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Civil Service

This blog post was published under the 2010-2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Social mobility in the Civil Service

John Manzoni
John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the Civil Service

Social mobility is a term we’re probably all familiar with, but how it applies to the Civil Service is less well known.

To deliver excellence in public services, we need to be continuously improving ourselves and investing in what the Civil Service of the future should look and work like. The composition of our workforce is an important part of that. We routinely develop strategies to help manage talent, to support a diverse workforce, and to ensure equal opportunity. So developing a social mobility plan is a natural extension of that.

The society we represent, and the public we serve, are diverse. So it makes sense that a more diverse Civil Service would help us represent the public we’re working with, as well as unlocking access to internal talent. Improving social mobility is not just the right thing to do or a ‘nice to have’ ­ it’s an integral part of talent management and developing a diverse workforce.

Measuring the Civil Service against UK society

When we compare the socio­-economic background of civil servants to society at large, as we found with the research around the protected diversity characteristics, the difference is stark. This is particularly striking when we looked at the backgrounds of recent entrants to the SCS and found that only 10% were from lower socio­-economic backgrounds. Similarly, only 3% of those who were recommended for appointment to the Fast Stream in 2013 were from a lower socio­economic background.

The gender and BAME make-up of the Civil Service.
The gender and BAME make-up of the Civil Service.

It is important that we better understand the reasons behind this, so that we can we take appropriate action. We have learned lots already from existing research into other aspects of diversity, and much of that can be applied to improving social mobility. However, to properly understand these complicated, multi­faceted issues, we need better data to inform our decisions. It is important that we understand this topic deeply and don’t make assumptions or rely on anecdotal evidence. So independent research is being commissioned, working closely with the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.

Talent Action Plan

We’re making a strong, clear commitment to improving in this area ­ and that’s why, alongside the refreshed Talent Action Plan, we recently published a number of actions we’re taking to improve social mobility within the Civil Service. These fall into three areas for 2015:

  • getting our data in order: collecting and publishing socio-­economic data on different parts of the Civil Service
  • redoubling our efforts on early attraction: increasing scale, coordination and targeting of university and schools outreach to lower socio-­economic groups
  • supporting existing civil servants from lower socio-­economic backgrounds: through monitoring recruitment and promotion practices and tracing lower socio-economic groups through our talent schemes

As was the case for the Talent Action Plan, we will issue refreshed actions and a strategy on social mobility following the publication of this research later in the year.

But we don’t need to wait for those results to start making changes, and where we can already make a difference, we have.

Making changes now

It’s having an impact too for example, we know that 10% of our apprenticeship entrants are from lower socio­-economic backgrounds, a greater proportion than exist in the group eligible to apply.

We all have a role to play in this. It is important that, as senior leaders, we take forward this agenda in all parts of the Civil Service. We still have a way to go here and this requires strong leadership. Permanent Secretaries have all made commitments to improving diversity as part of their objectives for this coming year, and there will be opportunities for the SCS community to contribute personally to some of the initiatives. Fast Streamers and Fast Track Apprentices will also be an important resource for engaging with schools and universities directly.

So I’d ask you to please do think about what more you could be doing to help champion this important agenda in your area. Improving social mobility just makes sense. Like race, gender or age, there should be no social barriers to developing a successful career in the Civil Service.

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  1. Comment by LITTLE LONDONER posted on

    Jon Thompson is the permanent secretary of my own employing department, with which I have 31 years’ continuous service. About 20 years ago I recall something of a big deal made about the fact that the incumbent permanent secretary of MOD, Sir Christopher France, was of working class stock, was grammar school educated (East Ham Grammar, which my late father attended, funny old thing) and attended university (don’t recall whether it was Russell Group one). Until very recently, the very well-worn myth was being put about, very vocally, that this was the only way to get to the top, both in the civil service and elsewhere. It is therefore truly refreshing to see 2015's leaders come out and make such great play of how they have broken that extremely outdated traditional mould.

  2. Comment by Marie posted on

    I'm a civil servant, the first and only person in my close family to go to university and technically a statistical outlier. The higher up the ladder I've climbed, the more my eyes are opened to the vast spectrum of inequalities that prevent me from climbing higher, while watching those that were fortunate to have 'inside knowledge' progress at a much faster rate.

    I was born to a, I would say, upper working class family. Relatively affluent, no professional qualifications, but my dad was not a manual worker. Lucky enough to be educated in the time before university fees (which would have almost certainly prevented me from attending). My parents divorced and we became the most hated: a single parent family reliant on benefits, scroungers, entitled to free school meals (not a stigma locally because everyone was on them). My mum always made sure I had the facilities to study though.

    And I did. Various family crises, exacerbated by our low income saw me leave home relatively early and complete my A levels below the expected standard. This has of course 'tarred me for life' and excluded me from many career paths obsessed with the number of UCAS points you have.

    Despite offers from what is now Russell Group universities, I chose a new university with the strong promise of industry reputation at the end of it. I couldn't afford to move far, even with the grant/loan system in place, setting up somewhere new with no fall back over the summer, and no parental support (two younger siblings to look after too).

    I've climbed to SEO level now, no mean feat, but I look at SCS and wonder how people my age, can have climbed so high? but then you speak to then, and of course, my mum was this, my dad was that, they had money behind them to start with.....

    There is no one answer, but how about identifying those who would like to move up, and find out what stands in their way? Top-down doesn't work so well. Why don't working class apply to Russell Group? Latest research indicates that those both in the lowest socio-economic groups are at a disadvantage BEFORE they are even born (happy to provide links). It takes generations to dig out of the quagmire, each one passing on tips to their children until someone makes it somewhere.....

    Happy to be contacted by the way, would be even happier to have the opportunity to take this further.

  3. Comment by Charles McDowall posted on

    First of all, I am one of those Oxbridge graduates, but I waited until I was over 40 to join the civil service.
    The first striking point is that we rate the power of the written word above all else in our recruitment process.
    Secondly, we use 'competence interviews'. In theory these are extremely good ways of improving the likelihood of choosing a suitable person.
    IF being able to write a brief was the ultimate requirement that would be fine. We need something fantastically more adept than that. We need people who can deliver for the people the needs of the people. The key words are 'deliver' and 'people'. Nether of these actually need 'read' and 'write'
    Then very importantly:
    I think we miss the point when we say 'the best person for the job'. In order to provide an effective service for each and every taxpayer, we have to understand their worldview very exactly and be able to respond to it very exactly. Thus we need the 'melee' of our staffing to reflect these really diverse worldviews.
    Think about this. (This is a relatively comfortable conscience to prick, having read this, think of some of the less easy ones). 2 million households every month get a payday loan. 6 months ago I went on a payday loan price comparison website. the starting price was over 1,500%. (yes one thousand five hundred). Now when we look at projects and activities in investment appraisals etc. and deploy a social preference interest rate (3.5%?)....just think, how cheaply do we spend money compared to the want to be taxpayers who we serve? How would your team attitudes change if representatives of those 2 million households were in the core of your team?
    So perhaps we have to change from 'the best person for the job' to 'the best team for the task' and that feels to me like a really big big challenge for all of us.
    Unfortunately as a simple, middle class, Oxbridge Civil servant, I do not pretend to have a good answer, I only recognise the size and correctness of the ask in front of me and it will follow me round like a shadow until I find a proper response.

  4. Comment by Alex posted on

    Trying to get anything out of the above blog post is like trying to get blood out of a stone. I just didn't understand (or was interested in) any of it.

  5. Comment by DAVID posted on

    I am truly amazed that, with so much of the civil service having relocated away from London over the past 2 decades, there is still a requirement (perceived or otherwise) for fast streamers to plan their careers on the basis of being located largely in London. Equally, the requirement for London-based fast streamers to do at least one tour outside London also seems somewhat archaic. Surely what we need to do is move towards a more localist approach, such that local jobs, whether for fast streamers or otherwise, go generally (with necessary exceptions) to local people. On the face of it, this might seem to go against everything that the civil service holds dear, but I thought that a more localist recruitment regime was one of the objectives of Civil Service in the English Regions, an initiative that seems to have died a quiet death. The genuine difficulties that staff experience with physical mobility must be recognised ; practical reality needs to be put above the apparently sacrosanct letter of the full mobility obligation. Advantage should be taken of modern technology which enables more and more jobs to be done remotely form a location of the individual’s choosing, increasingly obviating the need for a physical move of home. Again, there is perceived principled resistance to this throughout the civil service ; this is clearly hindering recruitment and desperately needs to change.

  6. Comment by Kat posted on

    Interestingly I am one of the 'lower socio-economic status' groups referred to in this article (I work for Natural England in the North rather than core civil service but still have the ability to comment here). Both I and my husband - both of us state school educated and with an MSc and PhD respectively - have independantly at various points considered entering fast stream and rejected it because of the need to uproot to London on the same or lower salary than that which we currently earn (and live comfortably if not luxuriously on) in the North. I can confirm that anecdotally at least, if not statistically, the London bias is one of the reasons why the civil service is struggling to recruit diverse staff such as myself.

    On the discussion of Russell Group universities being the 'best', I would suggest that it is the research rating of the individual department rather than the university overall that may indicate the 'best' training - my undergraduate degree in the late 1990's was at Bradford, certainly not Russell Group but at the time a 5* rated research department for my subject (the main reason why I turned down an offer from a 4* rated Cambridge college was because I had a very clear definition of 'best' which was based on research output and not simply snobbery...)

  7. Comment by Paul Grayham posted on

    Can someone please define "socio economic". From reading the comments here lot's of people are referring to ethnicity, gender, age, religion. From my understanding of Political Theory and Economics back in the 80's, the "economic" part would have referenced what were typically known as "working class, middle class, upper class" or "elites". It would have also referenced education. Now everything seems to be lazily thrown in to one collective pot and in doing so the specific needs and requirements of a part of society are being overlooked or not addressed properly and that in itself will always hinder what action to take because the action doesn't clearly address the problem becasue the problem is not properly defined, nor the target audience.

  8. Comment by John Malone posted on

    Improving social mobility sounds like a political aspiration to me. Perhaps we have some frustrated or budding politicians in the senior civil service. Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King dreamt of a future where people would be judged by the content of their character. He said content of character, not poverty of parents. Prying into the "socio-economic background of employees" is the kind of thing you might do if you have too much time on your hands, but poring over data is often as useless as reading tealeaves. The plain speaking Reverend King would probably have laughed at the kind of people who use expressions like "socio economic background" but most people would agree that character is more important than social class. But because judging character requires genuine insight, it is offputting to those looking for easy or simplistic answers.

  9. Comment by JE posted on

    As another current fast streamer who grew up in the North of England, the comments about the geographical bias of the fast stream ring true: my impression of my cohort is that it is dominated by graduates from the south east of England who intend to make their careers in London. On the current picture, the FS is less a resource for the whole CS and more one for central London departments only.

    I think the in-service route is the best way to encourage socio-economic diversity in the fast stream, but my feeling is it's mainly likely to recruit people already based in London. In my out-of-London posting (all generalists on the "new" fast stream do at least one out-of-London posting) several of my colleagues talked to me about the scheme and said that they had considered applying but were put off by having to relocate to London for most of it. If you're, say, an HEO outside London (possibly already with a young family), you'd be taking a substantial drop in living standards for four years to do the fast stream. I would guess quite a lot of talented people are concluding it's not worth their while to apply.

    Re the socio-economic data: it would be interesting to know if fast stream recruitment (particularly the generalist scheme) is actually attracting the most capable graduates from lower socio-economic backgrounds. My completely non-scientific impression, judging from friends at university (Oxford) with working class parents is that the CS wasn't even on their radar when it came to career choices. They were overwhelmingly targeting high-earning professions like law and finance. If you don't have a cushion of family money to fall back on early in your career, or you don't anticipate having help to buy a home in London, I think it's understandable that you will go for the money if you're capable of earning it, because you know you've got to make it by yourself.

    My other observation on the socio-economic data is that while it shows there's clearly a recruitment problem at the lower end, it's something of a blunt instrument too. Because it was done by occupational background of parents at the time of application to the fast stream, there's not a lot of granularity. If, say, your parents were born working class but made it to managerial positions by the end of their careers, you'll be counted in the same category as people whose families have been upper-middle class professionals for generations. So, same category, but a fairly wide disparity in terms of how generally privileged your upbringing was and what kind of connections and educational background you have.

  10. Comment by Peter posted on

    As a product of a state school, and with my children in state schools, I would like to see more proactive transparency about all diversity data - including school type. As a parent I am looking at the persistent under representation of state school educated young people in UK universities (and the challenges that my children will face in the next few years), and the persistent - huge - over representation of private school educated young people in our public universities, and am depressed that little/nothing has changed since I went to university in the late 1980s. I would like to see similar current and trend data for civil service departments. My childen are of mixed race and we appreciate the efforts made to understand and tackle barriers such as race/ethnicity and socio-economic class, but school type does seem to be a 'don't ask; don't tell' issue.

  11. Comment by Keith Chalmers posted on

    Why does the civil service need to employ so many people on temporary contracts? If like me you've found yourself working for nearly two years in a job that exists, surrounded by other temporary workers, then you realise the term 'social mobility' is for those who are in permanent employ within the CS. Temp work shifts people sideways from building to building within the public sector which proves that there are the posts there waiting to be filled.

  12. Comment by Keith Spamer posted on

    As this blog is now moving towards suggested fixes then I feel obliged to add my two-pennies worth. In my 30 year CS career I have seen all to often, people who's confidence exceeds their ability get promoted whilst those who's ability exceeds their confidence are left behind.
    Or to put it another way, there are those who talk the talk and there are those who walk the walk and unfortunately the talkers rather than the walkers get promoted.
    Lesson 1, those tasked with identifying / selecting talent for progression, (whatever their background) need to learn the difference.

  13. Comment by DAVID posted on

    As a single white Anglo-Saxon able-bodied male over 55 with 31 years in the civil service, I applaud the progress that has been made on making the civil service more representative of the population which it serves. The figures quoted for percentage of fast streamers from ethnic minority groups and percentage of women in the senior civil service are, I accept, capable of improvement, but wold have been unthinkable in the early ‘80s.
    What could we do to improve social mobility for all? Well, this is, sadly, where the civil service may come up against considerations that have an inescapable political dimension. One demographic factor that must be recognised is that the ethnic minority population of the UK is very heavily concentrated in London, the very place which the civil service has been leaving in droves over the past three decades. Many of these minority groups have extended families, with parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all living under the same roof. Notwithstanding any theoretical obligation to be fully geographically mobile, such arrangements make physical country-wide mobility difficult, if not impossible. London now has excellent schools, even in its poorest boroughs. If we shut out these groups because they are concentrated in precisely the area of the country which we are desperately trying to move away, we are doing ourselves no favours. We are denying the civil service access to extremely valuable talent which will more than pay for the theoretical sale value of the London office space which it could occupy. A reasonable adjustment that is increasingly feasible in practice, and would facilitate out-of-London working by staff irrevocably tied to living in London, would be to take a far more relaxed view on remote working, including (but not limited to) working from home. Many London-based workers would not object to visiting an out of London office one or two days a week and work from home, or an office of their choosing, the rest of the time. Unfortunately, there is fiercely principled resistance to such working arrangements within the civil service. For the past 30 years the HR directorate in my own department has been regularly telling us about how “we must all keep moving around”. The reality is that this is increasingly less possible and increasingly less necessary. No-one can be genuinely socially mobile if they can’t be reasonably sure from one year to the next where their home and family will be located, and how much they will have coming into their pockets. Salary variations across the UK are massive, and a move out of London for London based staff can actually reduce living standards massively. Additionally, it is no coincidence that the parts of the civil service that have the greatest recruitment problems are not in London, but outside. They are of its own making.
    On a more general note, pay freezes and cuts for public sector workers may be government policy across the whole of Europe, if not the whole world. But there is no escaping that they are incompatible with social mobility, which is about improving economic circumstances through hard work. Neither government policy nor high levels of unemployment exempt the civil service from competition within the labour market. If our employment offer cannot stand comparison with what is on offer in the private sector, we shall make no progress at all. And it will not be just about salary. If you had a choice between working for a private company which pays a lower wage than for a comparable job in the public sector but allows home working and does not insist on regular house moves, and a public body that pays more but insists on regular moves of home throughout the country merely to reinforce the principle of compulsory mobility, which are you going to choose? These situations are everyday reality in 2015 and we have to rise to the challenges that they present.

  14. Comment by Georgia posted on

    Very interesting article. What percentage of the population as a whole is considered as being from lower socio-economic backgrounds?

  15. Comment by Chris posted on

    I have to say that I do not like the term "social mobility". I think it is meaningless, and like every single one of the posters above, the term acknowledges only one type of social mobility - that going from a lower class to an upper class.

    But what no-one acknowledges and what makes the term meaningless is the fact that in order for those people to go from, say, worker to professional (or however you wish to define this) you need there to be space. So, unless you are forever expanding at the top, someone needs to go down. Are many parents out there willing to step back and let their child go down?

    Perhaps if there was not much difference between the classes the answer would be yes. Until then, the term is a political football that sounds good - until you look a bit closer.

    On a seperate issue, could the CS be more diverse - both racially and geographically as people have suggested above? No doubt and I would love to see Sarah's suggestion above trialled.

    • Replies to Chris>

      Comment by Graham C posted on

      I dont see this as a class issue , but a matter of grade and responsibility. It isnt just the top few ,but everywhere that we need to pick people because they are the best because of what they have proved they can do, not how they (or those giving assistance) write it up,even though in most cases (I hope) the decision wouldnt change. Ive always seen myself as a "professional worker". Financially I continue to go down.

      I (unintentionally)made room as despite my education I didnt climb the ladder (illness and a lot of bad choices on my part) and will bow out at the same grade. Unfortunately my wife ultimately quit and would recognise Clares experience.....even now.

      Never mind your school the "wrong" accent brings masses of assumptions---including that if you speak "properly" that youre "stuck- up".This is a brake applied to meritocracy that I feel has actually come on increasingly since the distant days of the 1970s when a lot more people had worked their way up.

      Assumptions remain a huge obstacle, from appearance, to "anyone" can write a good account of what they've done, or that their accent reveals everything about them.

  16. Comment by Sue posted on

    It is refreshing to see that someone at the top of the CS (finally) recognises there is a problem with the lack of social mobility and regional diversity in the CS. Interestingly when I joined in 1985, there was a DG who had started his career as an AO - difficult to imagine that happening nowadays!

    This is not about having a bash at people from higher socio-economic classes or those who attended private school but actually about having a fairer system that recognises there is a range of talent and having a clear pathway for all CS to reach the SCS not just a few. If we just focus on how the fast-stream recruits then we are missing the broader picture.

    I agree with Graham's comment about the current focus in promotion procedures benefitting those that are very self-assured, and not actually being relevant to whether someone can do the job. Not sure why the CS no longer places weight on the more objective views of line managers as whether someone is good at a job or fit for promotion.

  17. Comment by Sarah Miller posted on

    Perhaps the fast stream service should look at introducing a requirement for new fast streamers (from whatever background) to do a couple of placements in outside areas of work that would give them some experience of seeing a world they would never usually see. Two 6-month placements in, for example, the Social Work department, the Police, charities, Citizens Advice - 3 months with 'the workers', actually meeting people and being alongside those in the front line and 3 months shadowing and learning how such departments are managed. I do think that fast streamers benefit from having a University background (although it currently seems to be overwhelmingly from Oxbridge in the SCS), because they will require to think critically, analyse and write reports etc. However, the life experience placements I mention above would be beneficial both from the point of view of inexperience due to age and also for more varied life experience. Even older fast streamers would benefit because whatever our background, to be truly able to see the bigger picture, we have to have some understanding of what that bigger picture is. Oh, and get rid of 'competency based' applications and interviews - that can be so manipulated if someone knows exactly how to do such applications and interviews and it does not enable an interview panel or sifter to really get to know a candidate.

  18. Comment by Clare posted on

    I was glad to read this article. I am a lawyer from a lower socio-economic background, and although I did attend a Russell Group university I have retained an accent which 'betrays' my roots. I was pretty shocked and disappointed on joining the Civil Service to find the head of my particular team was apparently well-known for being a person who favoured those who had been to Oxbridge and public school. I only found this out because I was being negatively treated (relative to my former public school attending peers) even though I was regularly rated as excellent by those who directly managed me: more senior members of the team suggested to me that this was probably one of the reasons, if not the reason, given there was no obvious alternative explanation. I was moved to another department where, thankfully, I did not receive such treatment and I have not encountered it again since (at least to my knowledge!), but my experience teaches me that "class prejudice" (for want of a better term) does still exist in the Civil Service and it is quite right to try to root it out. It should have no place in a meritocracy.

  19. Comment by Grant posted on

    Hmmm why would a person from a sink estate who goes to a failing school whose peer group form into gangs to survive the streets they live on and has very little or no support at home - that is surviving on a low or possibly no wage - be less likely, statistically (there are always a wonderful but very tiny minority of exceptions) to end up a fast streamer in the civil service, regardless of any innate talent and intelligence they may have and could be nurtured. No - beats me. Or perhaps its something to do with opportunity and support.

  20. Comment by Hazel posted on

    I joined the Civil Service in 1981 in Manchester. I am a graduate with 2 professional qualifications. So many people like me came in as clerical officers /admin officer as there simply weren't many jobs around. You took what there was and wrote off fast stream options unless you wanted to move to London/South East. To get promoted to HEO I had to move south, with 12 years' service. I've never lived in a shoebox though. Not even on southeast prices.

    The judiciary, by the way, have still often drawn from Oxbridge backgrounds simply because that's where parents of my generation tended to send us if we were very bright and agreed to go.

    I can't remember the last time I was bothered where people had come from, or which university they'd graduated from, although the discipline/subject studied of any degree can be useful to know. Talent is talent. Identify it, nurture it and move people along. Whoever they are. And provided there are jobs.

  21. Comment by Graham C posted on

    I totally agree. My family regarded a climb up the ladder as possible for anyone if you worked hard.

  22. Comment by Graham posted on

    After 40 years in HMCE and now HMRC Im far for clear how this "under representation" figure is worked out. Discussion with colleagues over the years has been sceptical about picking the "right percentages" from the right group and enthusiastic for the idea that we just want "whoever's best at the job". Regardless of group. If they are all Martians then fine.
    Of greater concern over years has been that those climbing/at the top seeming to have less idea of what goes on "in the real world", and that people of various groups who are clearly very able just do not seem to be selected.

    The reason fewer people from less well educated areas climb the ladder currently is surely partly linked to the current system of promotion in which people "write themselves up ".

    Staff attending grammer/public school/university experience, from personal observation, have an advantage in writing in a way, that others who matter and make decisions relate to.

    This puts someone who can think fast and make the right decisions but cant express themselves well, or with the same confidence at a massive disadvantage, compared to someone who can can't solve problems but writes fine words.

    How do we solve it? Not by blocking those from "elite" universities if they are really good!!!
    On applications we need to reintroduce comments from managers on decision making , and promote report writing, even grammer, as something that people can get off the Civil Service IT system as a way of improvement , not "what you should have learned at school if you went somewhere else,or weren't paying attention."

    There also needs to be more encouragement of those lower down the grades who have higher aspirations to attend meetings held by Leadership Teams .

    Disclosures: HMRC,Disability,

  23. Comment by Nellie posted on

    The class system is alive and thriving in Britain today - probably more so than previously, given the socially divisive nature of much political rhetoric. It's not just about which school or university you went to - it's about how you've been brought up to think of yourself in relation to society. My experience of being "slapped down" at my comprehensive school - and to a degree by my family didn't prevent me from winning a place at Oxford, but it did rob me of the confidence to believe I could be a senior manager. The people I met at Oxford from extremely well to-do, public-school backgrounds, however, positively oozed with self-belief, having been encouraged all along to see themselves as future leaders.

  24. Comment by Graham posted on

    I'm not sure that I follow the logic in this exercise. Social mobility is presumably about pulling oneself out of a relatively low income "working class" background and moving into a more middle class lifestyle and milieu. Like other posters in this comment thread, I also began life in a resolutely working class (but aspirational) household, spending my entire childhood and adolescence living in a district that is rated in the bottom 1% most deprived places in the country. From the local state primary school I won a free place to the direct grant grammar school in my northern home town, and from there went to Oxbridge and eventually into the civil service (now SCS2 level), initially as an EO and then converting to the fast stream via the in-house entry competition. This personal journey is a stereotypical case of social mobility, but I imagine in the data I now count as white male Oxbridge-educated middle class elitist (= bad), and not as working class lad who's done well (= good). I'm absolutely in favour of diversity and reflecting the society we serve, and I also think I have a pretty good sense of how ordinary life is lived (all family relations still in the home town; aged father still in same house in that bottom 1% district), but of course I am now a resolutely middle class outer London suburbanite. I think we risk beating ourselves up too much in the civil service if we focus too narrowly on somewhat artificial and generic classifications of personal backgrounds. Graham

  25. Comment by Increasingly uncivil servant posted on

    OK, so I'll put my neck on the line here by saying that while this article reflects the very best of intentions, it risks winning a prize for stating the bl*****g obvious! As a person from a lower socio-economic background, I joined my large Govt Dept about 30 years ago when we had general recruitment to the Civil Service at junior levels (with basic/moderate educational requirements). As a result, I'm pretty sure that recruitment from the lower socio-economic strata would have at least matched that from the higher brackets.
    30 years on (and by dint of some hard work and promotions I am now undeniably of the middle class), there is no general, large scale recruitment; Admin grades are greatly reduced and, from where I sit, I see a miniscule amount of recruitment outside of the various 'fast stream' schemes. And, guess what, for these you need very strong educational qualifications and (guess what again) we know that state schools in middle class areas tend to produce better student exam results, and send more on to university, than state schools in areas containing lower socio-economic populations. I must add that trumpeting how so many apprentices are from lower class backgrounds also seems a little shallow given that this has always been the case given the fact that apprenticeships usually apply to manual trades and crafts.
    I fully understand the purpose of the efforts to recruit more people from outside of the traditional white middle class, degree educated sterotype, but surely the fact that we recruit so few people now, while demanding an ever better educational quality of candidate, actually accentuates the problem identified in this article.
    I'll finish with a quick story. I attended a bog standard 1970's Comprehensive in East London. I did quite well and it enabled me to get onto the bottom rung of the ladder and start clambering up a little way. A friend of mine was much more capable. He won a place at Cambridge (was almost thrown out for chucking eggs at Mrs T) and then, with a 1st in Economics, he shunned the money of the City to work in social policy where, until his untimely death, he had become one of the foremost academic advisers for social equality issues in the UK. His mix of academic excellence, coupled with his life understanding of what it means to come from way down the social scale, was a force of nature and so I fully support what the CS is trying to achieve. It's just that we should not be suprised that, at the moment, it is very difficult to achieve.

  26. Comment by Sarah Miller posted on

    The introduction of University fees in England is not going to help this situation as a University education for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds may now be out of reach. Even the Open University now costs students a great deal of money as this last Government removed subsidies - Rita of 'Educating Rita' fame would not be able to afford a degree now as an Open Uni Degree can cost as much as going to a 'brick' university. Education levels people - it's no surprise that the University fees were introduced by politicians who in the main would have had no problem funding their own education or would have no problem funding the education of their children.

  27. Comment by Charlotte posted on

    Your comment; Like race, gender or age, there should be no social barriers to developing a successful career in the Civil Service is such a positive message. So thank you.

    Hopefully it has not come to late for me as I am being slowly but surely sidelined out of my job. I am not sure why, whether it is because I am over fifty or simply because I am a permanent CS. I have kept up to date with open source and cloud technologies, using past business experience (BA and Financial Skills) and project management (Prince2, Scrum, Agile) techniques so it is not like I am a dinosaur. Far from it given I am currently learning Ruby and Java scripting as well as SAGE computerised accounting. All useful and transferable skills to keep me adaptable and employed in many areas of the CS. Most of this has been paid for by myself at night-classes or CodeSchool. So I am at a loss as to what I am doing wrong or what exactly counts as having talent these days.

    However, I am going to remain positive, with my new mantra being "you need to open a window to let in the fresh air' to replace the hurt that comes with being sidelined with a focus on looking for new opportunities. I have just finished a BA degree as a mature student and raring to use my analytical skills. Hopefully under this new initiative I may have reason after all to stay in the Civil Service or at the very least be told upfront that working-class/permanent CS are no longer needed in the Civil Service. Knowledge is indeed power.

  28. Comment by Glen R posted on

    I think you have to look at the entry requirements for the Fast Stream to see that it is aimed at Graduates and academics.
    I was brought up by a single mother on a council estate in Manchester and didn’t have the opportunity to go to University. Having looked at the Fast Stream I found it difficult as some of the tests were very daunting. I do understand that the calibre of entrants has to be of a very high standard but if you want more “working class” people from deprived backgrounds then more help and perhaps a different approach should be considered.
    I have been in the Civil Service for four years and improved myself through determination and hard work. I have consistently exceeded all targets set by my line Manager. Hard work and determination is the easy part, deciphering the entry requirements and testing not so easy.

  29. Comment by David Werin posted on

    I have not posted a comment before but I find this article rather offensive and nasty. It really requires a definition of middle class and working class. I thought as a nation and as an employer we had moved on from categorising people on the basis of class. Clearly not so in the Civil Service. I hope any definition of working class would not infer a person categorised as such was in any way below/inferior to those categorised as middle class. Upper/Middle/Lower? I hope not.

  30. Comment by Lorraine Usher posted on

    Nearly two five senior Civil Servants are women- how does that compare with the make up of the Civil Service in general?

  31. Comment by Nasir posted on

    In my organisation, I don't even know what the figures are.....
    Tackling such a wicked problem requires soft systems thinking not hard operational reserach. Merely collecting data via surveys is not going to unearth the deeper causes of this malise.
    Of course, this also could be a super wicked probelm: "Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it". See:

    What we need to do is avoid Pareto's circulation of the elites:

  32. Comment by Sarah Miller posted on

    When fast-streamers have visited our office it was very noticeable that they were all young, university educated (usually Oxford/Cambridge/Durham) and from a 'higher socio-economic group'. To put it bluntly, they were all very nice and no doubt very competent, but all very posh! One of the things that seems to go hand- in- hand with that is very high self confidence and self belief. If from an Oxbridge background with parents who are probably from a similar background, these young people believe in themselves and see themselves as future leaders. They go on and gain experience in various departments, but it seems to be that a lot of them go into policy, where their lack of life experience seems no barrier. I don't know whether that lack of life experience impacts on their subsequent policy making decisions. For good policy making and for a robust civil service, a better balanced SCS might benefit all. However, whilst the people recruiting are from a privileged background, they are more likely to want their own kind in positions of power to the point of that perhaps prejudicing their ability to see the worth of 'lower socio-economic' staff. Perhaps the biggest factor in helping staff to improve themselves would be some financial help with part-time study, something that was stopped several years ago.

  33. Comment by Adam posted on

    The lack of social mobility is a huge problem in wider society, particularly in the UK. It would be interesting to find out what % of the SCS went to private school (7% of the country) that statistic alone will show that life chances in 2015 are based on parental income and start at a very young age. It is a huge shame so much working class talentis not being put to use along with being unjust. The focus has been on gender and race in the past - it is very important the lack of people from working class backgrounds working at the higher levels of Government is now addressed.

  34. Comment by Jenny Smith posted on

    If we are to develop a workforce that is truly representative of those we serve, why do we have a fast stream programme at all? Why not allow a truly equal process for promotion based on skills/experience? It is basic human nature to appoint those who share similar characteristics to our own therefore it is not surprising that only a small percentage of entrants to SCS are from a lower socio-economic background. Similarly with entrance to the fast stream.

    I was interested to read that there are plans to address social mobility and the revised Talent Plan. However, as someone from a lower socioeconomic background, I resent the implication that I need a special programme to bring me up to a level that is perceived to be the "standard". This implies that the reason I will find it harder to reach SCS standard is my background and it is nothing to do with the elitist culture that exists across the civil service.

  35. Comment by Daniel posted on

    I am a current Fast Streamer from the North of England and can echo James comments about a signifcant amount being from London/The South. At the assessment centre there was a remarkable amount of comments made by other candidates and even staff about being surprised to be hearing a Yorkshire accent! It does leave you to wonder whether that counted against me at that stage and what can be done if so. It's something i'll never know, but managed to get on the scheme anyway so it's not something I ever persued.

  36. Comment by Sam posted on

    As a female with children who joined the main graduate fast stream in 2013, I recognise the need for much greater social mobility in the fast stream. The talent action plan is a great step in the right direction but we need more than just goodwill?

    Let's not forget disability as another of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act (I am deaf too).

    There is also the challenge of ensuring the right opportunities outside of London as there is a noticeable difference in the progression of staff (fast streamers and non fast streamers) dependent on whether they are London or regionally based.

  37. Comment by Jo posted on

    Forgive me but I think that this all starts with quite a big assumption - that people know what social mobility is and therefore what it means for the service.
    Disclosure: I don't.

  38. Comment by Elisabeth posted on

    It would be interesting to know if there is any historical data to identify whether this is a recent trend? only 3% of fast streamers and 10% of SCS from lower socio-economic background are truly shocking statistics. could this be a reflection of changes in recruitment since I joined Civil Service in the 80s when there were various recruitment routes at Officer, Executive Officer and Fast Stream level?

  39. Comment by Graham best posted on

    How do you determine lower socio-economic background? My daughter has applied for Fast Stream but has not been succesful twice. We are from the North I have no idea what she or we are in terms of socio-economic background. Is this determined on where you live, how much your parents earn?

  40. Comment by Deb Lonnon posted on

    I found this article really interesting - and it rang true. I joined the in-service fast stream in 2009 after 20 years of service in DWP, starting as an Administrative Assistant at the age of 19. I come from a single parent family from a working class background - no-one in my family went to university and it wasnt a choice for me due to family circumstances.

    Joining the Fast Stream as an EO working at a Benefit Delivery Centre outside of London was an immense challenge. I found it difficult to fit into the corporate expectation of a Fast Streamer. I wasn't young, I had family responsibilities and I didn't have the benefit of a Russell Group University background. I had very little common ground to share with the vast majority of external Fast Streamers - athough I found other internal candidates had similar backgrounds.

    For me, the solution is based on my own experience. Although university applications are rising, bright kids from lower socio economic backgrounds will either be reluctant in applying to university because they have seen what debt does to their families, or will need to work in minimum wage part time employment to see themselves through uni, potentially resulting in a higher drop out rate or lower degree.

    I feel we should be encouraging the in-service route and focusing our recruitment on secondary schools, alongside universities to encourage the Civil Service as a career - and then promote the in-service route into the (generalist) fast stream. This would hopefully lead to a more diverse Fast Stream and eventually to a more representative SCS.

  41. Comment by Denise Rawls posted on

    And you needed to conduct a study to find this out? The reasons behind this data are not new. Most civil servants who have been around a few years could have told you all of this and more. Each government conducts the same research and does nothing to actually close the achievement gap.

  42. Comment by Mary Stevens posted on

    I find this very disheartening, and my personal impression is that the civil service has got less not more diverse during this Parliament, as people have taken voluntary redundancy (when I joined DCLG in 2009 there were three Black Caribbean SCS leaders, and they'd all left within two years, I think).

    Next week I'm giving a talk to my local primary school (very diverse, lots of free school meals pupils, 60% Muslim, similar percentage English as a second language - and in the top 10% of schools nationally for value added) about the civil service. It's going to be a challenge explaining what I do to an audience of 5-11 year olds, but it's part of the school's programme of social responsibilty and seeking to expand the kids' horizons. Maybe this kind of thing could be encouraged more generally?

  43. Comment by Tony posted on

    For anybody working where there are a number of fast streamers this is as surprising as the news Elvis is still dead. The reasons why? Maybe a system that is tilted towards the privately educated? It's not a coincincidence that around 40% of SCS have been to public school.

  44. Comment by Jason Barnard posted on

    Personally I very much support John's view on the importance of considering the representation of the socio-economic background of Civil Servants for talent. This seems to have been frequently missed from earlier talent initiatives and if this is not addressed then how can we have a truly representative workforce that fulfills its potential? I'd add one caveat, the biggest barriers are not faced by those categorised as having a working class background; even though it's important to focus on this. The greatest hurdles are those from backgrounds where parents or carers have unstable occupations or don't work; these people often have few or no role models.

  45. Comment by Paul Henry posted on

    Sounds like a Two Ronnies sketch from the 60s "I know my place". Maybe we haven't changed the class system as much as we think.

  46. Comment by Katryna James posted on

    I don't think more data is needed - urgent action is required to employ more people from disadvantaged groups and help them move into senior positions. There is a real lack of black men where I work, for example. Our SCS is stuffed full of Oxbridge graduates and the upper middle classes and sometimes I despair at the lack of understanding they have of the issues faced by normal people. How can you work on welfare policy or advise Ministers on poverty if you've never been on the dole or had any experience of being short of money? Sadly however, I think unless we tackle the class inequalities in society, the civil service will continue to be unrepresentative of society at large.

  47. Comment by Rachel posted on

    Is it so suprising that graduates from top universities (i.e the Russell Group) are overrepresented in a well regarded graduate recruitment scheme ? The problem, which neither the FS nor the Civil Service can solve is ensuring that the best students regardless of background have the chance to go to a Russell Group university and to achieve the top grades that that requires.

    [Disclosure - former Fast Streamer via the in-service route, Oxford graduate from a northern comp. Based in Liverpool]

  48. Comment by Ollie posted on

    The differences between the schemes' diversity is interesting.
    I'd be careful to compare 'working-class' and 'Russell Group' graduates as polarities however - I'm working class and comprehensive school educated, but also a Russell Group graduate.

  49. Comment by Keith Spamer posted on

    Like so many other Senior CS 'initiatives' the final design may appear, on the surface to do all the right things and achieve the desired objective but in reality will fail until such time that the SCS accepts and acts on the biggest barrier of all. There is simply no justification in a modern high tech society with the capability of instant and collective communications to continue to base almost the entire CS in central London. Adopt what could be called 'Diversity of Locations'. James mentions this in his response, thats valid comment from an insider.
    Full Disclosure, A soon to be made redundant Northerner

  50. Comment by Joseph Staniforth posted on

    It is excellent to see more equality regarding women and ethnic minorities, but are there any statistics on the intake of people from working class and lower socio-economic backgrounds in to the Civil Service?
    Also are there statistics regarding the regions staff are from? Much of the Civil Service and its' recruitment process, such as the Fast Stream (3 of 4 placements in London) seem overly London focused.

  51. Comment by Louise posted on

    I believe the Lord Chancellors office tracks Solicitors/Barristers etc who have come to the profession from State Schools. This followed a complaint from a Senior Judge that too many Solicitors came from privileged backgrounds and private schools - leaving them poorly equipped to understand (and indeed, judge) those who appeared before them. I think that an individuals progress is tracked and measured against the majority in the profession - not to allow any advantages or preferential treatment but to see if they keep pace with their colleagues as their careers progress.
    Perhaps we should conduct a similar exercise?

  52. Comment by Simon Bailey posted on

    An interesting article. I'm on the GSR fast stream and from what I assume would be classed as a 'lower socio-economic background'. Since joining have been acutely aware that I seem to be in a minority amongst my colleagues. Particularly in comparison to other places I have worked in. However I don't feel I have been made to feel anything other than welcome and so far I've had no sense that it would impact my promotion prospects. However taking a glance upwards I don't think I have come across more than one SCS member who didn't appear to be from a middle or upperclass background and it does make you wonder whether at some point you might hit a glass ceiling beyond which lies only privately educated people from wealthier backgrounds. I'd be interested to see how the civil service goes about achieving a balance between improving social mobility and maintaining recruitment/promotion on the basis of merit.

  53. Comment by Chris posted on

    I understand and support the need to ensure that as a wide a range of people are attracted to and able to succeed in the Civil Service. However, do we not need to be careful not to alienate those in the Fast Stream who are from higher socio-economic backgrounds? What matters is the skills and qualities of the person doing the job. You want the best person and this should not mean that because you went to a private school that you are seen as somehow less worthy than someone who did not. There is a danger that some kind of quota is introduced that ends up with people from a higher socio-economic background going for jobs elsewhere and the quality of staff being reduced.

  54. Comment by Mark posted on

    Under the Data Protection Act, how has the socio-economic data on different parts of the Civil Service be obtained and collected?

  55. Comment by Peter Brant posted on


    Comparisons with other organisations are tricky as the civil service is streets ahead in terms of measuring social mobility and especially in terms of publishing the data. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission have attempted to compare how the Fast Stream does with graduates of elite universities, which sheds some (but not much) light on this [answer: there does appear to be significant under-representation of those from working-class backgrounds compared to Russell Group graduates but reasons for this are unclear]

    What I find interesting in the data is that there are such wide differences between different schemes, with the Analytical Fast Stream schemes (e.g. GES, GSS, GSR) both recruiting far more from working-class backgrounds than the main Graduate Fast Stream scheme (0.8% of entrants to the GFS are from working-class backgrounds compared to e.g. 10.6% of entrants to the GSS) and having fairly even success rates between working-class and middle-class applicants (while working-class applicants to the GSS are GSR are slightly more likely to succeed than middle-class applicants, middle-class applicants to the Graduate Fast Stream are seven times more likely to succeed). See for the full data on Fast Stream entry if you wanted to dig into this further. The independent review should get into this question and explore the extent to which differences in success rates can be explained by controlling for e.g. prior educational attainment.

    Your point on the regional distribution of entrants is also interesting - data isn't published on this but maybe it's something that internal data does exist on that can be factored into the review.

    [Disclosure: I'm an official in the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission]

    • Replies to Peter Brant>

      Comment by Rachel posted on

      James - does this data considered what percentage of those with a degree from Oxford or Cambridge came from a lower socio-economic background. I knew many of these when I was at Oxford, a couple of whom are now in the public sector. It would obviously be wrong to assume that the two are mutually exclusive.

  56. Comment by James Kane posted on

    I'd be really interested to see how these figures compare with similar private and third sector organisations - what are the statistics for FTSE 100 companies' graduate programmes and senior leadership, for example? 3% for Fast Stream and 10% for SCS leaves a long way to go whatever the position, but it could be useful to know whether we're behind and need to catch up (and so could potentially learn from other organisations' approaches) or whether we're among the best of a very bad bunch.

    One other non-protected diversity characteristic that could be interesting would be place of origin. For SCS this is probably less relevant, but I've noticed that a lot of fast streamers seem to come from London and the south east. It'd be good to know whether this is actually the case and (if so) whether there's anything we could be doing about it. Full disclosure: I'm a fast streamer and from the North!