces on show. Now THAT’S racism and sexism, folks!.
    And one other point: there are state schools and state schools. VERY many from the rich and privileged elites make sure they send their kids to local stat schools – fo example the one Miliband and his minions often went to. Yet these people are privileged, always have private tutors and extra help, and the state versus private school analysis is only ONE aspect of unfairness.
    I am on of the very few people I know who has never ever got a job or any opportunity via a family member or friend. Can Miliband, Clegg, Owen Jones (daddy is a professor who got his lad a publishing deal) and all the leftie elite claim that eh? Yeah right…

    • John Dalton

      Exactly! Stuff diversity and stuff social mobility!

      I’ll look after myself and my kids thank you very much – out of absolute respect for the generations before me who worked so hard to give us what we have. Why should I lift a finger to help those who have been forced upon me against my will and against my beliefs and who will quite happily take it away from us given half the chance?

      The thing I cannot bear is the dripping hypocrisy! At least I’m honest about looking after me and mine – unlike the bleeding-heart self-hating hypocrites of the metropolitan bubble who will happily trample on anyone to protect their lucrative sinecures and promote their useless kids – whilst falling over themselves to demonstrate to their fellow bed-wetters how much they do for all those poor, put-upon “minorities” (who mostly have nothing but contempt for the people who patronise them).

      And you only need to listen to the plummy accents of the Speccie sixth formers to know exactly why they are where they are. Who are you trying to kid?

  • HD2

    Yet more damning evidence of the poor standards in state schools: why should a commercial organisation have to correct and sort out the deficiencies which 11 (now 13) years of compulsory education have still left?

    This will only end when the nationalisation of education which took place with the (well-meant) 1944 Education Act is ended, and every school is free to set top-up fees, entrance exams, school day, and year – and pay staff whatever wages to teach whatever they like, how they like, where and when they like.

    Subject only to publication of exam results (ALL public exams should have a statutory minimum 50% failure rate: to pass then means you’re better than average) and to unannounced OFSTED/HMI inspections on a regular basis.

    If a school fails such an inspection twice, State funding is ended.

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