https://civilservice.blog.gov.uk/2015/09/21/social-mobility-and-what-it-means-for-me-and-you/

Social mobility and what it means for me and you

Jon Thompson, Permanent Secretary of the MOD
Jon Thompson, Permanent Secretary of the MOD and social mobility champion

As you may be aware I have been appointed the Civil Service Champion for Social Mobility. At the start of National Inclusion Week, which aims to raise awareness of the importance and benefits of inclusion in the workplace, I wanted to say a bit about how I am taking this work forward.

I am personally delighted to have been passed this responsibility as it is something close to my heart. It’s no secret that I have followed the road less-travelled on my route to Permanent Secretary. I went to a comprehensive school, took an apprenticeship at the age of 18, and now find myself where I am today.

What is 'social mobility'?

Social mobility can be described as the relationship between our starting point in life and where we end up as adults - usually in relation to income, occupation and status. The Civil Service wants to ensure that everyone, regardless of their socio-economic background, has the same access to opportunities, to fulfil their potential and rise to a leadership role, if that is their aspiration.

The Civil Service already offers some great opportunities at entry level with its apprenticeship scheme, and across the junior and middle management grades through the Fast Stream and other development schemes. However, it is still considered a bit of a closed shop at the top. We need to understand what is preventing individuals from different backgrounds rising to the most senior grades. We need to attract and retain talent, have diverse teams to avoid the risk of ‘group think’, and ensure that our leadership is representative of the organisation.

Helping everyone achieve

What is lacking at the moment is some data and analysis to understand where the issues lie and where the barriers exist. The Cabinet Office is carrying out some focused research into why applicants from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to succeed if they apply to the Fast Stream. This will provide us with some much-needed data, but I want to use my role as champion to ensure that barriers are removed for all, not just those who want to pursue a formal development scheme that captures only a very small percentage of our staff. We must not forget the many civil servants currently in place, working hard and who have their own personal aspirations - everyone should feel that they can achieve whatever they personally want to achieve.

Civil Service Fast Track apprentices
Second cohort of the Fast Track Apprenticeship Scheme

I recently attended an apprentice event and, chatting to some of the apprentices, it was apparent that some felt I couldn’t possibly understand the challenges that they faced, as I was too senior and too removed from their world. There was some surprise when I told them that I once stood where they stand. This really drives home to me the need for role-modelling, visibility and authenticity from all our senior leaders to remove this misconception that only certain types of people reach certain grades and roles.

I am also keen that we explore the impact of the less tangible issues relating to different backgrounds and cultural reference points – self-confidence, communication skills, unconscious bias and networking opportunities. And we need to look again at the recruiting process – are we inadvertently restricting access to certain roles, functions and locations due to the personal and financial commitment that comes with them?

I am still working to understand the totality of this challenge alongside Sue Owen, the Civil Service Diversity Champion, and I have set up a cross-departmental steering group to lead the formulation of a strategy and work plan. I am also keen to spend time looking into how we are addressing this issue within the MOD, which has its own unique challenges, and we are beginning to develop some tools to work on internally.

If anyone has some good ideas in relation to tackling this work, you should get in touch with my office on PUS-PrivateOffice@mod.uk.

48 comments

  1. SB

    Wow, the Second cohort of the Fast Track Apprenticeship Scheme look very ethnically diverse...!

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    • Mark J

      Ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability, class etc..shouldn't matter one jot if we can work in a meritocracy on a level playing field. If we could cease the incessant focus on diversity and concentrate on the job at hand and on improving skills, knowledge and experience. This in turn will boost morale and allow those of quality and ambition to rise naturally on merit within the organisation.

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      • Sunny

        Ah but Mark, without a focus on diversity ensuring or at least trying to ensure that people with different protected characteristics see themselves represented in successful positions, there is a very real injury to motivation ("it's not for people like us, there's no point in applying") which can carry through into performance, which leads to a vicious circle of preconceptions among the recruiting bodies (presumption for example that disabled people, or mothers, are not ambitious and not suitabole to ambitious roles...) it is very easy to talk about meritocracy and a level playing field when you are on the side of the advantaged. The playing field is in reality a long way from being level, and until it is, long may diversity work continue.

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    • MC

      A very noble and excellent initiative.

      Can we expect our Parliamentary/Ministerial colleagues, so often accused of nepotism, to sign up to this too?

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    • SK

      My sentiments exactly, Interesting the picture displayed says a 1000 words about the mixture of people on the fast track scheme. Did you realise that at the time you posted the picture alongside the write up?

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    • Lorna Poole

      I think the lack of ethnic diversity is one of the big challenges lies. The Apprenticeship programme is open to all so the focus/anaysis, in my opinion, needs to be not just on the socio-economic background of potential applicants but also why people from ethnic minorities are not applying or not successfully completing the apprenticeships. I agree with Jon's comment that "it is still considered a bit of a closed shop at the top", I also think that it is true that the top of the shop is not ethnically diverse which could suggest to someone thinking about a development programme that if you are from a different racial background you won't be successful or as successful as others.

      The corollary of that is it could stop people from even applying for fast track/development schemes. It is not a problem that will be solved overnight because in my view even when work is done to address the issues there still remains the problem of people's perception which although rooted in fact does not always reflect the current reality of a situation and the efforts or changes that have been made to address issues like this.

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  2. Anthony

    Never mind all this pink & fluffy tree-hugging social mobility nonsense - just give exisiting staff a decent pay rise.

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  3. ZiroD

    Facinating topic!

    We must seek to treat BLACK MALES, as part of a homogenoeous grouping in it's own right because they are very under represented at Middle Management and above grades in the Civil Service. This has been the case for as long as I can remember with little being done to address the problem by the extablishment.

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    • Mark T

      In reply to the idea that black males should form a separate category, this would be a mistake. Diversity policies are idealistic and divorced from social reality, they are an exercise in box ticking and salving of consciences, they mean well but are useless, black men have been systematically excluded from society over the past fifty years, once the diversity policy is implemented, those implementing it can say that they have taken all the necessary measures and any failure on the part of black men to advance is their own fault, actually chiming with the racist ideas of black inferiority. Better a pragmatic and realistic approach than a forced approach which may tick all the boxes but won't help black men.

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  4. Mark M

    I have never considered myself as having come from a lower socio-economic background, just because I went to a Comprehensive School. A comprehensive school is a state school that does not select its intake on the basis of academic achievement or aptitude. About 90% of British pupils attend comprehensive schools! I have in the past, considered myself at a disadvantage for not studying for a degree; however, I have come to realise I can demonstrate equivalent professional experience.

    I am no expert on Sociology nor Economics; but I do not believe Socio-ecomic groups has anything to do with what type of school you attend.

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  5. D Fernall

    Thanks for this well-written and encouraging blog. I particularly welcome the non-judgemental tone, with sub-clauses such as "if that is their aspiration". This is an important element of getting the balance right and not implying we should all share the same ambitions.
    However, I also think that reading between the lines reveals how far we have to go to redress the balance. The very fact that Jon's attendance at a Comprehensive school is worthy of note speaks volumes and suggests (or confirms) that the senior grades are dominated by those who benefitted from a privileged education.
    A key question for me is whether Jon's success was because of his different background or in spite of it. I would not consider it a successful outcome if more individuals from less privileged background were to rise to senior positions simply by emulating the behaviours of their colleagues. As they say in evolutionary science, successful behaviours should be "expensive to fake".

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  6. Christopher Clift

    The introductory paragraph to this story (above the link on the first page) talks in glowing and positive terms about someone from a comprehensive school background having aspirations to reach a high level post in the Civil Service, as the Permanent Secretary did. Fine as far as it goes.
    HOWEVER, what is needed is not so much those aspirations by the comprehensive educated individual, but a guarantee that the selection process will lack any possible bias (unconscious or conscious) on the part of the panel, when assessing the candidate's suitability

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  7. B W

    The picture really is going to inspire people of BME to apply........ not, it highlights that there massive work to be done to eradicate the stereo typical perception of the people the civil service employ.

    All they need now is the pinstripe suit, briefcase and bowler hats 🙁

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  8. Jon Weston

    Well having read this I'm afraid to say this does not reflect my experience within Defra. A few people on fast track schemes do very well but for the majority promotion is only available when someone leaves for abetter job, retires or dies.

    The fact is the civil service generally has no idea how to value professions in the same way as private industry. All our HR business partners are on Grade 7 while talented systems developers are on HEO. In the commercial World it would be exactly the opposite...and then they wonder why we have staffing issues attracting and retaining developers while our HR initiates (like this one) are at best naive.

    Until we attract people of high calibre form the commercial World to the highest managerial positions and encourage them to re-organise from the top down the civil service will effectively stay stuck in the 1930s...as it has done, well, since 1930!

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  9. Peter G

    If the class of the degree and university are key factors in selection, then why the surprise? Isn't the problem with the traditional definition of social mobility that it is too concerned with 'income, occupation and status' to the detriment of 'softer', less overtly measurable qualities such as worth and value of job to society and local community, and self-growth and confidence? I applaud the mention of ' role-modelling, visibility and authenticity' but the closed shop will too often be closed unless the mould of 'in my image' changes.

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    • LSB

      As someone who took a different route and did not go to university, this is a welcome blog.
      It is frustrating to see some job descriptions with a degree listed as an essential criteria when it is not balanced with an 'or relevant work experience'.
      I think looking at social mobility is a good idea. When you start thinking that a lot of young people may not have gone to university due to tuition fees it would be a shame if they are unfairly blocked when they are older (as they have protected status when they are young) due to fairly archaic obstacles. Ernst & Young will not use degrees as a criteria anymore and I would say they are one of the leaders in their field, well certainly in this country.

      I would also agree with the comments that the schemes referred to in this blog are haphazard.
      Fast Track and Fast Stream generally require relocation that is not normally a trait the older have due to having families/commitments. What would be nice is seeing talent recognised within teams and coaching them to the next level. I mean does everyone need to go to the top?

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  10. Stuart Holttum

    The link I received to this ended with the sentence "Jon explains why going to a comprehensive school, as he did, shouldn’t be a reason for anyone to limit their aspiration or be held back. "

    How patronising can you get? I would never have thought that it would - so perhaps the barriers are the ingrained assumptions amongst senior managers, and those who write our media statements?

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    • Susiemac

      I completely agree. I am as middle-class as you get and had a perfectly good comprehensive school education which led to a law degree at a top university. I'm a late entrant to the civil service after 20 years working in the private sector but it never occurred to me that I would find prejudice here against my educational background. So I am also surprised by the impression given by the link to this article.

      However I firmly believe that parental input and support is as important as the kind of schooling as an influence on how well people cope with life and progress in their careers.

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  11. Darren

    Until the percentage of people in positions of power reflect society nothing will really change. The vast minority of people attend public school and Oxbridge Unis yet the majority of top positions go to these people. The old school tie brigade would not have it any other way. the current Cabinet is a prime example. There are too many Tim Nice But Dim types in positions that matter. And the previous commenter has a point. That cohort does not look at all diverse.

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  12. DB-F

    I think one of the key issues, for which the solution will not be easy, is that for many people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, there just aren't the occupational and educational role models to allow them to understand the potential beyond the current horizon which they can see. Schools, (and what is left of their career services), leave a lot to be desired when pointing school leavers towards ambitious aspirations rather than just ticking a box by meeting them and either signposting them somewhere else or (from personal experience) managing expectations downwards.

    I think it is [arguably, of course] fair to say that someone who has not been through the sorts of high-end schooling and regular 'at-home' coaching given by parents and others to children in middle- and higher-income families is likely to be at something of a disadvantage when it comes to equality of opportunity...

    The solution is probably linked to getting into the right schools early on and getting kids (a) interested in the opportunities and the [unique] work we do and (b) helping them to gain the sorts of social and academic skills required to actually get in and compete on a level playing field with the sorts of people they will encounter on things like the Fast Stream. Could we create a Civil Service mentoring scheme dealing with Secondary School pupils perhaps? It could count towards Corporate Objectives, and we could incorporate it into our training/volunteering days?

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  13. CP

    I'm sure this is a well intentioned initiative. However, if attending a comprehensive is still considered some sort of barrier in the CS, then something has gone very, very wrong.

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  14. Becky

    The fast stream is only for graduates. If you couldnt afford to go to university then how could you get onto the fast track scheme? "And we need to look again at the recruiting process – are we inadvertently restricting access to certain roles, functions and locations due to the personal and financial commitment that comes with them?" Just because a person doesnt have a degree, doesnt mean that they aren't capable of progressing to that level. The application requirements seem archaic.

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    • DL

      The fast stream isn't only for graduates. There is an in service route. I finished the fast stream on promotion to G7 last year. I went to an inner city comprehensive school (a pretty bad one) dropped out of my A levels, due to caring responsibilities and then joined the civil service as an AA at the age of 19. I joined the fast stream as a single parent to three children at the age of 41.

      It was very, very difficult. A lot of the out-of-London cohort came from similar backgrounds to myself. A lot of the actual-graduate fast steamers had been to good schools, Russell group universities, had childhoods wher they wanted for nothing. Our life experiences wee vastly different.

      I agree, get into secondary schools, inspire the brightest kids to be able to make a difference in their communities by being decision makers in policy. The SCS should reflect the general populace, not just in terms of race or gender or disability. Social mobility is vitally important, but it's not seen to be the done thing to talk about class these days, so it gets glossed over and rebranded.

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      • EJ

        I find the description of your experiences very inspiring, as a woman fast approaching 40, with caring responsibilities looking for a way to take control of my career. Maybe the equality and inclusion initiative needs to canvas people who have succeeded from within the CS to get a real understanding of the barriers.

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      • Thomas

        DL( 26/9/15) is absolutely correct social mobility is crucial and the fact is that these days it is still your origins in life that largely determine where you will end up in terms of job , career and status later on in life. Hard work can only take you so far, in my opinion class inequalities are the great white elephant in the room ..a lucky few escape the net and achieve great things but I'm pleased Jon has at least started the conversation.

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  15. SC

    And how many of those are from a non-public or non-private school background? The hypocrisy is glaring and makes one heartily sick at the inequalities within the UK.

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  16. Chris

    I look forward as to how we will significantly change the make up of the civil service without running the large structured recruitment exercises of the past.

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  17. John Williams

    The Civil Service News 'trailer' which I followed to this article says

    "Jon explains why going to a comprehensive school, as he did, shouldn’t be a reason for anyone to limit their aspiration or be held back. "

    I really don't find this helpful or even relevant, many areas of the country have only comprehensive schools and the implication that people who went to comprehansive schools might consider themselves inferior is outdated and offensive.

    To be fair, this misrepresents Jon's article and was probably drafted by some copy editor...

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    • JD

      I agreee with John Williams' comments. The trailer doesn't do the otherwise helpful article any justice. I thought the misconception that comprehensive school's provided an inferior education was a view which belonged in the history books?

      I whole-heartedly agree with Jon Thompson's comments about looking outside of formal schemes to make sure we are developping the best staff to be our future leaders. A common theme from members of my team, regardless of their background, is that they don't see the point in applying for progression as all the jobs will go to fast streamer's. As a manager it's difficult position to defend when there is mileage in their opinions.

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  18. Owen Morris

    I went to a comprehensive school for the first 4 years of secondary, then had to go to a grammar school due to a geographical move. At the time (1985-86) my dad described the education system in that areas as being dragged kicking and screaming into the 1950s. The average results per pupil at O level were grade lower at the grammar school than at the comprehensive schools where we moved from. The lack of social and personal encouragement and the rigidity of the mould they tried to fit everyone into at the grammar school was a stark contrast.

    It isn't schooling, education or social strata that holds some people back, it is the boastful, "I'm best", pushiness that is required to get jobs and promotions that blunts many people against their actual skills, abilities and aptitudes. My experience has been that people who you would recognise from an application form won't get anywhere. If the person on the form is nothing like the person they actually are, they have more chance. THAT is part of the fundamental imbalance of the systems.

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  19. Chris

    After 34 years I can say that in my experience the CS is now a much more diverse place to work and that it does allow Social Mobility. When I first started age was clearly a barrier and my 'Local Office' didn't even think about spotting early talent never mind nuturing it so I think the appretice sheme is a great idea!
    I know of 2 SCS staff who began their lives living on what was once the biggest Council Estate in Europe. However, we can improve and I think this article conveys that message and is open in asking all of us for ideas on just how we do improve - it's a here here from me!

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  20. MD

    I agree with the comment made by JD. The organisation doesn't really look at the existing staff who want to develop.
    I understand that the fast track is open to non graduates but yet we still have to jump the same hoops.
    Could there not be a more simplistic way of developing staff who want to move forward, who have already served years within the Civil service?

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  21. Old Buffer

    by Old Buffer
    I am at the end of my career and have lived through what was the period of greatest social change in Britain. From an obviously working class family and heritage I was fortunate to pass the 11+ and get to a grammar school in London in 1964. I was one of only 12 boys in my junior school cohort to do this that year. As children it meant little to us beyond breaking old friendships and making new ones. The real change for us, if we but knew it, was the improvement in our prospects. Most of the boys I went to the grammar school with went on to sixth form and about half went into higher education. Many, like me, were the first in their families to reach this level. Those we left behind followed their parents and grandparents into factories, shops and minor office roles. Some left school at 15 with no qualifications and the rest at 16 with some less respected qualifications.
    The aspirations, achievements and attitudes I acquired would now place me firmly in the middle classes. My children went to good schools because I could afford to live in their catchment areas and there was no thought that they would not read for a degree.
    I have three sisters who did not do as well as me at age 11. They left school at 16, married locally to young men in working class occupations and did not move far from our parental home. Their children have, with one exception, followed similar paths. The exception, through her own efforts and with the right push at school, obtained a degree and now works in MoD but is not inclined to seek promotion.
    Even now those who can afford it will seek to live near the best performing schools and, where selection is still practised, will seek to get their children into primary schools with a proven record in the 11+ exams. I have had friends move from one side of a road to the other because the catchment boundary was the white line in the middle of the road.
    This pattern of parental experience and expectation leading to children’s' futures being limited is being repeated today. Social mobility is more than the simple relationship between our starting point in life and where we end up as adults. It is about attitudes and aspirations, things which cannot be simply measured. The changes in my attitudes and aspirations whilst at the grammar school coupled with the expectations of the school made of me took place slowly over 7 years. Parental and societal attitudes based on where one lives are difficult to overcome without external forces being applied. It can take courage and persistence to make the break and to make the change permanent.
    The task facing Jon is as much about changing parental and societal attitudes and expectations as changing the structural inhibitions to the status quo. It may be that changing the latter is easier than changing the former as some of the levers of change are in his and our hands.

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    • Joseph Staniforth

      Excellent points Old Buffer, sadly the helping hand for working class people that was grammar schools has been cut away with grammar schools largely abolished.
      I was raised in South Yorkshire where there are 0 grammar schools meaning social mobility is not as easy as it once was.
      Anyone know why the establishment of grammar schools is not on the agenda in relation to aiding social mobility in the UK?

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  22. Joseph Staniforth

    I am heavily involved in social mobility in the civil service and agree that social mobility is vitally important.
    I have noticed however, that one particular aspect of social mobility in the civil service is often greatly overlooked.
    This aspect is regionalism.
    For example I recently looked into the Fast Stream and saw that if I were successful 'One of my placements may be outside London.'
    As a middle-aged man living in Sheffield with a family to support and a mortgage to pay I was dissappointed to see this wording. How could a forward looking employer expect me to uproot my family to London for the temporary placements that the Fast Stream starts with? I believe the Fast Stream along with many other civil service aspects should be developed to help people not in London.
    NB The picture at the top shows a lot of young and therefore more likely able to move cities faces.
    Linked to this I realise that young people may be able to move easier and so the issue with the Fast Stream currently is one of both regionalism and ageism, with very little of the Fast Stream aimed at older graduates. This again means the civil service is missing out on a great deal of real life experience.

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  23. DE

    The biggest barrier, in my own experience, is the voice inside one's own mind that tells you 'people like me don't do jobs like that'. I still battle with it now. If you are raised in an environment where family and peers DO have senior roles, and there is an assumption from birth that you will do the same, then that voice simply isn't there. How do we get people who haven't been raised in that environment (and most of us haven't) to feel entitled to hold senior posts? Do let me know!

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  24. Mark T

    Diversity is a word that has become so over used it has lost any meaning. People who obsess about diversity don't help matters because they themselves see people as types and put people in to categories. There are two particular dangers, one that people are over promoted to fill some kind of diversity target and two that those promoted are not taken seriously and are believed to have benefitted from an unfair advantage. All that managers and the rest of us can do is set a good example, diversity policies are worse than useless.

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  25. Craig

    "are we inadvertently restricting access to certain roles, functions and locations due to the personal and financial commitment that comes with them?"........................With the Civil Service reform in full flow, and the drive for HMRC campus locations near to University's, I think this gives you the answer as to how the Civil Service views those individuals that come from under-privileged backgrounds.......Senior Civil Service roles have always been elitist, and looks like even more so in the future.

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  26. Bob

    After all these years of supposed 'Equal Opportunities', why oh why are we still having these debates and discussions. It sounds like someone's not listening - and it seems as if it's not the Comprehensive school goers!

    I believe that much of this comes back to the issue of Leadership plus an appreciation of the Wider Perspective, not just with regard to the task(s) in hand, but of the individuals involved and recognition of their true strengths and weaknesses.

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  27. RM

    Just an observation - this blog mentions two different schemes which a number of commenters are confusing. The Fast Stream is (primarily) a scheme for graduates who come in at HEO level with the aim to progress to G7 in 2-3yrs, there is an in-service option on the Fast Stream which doesn't require a degree. The picture is of the current cohort for the Fast Track Apprenticeship Scheme, this is being billed as an alternative to university for school leavers and the eligibility criteria explicitly states that applicants must not have a degree. Perhaps future blog writers could be clear which development schemes they are talking about and the entry requirements.

    My second point is that as ever whenever social mobility is mentioned many people lump former private school pupils and Oxbridge graduates together which annoys me. Oxbridge may have a disproportionate percentage of students who had a private education but the two do not automatically go hand in hand. I went to Oxford from a comprehensive school in the North West as the first person in my immediate family to stay in school past 16, a number of my friends at university were privately educated but on full academic scholarships - their parents wouldn't have been able to afford to send them to a fee paying school in their wildest dreams otherwise. I worked hard and did well at an ordinary school to get into a good university, that doesn't make me part of a privileged elite.

    To complete the story I joined the Civil Service initially as a temporary AA, rose to HEO over a number of years then applied for the in-service Civil Service Fast Stream. I didn't have to write where I went to university on the application form and at no point during the assessment process was I asked. As far as I'm aware nobody I dealt with during the recruitment process knew that I was an Oxford graduate.

    The Civil Service still does have a lot of work to do on diversity and social mobility but labelling anyone who went to top university as part of the privileged elite without looking at how they got there is unhelpful in my opinion.

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  28. HJK

    I agree, the picture paints a 1000 words! We need more action, policing of policies and challenge to senior leaders who play lip service to the diversity agenda and only then will we see a marked difference.

    We need a recruiment process where the process is blind (as far down the line as possible) and then the candidate with the highest cummulative score is appointed. By the time you get to interview and reveal your identity it may be too late for bias (call unconcious or label it how you will to make it sound better) to influence results!

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  29. Saul

    I too was bemused by the total lack of diversity that was evident in the photograph of the Fast Track Apprentices, both in terms of class and ethnicity. While it is easy to spot a lot of Sophies , Charlottes and Crispins , it’s hard to spot any obvious Sharons, Traceys or indeed Usains !. A photograph of the people on the scheme in my Department (BIS) which was published last year and was just as “pale”. I believe that BIS is actually becoming less diverse when it comes to class and ethnicity. This is because the Fast Stream is the main entry of young blood into the Department and as is known, people from ethnic and working class backgrounds are underrepresented in the new recruits. Black male recruits are a rarity when it comes to the Fast Stream and the Fast Track Apprenticeship Schemes. Black males are now a dying breed in BIS where the Grade 7 is now by far and away the most popular grade (i.e. we have far more of them than any other grades), and are in danger of becoming extinct in the Department - if the current trends in recruitment and grade profile in BIS continues.

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  30. Susan Barlow

    Just taking a quick count of the faces in the photo of the 'Second cohort of the Fast Track Apprenticeship Scheme' - 23 males & 13 females thereabouts - we are still not dealing with Gender Equality (which came into effect way back in 1975 (Equal Opportunities Act) . A lot of work still to be done on this 40 years on!
    Social Mobilty? Get the gender balance right.

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  31. Observer

    A picture speaks a thousand words!

    Need I say more.....

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  32. LITTLE LONDONER

    Owen Morris, I can relate to what you are saying about “the rigidity of the mould that they tried to fit everyone into at your grammar school”. At my own grammar school in the ‘70s, they took this to ludicrous extremes, to the point where comparisons with Stalin-era gulags had some validity. For instance, they frowned on pupils being on the premises alone during break and lunchtimes. You had to be in a group at all times, bonding with your classmates, even (particularly) if you didn’t like them. Or they were doing something that you hated (like football, which I hated then and now). Or had to do something for which a bit of privacy is a basic human right, like relieve your bladder (completely open urinal walls and only 2 points in the day when you were permitted to use them). Or take a shower (compulsory 3 days a week after compulsory games – in the open air even in sub-zero temperatures). That is straight out of Solzhenitsyn’s ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH, where the camp commandant made it a disciplinary offence for prisoners to be seen alone wandering round the camp. Ironically I studied this book in English literature classes at school and actually gave a reading of this very passage in one assembly in September 1976, to drive home the point that I was well aware of the prevailing policy and how it originated. “They” weren’t going to pull the wool over my eyes! Was it coincidence that many of the teaching staff and parents of that era had been Prisoners of War during WW2?

    So how does this link to social mobility? Actually quite a lot. If you’ve suffered 7 years of a prison camp regime and been told by both your parents and your teachers, when you’ve dared to complain, to count yourself lucky that you’re not at “one of those other establishments” as my 6th form class tutor patronisingly called comprehensive schools, you can hardly be blamed for experiencing a degree of post-traumatic stress, which isn’t exactly conducive to improving your circumstances. I suffered from some myself, resulting in a short course of treatment, and leading to my initial appointment to MOD back in the early 80s being offered on “unestablished (health)” terms (lesson learnt ; government was, and still is, an extremely risk-averse employer). But in the light of what I have heard subsequently about the fate of my classmates, I realise now I was rather lucky. Many of my classmates fared far worse. One attempted suicide and obtained only one “O” level pass, one is still unable to work today, and yet another is unable to tell his now 86-year-old mother about the physical, psychological and sexual abuse that he suffered there 40 years ago. It would break her heart, he says, for her to be told that the huge financial sacrifices that she and her husband made to buy a house in the school’s catchment area had all been in vain.

    Grammar school attendance a passport to social mobility? And comprehensive school attendance a passport to the soup kitchen? Really?

    Jon Thompson is the permanent secretary of my employing department and I consider myself very privileged indeed to have served under a leader who has finally laid that old canard to rest, a canard that was lethally damaging to the life chances of many, myself included.

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  33. Bill Phillips

    The fundamental problem is the reliance on the fast track system to get senior staff.

    Certain groups either do badly at the artificial tests used to select people or simply do not think to apply.

    If we had a working system to reward performance for all staff we could do away with the fast track. This would have numerous benefits, including helping groups that tend not to be in the fast track at present.

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  34. Sophie

    Pleased to see Jon Thompson is at least trying to highlight the issue and do something about it. It's a very complicated set of factors to disentangle, and he can't possibly solve the nation's social mobility problems overnight.

    In response to some of the comments on here, the reason that grammar schools are not the engines of social mobility they were once perceived to be is that nowadays the evidence shows that it's mainly the middle class parents who can afford to send their children there (I'm referring to all the tutoring that goes on from age 8 in most London boroughs). That is simply out of reach for a lot of parents with ordinary incomes.

    I went to a comprehensive school, am now SCS, and never considered my background a limiting factor until I looked around me at the SCS table (and more importantly listened to the language people use - often Latin! - and the cultural references to Oxford colleges). There's much work still to do, and it sounds like we're all up for it.

    (and yes, I really am called Sophie, although I don't think you'd guess that from a photo!)

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    • LITTLE LONDONER

      Top class response Sophie, the nation's social mobility problems are multi-facted and cannot be explained by one or two factors in isolation, and most certainly not the existence or otherwise of grammar schools. We need more people like yourself who have attended comprehensive schools, and still reached senior positions in the civil service, to come forward and say what you are saying. And dare I say it, we need a few more people like myself who went to what were officially grammar schools (although mine was really a semi-comprehensive due to wealthy parents coaching their reluctant offspring to pass the 11-plus thereby defeating its object) and not finding them to be the passports to success that they were (very wrongly) perceived to be.

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