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Are there any senior civil servants with a working class background?

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Diversity and inclusion
Martyn Henderson, Project Director and Social Mobility Champion

At a recent Department of Culture, Media and Sport all-staff event, colleagues were invited to post questions to our Executive Board via an app. The questions around our session on diversity were particularly interesting to me.

“Why no mention of socio-economic background?” asked one person.

“Are there any senior civil servants with a working class background?” asked another (this one got 19 ‘likes’).

These are fair questions. We all know the Civil Service is seen as too exclusive – and that senior roles across Whitehall and beyond can seem the preserve of the privileged and the ‘posh’.


 Credit: Andrew E. Larsen

I’m pretty sure that I’m not posh though. My upbringing in Bolton wasn’t quite like the Monty Python sketch with the four Yorkshireman (“A corridor! Ooh, we used to DREAM of livin' in a corridor!”) but money was often tight and my parents worked long hours and multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Unlike them, I had the chance to go to university on a maintenance grant. And that was when I first really understood that other people might come from much more privileged backgrounds than my own. I made new friends who’d swap witty, worldly tales about Singapore or Zanzibar. Our caravan holidays at the Ponderosa in Grange-over-Sands, with its resident house band “Terry’s All Gold”, didn’t quite match up.

I graduated during the recession in the early 90s and went on to a series of manual pre-minimum wage jobs, doing everything from cleaning toilets to making sandwiches (don’t worry, I did wash my hands in between). My last job before joining the Civil Service was in the same mill where both my mum and gran had worked before me.

Clearly, my degree wasn’t quite the springboard to social mobility that my parents hoped for!

After five or so years at the Bolton DSS office, I moved to London and eventually to a diary secretary role in private office. Here again, I found myself in a new world of privilege. Everyone came across as very smart and terribly eloquent – with a shared frame of reference that I just didn’t get. When I told my minister that I’d gone to Keele University, she responded sniffily, “That’s not on the list, is it?” I still don’t know what list she meant.

Anyway, that mill I worked in has now been converted into some swanky flats, and I’m now a member of the senior leadership team at DCMS. So what’s my point?

Well, it’s about how we change the perception of some that only posh people need apply for the Senior Civil Service. Because, while I have sometimes been very ill at ease, ultimately my background hasn’t been any barrier to getting on – and the same has been true for many of my colleagues.

But it’s also about recognising that we still have much more to do as an organisation.

As you may have seen, the Civil Service published its updated Talent Action Plan earlier this year, setting a noble ambition to place the Civil Service as the leading UK employer on social mobility – a place where people from all backgrounds have an equal chance to get on.

A key part of our plans is being able, for the first time, to track the progress of people from lower socio-economic backgrounds in the Civil Service. Starting this month, all senior civil servants are taking part in a pilot where they will be asked to answer a range of questions about their background. Following analysis of the results, a small number of measures will be selected that will then be used for monitoring right across the Civil Service.

This will not just be a first for the Civil Service but for any major employer in the UK, so I’ll be completing the survey and also encouraging my colleagues to make history by doing the same! And I hope we can all now look forward to a future where the Civil Service fully reflects the public it serves.

PS If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in this blog, as they say at the end of Hollyoaks, then do leave a comment as I would love to hear from you!

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  1. Comment by Dennis posted on

    I left the Civil Service after 9 years totally fed up with the way people from non-private/ Oxbridge education were treated. That was some 45 years ago. Imagine my relief when my new university employers did not expect me to write to them using their surname and to act deferentially towards people who came from the 'right' background -i.e. not mine! - no matter how stupid they seemed. Even before joining I was rejected from the diplomatic service having passed all the tests, by a panel which told me my background meant I could not possibly blend in socially. Ever since 1981 I have accordingly dismissed senior civil servants as an arrogant bunch. However obviously in recent times there have been major improvements and I suppose once the cadre from the 80's burns out we will see no trace of this earlier disgraceful behaviour. Good luck to all new entrants.

  2. Comment by Richard Aulton posted on

    I retired from DWP jobcentre plus almost 2 years ago after 22 years as AO and EO and without a doubt the strength of the frontline staff group is its adaptability, flexibility, competence and committment to providing high quality customer service in an often intensely pressurised environment. The overlooking of highly able well motivated rank and file staff for promotion to HEO and higher is deplorable and the lack of oppotunity offered to women is worse. The greatest strength of the DWP stafff group in London was,and is, it's multi ethnicity. We reflect our customer group and like them are underpaid, undervalued and underestimated.

  3. Comment by Terry posted on

    I can certainly empathise with the issue of meeting and working with people with such drastically different backgrounds. I often tell my team about the biggest gaffe I dropped shortly after joining the civil service. I joined the Overseas Development Administration in 1990. On the Friday I was a postman working in Hartlepool, coming from a disadvantaged area of the North East. Monday morning I was an AO in a joint ODA and Foreign Office department. One of the regular features was our director would have regular working lunches where everyone would gather round a large table for a chat and a bite to eat. One day the subject turned to boarding schools, and I was asked my opinion. Not stopping to think, I immediately launched into a passionate reply along the lines of why do parents have children if they then send them to boarding schools. The laughter that followed from some and the embarrassed silence from others made me realise that I may have put my foot in it. Then I recalled I was sitting round a table full of diplomats, most of whom sent their children to....boarding schools! This was also the same year that my first manager described me in my report as "an abrupt and brusque northerner with a quaint use of the English language". I've learnt a lot since then, particularly the value of thinking before I speak, appreciating that others have very different outlooks and life experiences.

  4. Comment by Indra Morris posted on

    I have always been active in diversity but not vocal on this. This has long been an issue for me personally, but it wasn't until sharing my background when appointed as a DG in HMT that I realised how important it was to share. So many people said they had no idea someone like me could be a DG. So thank you Martyn for this blog

  5. Comment by Nadine posted on

    Really enjoyed this blog. A very important subject and it will be interesting to see how this filters through.

    More like this please!

  6. Comment by Craig posted on

    In my experience, people from a working class background tend not to speak in buzzwords and cliches and have a more direct approach to their work. You would think is a positive, but as someone slowly making their way through the ranks of the Civil Service, it is proving more of a hindrance than I would have thought. When writing competencies, straight-talking and challenging the status quo is encouraged but in reality it is considered to be symptomatic of someone who causes problems or is troublesome.

    I'm proudly working class and also proud to serve my country, which is something I feel working in the Civil Service is. That means calling a spade a spade and highlighting absurdities in the system. I see so many examples of crazy policy that would never occur in the real world - private business or small business, yet in the Civil Service it isn't challenged. I'll continue to highlight and challenge these things, but I worry my working class principles of speaking the truth won't particularly serve me well.

  7. Comment by working class oik posted on

    This seems to be an exercise that avoids the reality of the situation which most 'front line' staff find themselves in. Those in senior grades are the ones who influence and introduce new processes but very few have worked in a front line office, seeing 'customers' day in day out. Maybe there should be a requirement across all departments that people working in the senior grades must have worked in a front line office dealing with customers to ensure they have an understanding of the real day to day work of departments and the impacts that customers have.

  8. Comment by HMRC Minion posted on

    Unfortunately, the move to Regional Centres (in HMRC) will further restrict socio-diversity. In the South of England, there will be two Regional Centres from a total of 13; both in London. Restricting the number of locations can only reduce the pool of talent out there, as not many people outside of London can afford to move there, or travel there, due to increasing costs.

  9. Comment by paul johnston posted on

    Great post with the wealth of comments a worthy tribute to it. There is clearly a lot of appetite to tackle this issue!

  10. Comment by Eleanor Moss posted on

    So glad you mentioned your occasional discomfort even though you clearly recognise that your social background should not discourage any SCS aspirations. As a grade 7 in the Ministry of Defence who looks female but openly identifies as bi-gender, I am happy to promote my dyslexic/dyspraxic mind and other declared disabilities as real strengths, but - rightly or wrongly - I still perceive social mobility as some barrier to progression. I used to hide my accent and still feel quite uncomfortable at formal dinners or occasions where some degree of etiquette is required, and that separates me from many of my military and civilian peers. I've since realised that the way to influence change is not just to be your authentic self, but also to be visible in doing so. This encourages others, and role-models how the Civil Service can better reflect the society we serve.

    We may be overcomplicating the metrics on social mobility by trying to define it by a series of parameters that don't quite cover the esoteric nature of social class. Imagine if you tried to define someone's religious beliefs or sexual orientation by a series of six questions, how odd?! I think the important thing is how you identify yourself, and how you think others perceive you. We could allow people to self-select their socio-economic background. This may prove more effective in baselining the data.

  11. Comment by Vicky Wood posted on

    Excellent article and a lot to think about once I have stopped chuckling at 'Terry's All Gold". Classic!

  12. Comment by Mike Lees posted on

    Great reading and some brilliant points.

    I'm one generation from a farming, mining and nail making in the black country and am proud to simply be a civil servant.

    I see qualifications as useful to increase your starting point on entry to the civil service but what i've seen during my 30 years is that those that get to the top dont rise there through breeding or back ground. They are there through merit. Intelligence combined with aptitude effort and ambition. Doing the right thing in the right way for their customers and colleagues.

    My mantra is to do the best you can and enjoy the job you do. if that means you come in as an AA and leave as an AA after 40+ years service thats fine as long as you are happy if you are blessed with the combined qualities I mentioned earlier and come in as an AA and move your way through to the SCS and are happy then thats also fine.

    The survey is a great idea and if it flicks the switch in one of the junior grades to drive their way to the top then good on ya!

    Earn the money you need to earn doing a job you love to do and spend the right amount of time with your family and your life will be a happy one.

  13. Comment by Hugh Neill posted on

    See my post above - my mum used to remind me that all those who have to work for a living (including her) were working class. It’s a meaningless term and a reflection of our class obsessed society. I liked Darren's post above very much, and Clare's also (my lot hail originally from N Ireland). I didn't go to university (though that was not so unusual in my day) because being honest I had no idea what I would do with a degree. I wanted to get out and do stuff, learn stuff, and do a good job for (hopefully) decent pay. I've been very interested in (the history of) apprenticeships since the 1980s and loved it when a Northerner said to me that 'up here we like to make things - down in London all they like to make is money'. I'm aware of a Grade 3 who retired not long ago having spent all his life in the civil service, starting as an AA and working his way up. Being much travelled and ex private sector I might view with circumspection the broadmindedness of anyone with a lifelong career in just one organisation but, being fair, the civil service has at least (historically) tended to encourage the aspiring person to regularly change work briefs and thus become well rounded. More importantly though, the honest truth is that people without degrees may ultimately be much more valuable to an organisation than those that have them, and history may one day judge the degree culture much as it has judged the masonic and trade union closed shop cultures: as obstacles to successful evolution. I hope so, because we're not all made for university, nor should we be.

    P.S. my interest in apprenticeships grew out of learning that many of the great pioneers of aeronautical engineering were apprentice trained (and model builders, which was my passion). Tommy Sopwith, A V Roe, Desoutter, R J Mitchell, to name but a few.

  14. Comment by Amelia Walker posted on

    This is really interesting and important - thanks for these insightful comments as well as the blog. I do feel a vague sense of unease though, when people talk about social class. Depending on how you cut the cake, I come out either well or badly. Which bit counts? My grandfather went to public school...on a scholarship. My parents both had degrees...but for many years were either on benefits or heavily reliant on tax credits. As a child we were variously homeless, insecurely housed, lived in low end rented housing and lived in a large detached home that we owned. I also grew up in Canada, and probably the biggest barrier to achievement was migrating and starting again without any connections, money, or cultural understanding. Of course data has limitations, and unless we start somewhere we don't make any inroads to better understanding. But because there is always a risk that in categorising people we become lazy and fail to see the real story, we have to remind ourselves that the numbers and boxes are only a proxy for something that is much more complicated in real life.

  15. Comment by Wendy Easton posted on

    Enjoyed your blog Martyn - ta very much. An observation, I recently applied on promotion to the Home Office for a job in Manchester. I had to attend an interview in Croydon which was a six hour journey, required an overnight stay and cost me nearly 200 quid. I had the temerity to ask whether interview expenses could be reimbursed, but was told "Unfortunately, as per the job advert, we are unable to pay expenses to candidates attending the assessment centres".

    There was actually no mention of this in the job advert and I was not wildly impressed by their contribution to 'social mobility'. Thankfully I later realised that I could claim through my existing Department. I didn't get the job by the way, but I would have to think seriously about considering to apply again. Practical issues like these which prevent people from lower socio-economic from applying, could be resolved quite easily with a little forethought.

  16. Comment by SS posted on

    I really enjoyed reading your blog and went on to read the comments in their entirety. I think maybe, though, you might be in the wrong vocation - have you ever tried writing/journalism?

  17. Comment by A Shaw posted on

    I'm glad some 'ordinary' people are getting through - but my attempt was subject to severe bullying which I believe in part was due to my class. I don't think being a woman helped. I missed out on promotion and nearly ended my life. It's been a ten year struggle to claw my way back.

    I think the CS has changed - and not for the better and any attempt at inclusion and diversity will simply be seen as whining.

    I'm looking to the private sector for advancement now.

  18. Comment by Anne posted on

    When my agency requested time in the curriculum to speak to final year students at my university/ college, about working in the our agency/department/CS, they were informed that there wasn't any space!

  19. Comment by Patrick Abbey posted on

    Applicants to the Fast Stream are expected to pay the first £10 toward their expenses. This is an artifical barrier raised against the very poorest. A very simple fix, and yet after 2 years of raising this point, still nothing has changed.

    This is both a problem of both input and throughput. There is a need to increase the number of people from lower socio-economic classes applying to the Civil Service. Marketing and engagement has a place to achieve this.

    But there is a wider problem of incentives. With so many Civil Service roles based in Whitehall, in the longer term only those with inherted or family wealth can afford to stay and climb the ladder - or face a lifetime of renting barely scraping by. To really fix this problem, we need to enable those without family wealth (or a home they can lodge in in London) to stay - and that means better pay, subsidised housing - or, my favourite solution - meaningful relocation of posts to the regions. And that requires high quality posts, including policy and analysis, not just operational posts and executive agencies.

    As a Northern working-class recent entrant to the Civil Service, I am very happy to share my insight and suggest some workable solutions. Please get in touch. Now is the time for action, not just words.

  20. Comment by Adam posted on

    I get frustrated with the Civil Service, especially the Fast Stream, ignoring it's own evidence towards increasing social mobility. Bridge Group evidence has made it very clear offering good career options outside of London will be key to increasing social mobility on the Fast Stream, especially in the context of rising rents/living costs in the South East which is more of a barrier for this generation than the last; yet departments are focusing more and more on London, e.g. BIES. Senior managers have recently been making noise about social mobility yet when questioned provide no actions to increasing it in the department.

    Was quite struck that the Bridge Group report found that one barrier to social mobility on the fast stream was candidates not been able to afford train fares to assessments in London yet we expect these same fast streamers to settle down in careers in the South East on public sector pay....

  21. Comment by Christian posted on

    I think when we're looking at diversity we have to look at the reasons behind why we're not getting a diverse intake. Take this subject of not enough folk from a traditional 'working class' background. It appears that being the case, you have a lot going against you to attain the same educational accomplishments as the better-off in society. However having attained that level, of education and (hopefully) opportunity-why on earth would you enter a career where the financial rewards are so pitiful? A general observation of mine is that when you come from not much/no money, then money is very important to you. That being the case joining the Civil Service is a guarantee that actually, you'll never be very well off, even at the top. I imagine (as someone whose family are first and second generation immigrants) that it would also explain the lack of ethnic diversity-why push your children to achieve in everything they do to gain the 'security' that you never had? Only for them to get a job that provides very little financial security, which again I observe is the main goal of lots of those parents. I'm not suggesting bumper pay-rises all-round, I think we just need to be a bit realistic about what can be achieved from a fairly low-paid, albeit satisfying job. Not unlike the art world you will inevitably get a more narrow intake.

  22. Comment by Louise Hancock posted on

    I am concerned that so many of these comments appear to assume that the North of the country is less privileged than the South. As a Northerner who lives in the South of England I can assure you that there are "Working Class" people south of Watford (and even in Watford) and that by assuming otherwise you are demonstrating a clear bias. What is important and what the survey is attempting to address is that we, as the Civil Service, are representative of the UK population whatever their socio economic background, and whatever part of the country we live in.

  23. Comment by Andrew posted on

    First, I would like to say the term 'working class' is a very general term and means different things to different people so should not appear in a survey, unless you ask "Do you consider yourself working class"?. you seem to use it as a term for comprehensive or secondary school educated person. Similarly the way you use the phrase 'Posh' would imply an upper class, highly educated privilidged, wealthy background, but again means different things to different people.

    It actually means Port Out Starboard Home referring to cabins on a ship. The best 1st class cabins were on the Port (left) side of the ship, so only upper class people could afford them while the middle class had second class, and the poor or working class had steerage. On the Homeword journey the Port side is now the starboard of the boat on the outward journey, where the best cabins are situated. In Titanic Di Caprio (steerage) could never have met Winslet (1st Class) in real life.

    My parents were both civil servants until the GPO now the Post Office was sold and part privatised, and BT becoming a private company making them both private sector workers rather than civil servants.

    The Civil Service has changed since then in the 1980s when I had my first civil service job at HMC&E, all the staff were seated in seniority order with a G7 (Principal), in a corner office looking down on everyone and AA near the door calling people Mr X or Mrs Y if they ever talked to you. The only way to get an EO job on entry was a minimum of 2:1 degree. It was also "dead man's shoes" so not very quick progression or promotion. Working class then meant anyone below SEO level as you would find they had the university education, and knew the right people to get on.

    I went to local comp, but in my case I left school with GCEs and as I wasn't academically gifted decided to get vocational qualifications. I progressed through the various levels and now am a full member of a professional organisation with recognised vocational qualifications.

    Now I'm in a new department (DIT) with people on first name terms from SCS down and everyone works as a team. There are few vaccancies due to the recruitment freeze, but you are judged on ability and experience rather than who you know. The recruitment freeze also means people don't consider the civil service as a career, because it doesn't advertise jobs except for fast stream or SCS level. Perception is everything and when the public hear about job losses and pay restraint, it doesn't encourage them to join.

  24. Comment by Dave Pearson posted on

    I wonder how they define 'Working class'?

  25. Comment by lee posted on

    Love to see what the questions they ask the scs might be, wand whether they bear any relation to the commonly understood definitions of having a poor upbringing, such as being in receipt of free school meals.

  26. Comment by Darren Hill posted on

    This is an interesting blog and very enlightening, but it also confirms to me that I will never be of any particular value to the Civil Service because I do not have a degree. My parents worked in the license trade and, by virtue of having accommodation as part of the job, were paid much less accordingly. Therefore there was no way, even with grants and loans, that I could afford to go to university. Therefore I started working straight after A-levels. I joined the Civil Service in 1995 as as AA and finally, this February, I reached EO. Social mobility is all well and good, but the high profile jobs are all in London (whereas I'm in York) and, again, I couldn't afford to move. Promotions are few and far between and career progression in the regions is paid lip-service unless you are already on a fast-stream graduate profile.

    If the Civil Service wanted more people from 'working-class' backgrounds, it can't just pick and choose the lucky ones who made it to uni, it needs to look at where the actual talents lie. Not everyone is suited to doing a degree, not everyone is academic (I know I'm not), but my lack of a degree makes me less intelligent, less dedicated and less hard-working in the eyes of modern society and it is something that I find, as more people go to university, I am looked down on and pitied by graduates. It is disappointing, even depressing, to see the same (unconscious) bias against people like me creeping into discussions about social mobility and I am aware I have to work harder and do more to prove my graduate-level doubters wrong.

  27. Comment by Ange posted on

    I really do applaud this inclusive social mobility initiative. But I do see a key issue. When a significant number of jobs are being externally advertised without having recently been internally advertised (due to the need to increase headcount numbers and promote a workforce refresh), they are asking for high levels of qualifications as part of this upskilling agenda. This makes many of the jobs out of reach for those who often have lots of relevant experience but no bits of paper to back it up, mainly as a result of lack of opportunity caused by their social background. I feel something needs to be done in external (and internal) job adverts to address the lack of recognition of experience, rather than being focused on seemingly mandatory qualifications to the exclusion of all else. Internal job adverts are going the same way too - there's a qualification snobbery that excludes many capable people.

  28. Comment by Clare Duffy posted on

    Encouraging blog, thanks.

    I'm considering aiming for SCS on the back of recent encouragement by a great manager (Cambridge educated). If I'm honest though my perceptions and experiences of the SCS combined with my lack of self belief ("that's not for the likes of me", "I wouldn't be understood") scare me away. I've done wellish in my career, no doubt because I went to university (I have an analytical role) but also, and the older I become the more I recognise this, because of the values, insight and experiences gained from my up bringing- Northern Irish, working class.

    I'd like performance and value to focus equally on what is said and perhaps less, from where we are at now, on how it is said- I mean here accents, use of language.

  29. Comment by Raymond Pearce posted on

    I joined the Civil Service on 11thAugust 1969 as a 16 year old straight out of a Secondary Modern School ( Classed as a failure at 11 by failing the 11 plus exam). My family background was difficult in may ways but somehow the work ethic was instilled in me by school and outside activities. I came into a Benevolant Autocratic envirionment at the time, which I have a lot to be thankfull for. This was the ethos of the Generalist Civil Service where the idea was that people from ordinary working class background could grow and develop as a Civil Servant. I was supported and encouraged to continue with my education (Day release obtaining an Ordinary National Certificate in Public Administration in 1973) and in 1994 I obtained a Post Graduate Diploma in Magement Studies from Staffordshire University. Life has changed dramatically over the last 47 years in the world, society and the Civil Service and the work environment I am currently in. I hope employees who follow me will have the support I had during my early years as a Civil Servant.

  30. Comment by Hugh Neill posted on

    It’s great to read this blog but I’m troubled by something.

    I’m a Londoner, from what would have to be called a relatively privileged background. I think though that I was also brought up to have a strong interest in who people were, and of their worth, regardless of race, creed, sex or social background. My mum, a woman who had made it to Oxford to study medicine in a world then dominated by men, was a well respected consultant and a great person, and an early glass ceiling breaker. At home, she liked nothing better than to sit down with her TV dinner and (religiously) watch Coronation Street – we weren’t allowed to talk while she did. So I was brought up with an abiding love of it and of Northern humour and when I didn’t go to university but chose instead to work in warehouses and then join a rock and roll band and tour the UK, I found I preferred the frankness and enthusiasm of Northern audiences so much more than London ones that later, when I’d gone straight and got a proper job, I was the only Londoner in my organisation who didn’t baulk at being asked to relocate to live and work in the North. That happened first from 1984-87 with an enforced return South when the southern organisation closed its regional offices (a fatally bad strategic decision but maybe the HQ managers played golf together and found it hard to sack each other). I found a chance to return north in 1998 and have remained here since, despite redundancy and unemployment that took me through into a late career with the civil. Like many immigrants, I’m a strong champion for the North and what it offers: clear air for thinking and clear space for building businesses, to name but two.

    My concern is the gravitational pull of London, and the consequent brain-draining of regional talent to The Big City and its alluring bright lights. It is not healthy for UK plc, and it is certainly not healthy for (or fair to) the regions. And when I talk to high achieving Londoners born and raised in the regions (and I’ve known a few in a long and varied working life), I’m saddened at how they, when asked about it, have little real interest in returning to live and work in the place where they came from. And who can blame them, though it really should not be like that: I’m undoubtedly materially worse off than I would have been had I stayed in London. But I’m enriched through experiences, insights, empathies, kindnesses and wisdoms that – when I return to catch up with longstanding Londoner friends – I always feel they do not have. One MBA friend even candidly admitted to me that he had never had professional involvement with business north of the Watford Gap (he did however whizz past it on his way to stay in their remote holiday cottage in North Wales). Fancy a business leader admitting to that!

    So, really, we need to be encouraging social mobility (and a sense of social responsibility) in many ways. As told in the story of Educating Rita (or Pygmalion, if you’re an Oxbridge type), it is not just the pupil that might benefit from an education.

  31. Comment by Peter Bennet posted on

    As someone who was told I was not suitable for a particular role because they already had their quota of white, middle class, males. I resent all attempts at social engineering and refuse to complete any such surveys.

    I thought asking these sorts of question at interviews etc was illegal, or is it that only when it suits the PC brigade?

  32. Comment by ilyas posted on

    Diversity of staff within an organisation can often bring fresh and new ways of doing things. If all your staff are from similar backgrounds then it is likely you will miss out on some highly skilled but different individuals. For far too long the CS has followed the traditional path of choosing a "particular" type of candidate. The CS should be the flag bearer for doing things differently and being a really diverse employer and it has not been. But I see things changing - there are many different programmes out there looking to improve diversity within the CS and for the first time in my 12 yr CS career I can see a real shift in broadening the CS base. Socio- economic background is a crucial determinant of how far you can go in life which cannot be right and so I applaud this exercise and hopefully something positive comes out of it.

  33. Comment by Tracy Waterhouse posted on

    Maria I don't think you should make a sweeping generalisation about single parent families being disadvantaged. I was from a single parent family and was for a time a single parent myself.I think this type of comment doesn't help.Also I don't think it's to do with what class you are, it's someone's perception of how you live you life.

  34. Comment by Gillian Mather posted on

    Brilliant blog which has provoked a really interesting discussion judging from all the comments here so far.
    There is clearly still a way to go but in my experience the Civil Service has greatly improved its approach to background/education since I joined in 1984 as a "direct entrant" EO (who remembers that scheme?!) . At my CS selection interview, held in a dusty office in Whitehall and conducted by three ancient male civil servants who could have been "men from the Ministry" in war-time films, I was asked what newspaper I read and was interrogated about the secondary schools I'd gone to. I'm from Northern Ireland where the 11+ exam was still in place when I was a child. I'd passed this and attended two grammar schools, but one called itself a High School. They were most suspicious about this and really probed about the school's status. I still have the impression that they suspected it was "only" a secondary modern and that I was therefore not quite of the right sort.
    Thankfully the CS is now unrecognisable from those days, but there must be a tranche of us older (oh I hate to say that) workers - including at SCS level - who have come through that process and have grown up with that attitude.

  35. Comment by Cassandra posted on

    Totally agree with Anne's comment. Why, when we are all looking at working longer and longer does a Civil Service career path have to begin straight from education? Why can't a person join in their 30s, 40s or even 50s and still rise to SCS? By concentrating our efforts on sourcing talent from those leaving education surely we are missing the rich diversity of those who have experienced life - working in different fields, bringing up children, acting as carers, those who completed their education later in life or studied part time whilst working. Might do wonders for the socio-economic mix as well!

  36. Comment by Barry Stanmore posted on

    Great story Martyn and well done for sticking your head over the parapet. Problem is even once you get into the civil service the barriers are still there, if qualifications are needed why are there not more educational opportunities available to develop the staff you already have? Graduate and fast stream programmes are good but you cannot even get your foot in the door without the privilege of university. This is a step in the right direction but with finances being tight none of us will be able to train and reach SCS levels without the government investing more in developing more of its people.

  37. Comment by GM posted on

    RM's comment above is pertinent - there are quite a lot of nuances which you won't necessarily get in the survey. My father was an academic at Cambridge - but his father was a postman and my father won a county scholarship (such things existed then) from school to Cambridge, the first in his family to go to any university. After war service he returned to Cambridge and a junior fellowship. At retirement he was also bursar of his college but for no extra remuneration on top of his - modest - academic pay. One of his school friends, also from a poor home, became a university Chancellor. My mother's father was a Methodist parson and there was no money for her or her sisters to go to university, so she qualified as a teacher and gave up work to bring up the family; we were not well off and my sister and I got free places to a local grammar school and from there got to Cambridge University. My father had to carry on working until 67 to get me through university, since even on his modest income he had to contribute to my student grant. I married a fellow Cambridge graduate, also the first from his family to go to university, who worked in the chemical industry (not particularly well paid) and we had two children - yes we educated them privately because they were bright and the state schools near us simply didn't cater for children like them, but I went back to work so we could afford the fees, paid out of income. I am now a Government lawyer. We are no doubt categorized as middle class, but are both from modest backgrounds and it was the 11-plus which enabled us to progress on academic merit, and also enabled other bright children from modest or disadvantaged homes to get a good education that then opened doors and opportunities to them, and greatly increased social mobility. It's very sad that the current system has stifled that social mobility for bright children from modest or disadvantaged backgrounds.

  38. Comment by Julie Anderson posted on

    First: what is considered as a 'Senior' Civil Servant role?
    I'm a pleb (from ancient Rome 'plebian' = commoner): worked frontline operations for majority of my CS 35 years in the business! Initally, anyone above EO level was considered the Authority. Then you move into different areas (Head Office Longbenton), where you mix not only with those above a Grade 7, but also bump into the Head Honcho's!
    But I assume 'Senior' is Whitehall, or Westminster or specific London based Civil Servants? As, when the 'News' talks about Civil Servants (Sir Humphrey etc).
    My actual experience is: operations - no major chance of moves - we're the back-bone of the Civil Service, but seen by the Public as the Enemy (very much as NOUNS!).
    If you've left the Oxbridge Uni's - that's a career Civil Servant: Foreign Office; Whitehall; MP's PA's etc (although I live nextdoor to our local Labour MP - canny lass!).
    On the whole: there is little movement (particularly for women - sorry! Has to be pointed out...), and movement is also restricted where moves are required to the very expensive South. So, just by the fact that it's likely that the Oxbridge types come from monied families, and potentially already live 'down South' (i.e London), they have the advantage already.
    It's not just your roots - it's your sex, your ethnicity, your location (the North), the Uni you went to etc, etc. We all know the British system is very much geared to income, the right background, the accent and the strong nepotism (who you know, not WHAT you know) affecting ALL of the British job prospects.
    CYNICAL with a capital (London) C. Sorry for the rambling rant...

  39. Comment by Catherine Chan posted on

    Great blog – so pleased to see social mobility being recognised as an issue in the Civil Service. Far from being a barrier, my background has had a massive impact on my career including where and how I work. I’m mentoring for the first time this year through the Social Mobility Foundation and I’m loving the experience – perhaps the Civil Service could get more involved in organisations like this to find the next generation of its workforce?

  40. Comment by Anthony posted on

    I attended a Comprehensive School.
    Neither of my parents attended University.
    I was eligible for, but did not have free school meals.

    Can I have a Band D post please?

  41. Comment by Richard Wilson posted on

    A refreshing read, Martyn - thank you for sharing your story. I like the bit about feeling a bit awkward because you didn't have that "shared frame of reference". I know that not being able to swap stories about japes at Uni and who you sat next to at that last Regimental Dinner can make you feel a bit intimidated and chippy, but actually it's a good lesson in the dangers of an unconscious bias because the overwhelming majority of people I meet in the SCS are approachable and supportive and nice to know.

  42. Comment by Simon Sheppard posted on

    Fantastic article, Martyn, and thank you for your honesty. It certainly chimed with me. I don't want to trade hardship stories, but I'm not sure you could call my background even working class- single Mum, part-time worker mostly supplemented by benefits, and quarter Irish Traveller background to boot! Like you I moved to London, and I noticed how many people from other backgrounds have that indescribable something extra- a confidence in their ability and their place in the world and a different way of thinking. Admirable and necessary qualities which the CS cannot loose. I think the key word is 'confidence'- which is lacking in many people of lower socio-economic backgrounds, and unless the CS reach out to schools and colleges in lower income areas and make it known that the CS is open for opportunities not necessarily for graduates, then we will have a tough time changing the social make-up.

  43. Comment by Stella Perrett posted on

    Is there a reason why this survey is only for senior Civil Servants? I have worked at AA and AO level with plenty of colleagues who went to comprehensive schools and do not have degrees. Perhaps the problem is more about upward mobility within the service for people without degrees?

  44. Comment by Jonathan posted on

    An interesting blog to read for a relatively new starter with aspirations.

    As someone who has an affinity to Keele University having lived nearby and spent much time on campus as my parents worked hard (in non-academic roles), I wonder what said minister would think of Keele now? Fourth place in the Medicine league tables (Guardian 2015) behind Oxbridge and UCL, maybe this was the list she was referring to!?

  45. Comment by Clare Jennings posted on

    Great blog Martyn - and a great piece of work.

  46. Comment by Maria Low posted on

    Its good to see that the Civil Service is thinking about this issue. I agree with the comments aroudn the difficulties of coming into an environment that is very different to the one you're used to. There are real subtleties around this - for example the very different communication styles and (probably largely unconscious) assumptions around how intelligence is demonstrated. There are issues of self-belief and confidence and projection. There are of course biases around accent, which are probably also unconscious. There are differences between Departments, and those nearer the centre in London tend to feel very different to those offices based out in the Regions. In some Departments there is very much a focus on having post-graduate qualifications and not having these presents a barrier to progression. There needs to be more thought as to whether these roles really require a post-graduate qualification as this presents a further barrier to people from certain socio-economic backgrounds who do not have family to support them through this or feel able to build up further debt.
    In addition, I notice that the list of questions that senior civil servants are going to be asked seem to assume that everyone has been brought up in a static two parent family. We know that growing up in single parent families is a key indicator of disadvantage and also that this state can change where parents may get re-married.

  47. Comment by RM posted on

    I'll be interested to see the results of the SCS survey but looking at the questions published in today's Times it still lacks a bit of nuance especially if not taken as a complete picture. Two of my closest friends from university went to fee paying schools on full academic scholarships, on that measure alone they would appear to be more "privileged" than me (northern comp). However a complete picture with the markers of postcode at 14, eligibility for free school meals included would reflect our backgrounds more accurately.

  48. Comment by Alex posted on

    Great article! I'm motivated to reply as I am from a lower socio-economic background but made it onto the Commerciak Fast Stream, and I feel that even then it is difficult to articulate to others the cultural challenges when trying to establish familiarity with others! I also went to a university that supports people from more diverse backgrounds which always seems overlooked for engagement (Luton/Bedfordshire), but I feel others have it right by suggesting it should start earlier. Engaging with schools and communities will reach a wider audience as tuition fees will simply polarize university populations in the mid-long term. There is also a piece to be said that measuring people academically is biased - some people are naturally more vocational and simply need to be given the opportunity. It would be interesting to see how the Bridge Report plays out given the initiatives in play - for now I remain one of the 4.4%!

    • Replies to Alex>

      Comment by Louise posted on

      I'm on the DAT fast stream and agree with Alex that the outreach work still concentrates on universities and particular universities at that. There are lists of high touch and lower touch universities for our outreach objectives. It's noticeable that the Russell Group and 1994 group are disproportionately represented compared to the million+ group (which has more ex-polytechnics, higher percentages of mature and part-time students, etc.) There are other fast streamers on the DAT scheme who joined from the civil service without a degree, but this isn't very well publicised.

      For the curious, I'm from a non-working, single parent household and joined the fast stream aged 32 (after an unsuccessful attempt to fund a PhD).

  49. Comment by Martyn posted on

    Thanks to everyone for their (very kind!) comments. The survey went live today and it will be fascinating to see the results.

    Monty, you are absolutely right that the Civil Service is very diverse and that's to be celebrated. In terms of senior roles though, I think it's clear we do still have a way to go. 73% of new entrants to the SCS in 2013-2014 went to a state school, compared to 91% of the population. The Fast Stream intake was recently found to be less diverse than that of Oxford. I hope we can bridge this gap, not because of political correctness or even a chip on my shoulder, but because as James suggests it will make the Civil Service better at what it does. But I accept that I might not persuade everyone of that!

    • Replies to Martyn>

      Comment by Jamil posted on

      Martyn, thanks for the blog. I'm afraid this Diversity push in the civil service has gone too far. As a new entrant into a government department I was surprised that in an all staff meeting a new PUS felt the need to say "I did not go to public school", "my parents were from a working class background", "I was on a scholarship at university". The Civil Service is pushing for Diversity by excluding a category of people or singling them out, to the point that people who did go to public school feel they cannot say so or should be extremely discreet about this. Never in the private sector would you have a newly appointed CEO stating his "educational/family credentials" or the FT commenting at length on this. It is very odd there is such a focus on what people have done up to the age of 21 (graduation). The focus should simply be on their performance in jobs.

      Diversity is about inclusivity not dividing your workforce with labels "working class parents", "not Oxbridge", "first person in the family to go to university". But what should be ensured is that once you enter the civil service at no stage should you be asked about your school, university, parents, ethinicity etc. You should be judged on your appraisals and interviews with questions focused on your previous job.

  50. Comment by John M Haskey posted on

    Whilst undertaking user research for a new civil service recruitment website (Employee Value Proposition) it was interesting to note that graduates / final year students were generally not aware of the possibility of careers/opportunities within the Civil Service. As marketing has been effectively limited to the Fast Stream (due to the budgetary restraints) this may have contributed to the impression that the Fast Stream is the only point of entry for graduates. Whilst the Fast Stream team are working hard to improve Social Mobility amongst their candidates, we also need to improve overall awareness outside accelerated management schemes.

  51. Comment by Monty posted on

    "We all know the Civil Service is seen as too exclusive – and that senior roles across Whitehall and beyond can seem the preserve of the privileged and the ‘posh’." Seen by whom as too exclusive? Senior roles seen by whom as privileged and posh?
    Look around you, the Civil Service is full of people from the so called "working classes", every ethnic group in the country is well represented and many people from other nations work in the Civil Service too. "Posh", "privileged people"? This is real chip on the shoulder stuff. You cannot progress In any organisation unless you adapt to its mores and culture. Do you really expect people to progress to the top of for example, the FCO, if they behave like dockers or scaffolders?
    Signed Working Class Boy from Liverpool

    • Replies to Monty>

      Comment by Archie Stoddart posted on

      In reply to Monty: 'Do you really expect people to progress to the top of for example, the FCO, if they behave like dockers or scaffolders?'. I worked in a manual job for some years before going to university - fixing railway tracks. While the guys there weren't multi-linguists they could (and did) show great qualities of leadership, managing risk, delivery and creativity - all in a potentially life threatening environment. So no, they wouldn't have the polished skills for the FCO, but they did demonstrate key competencies that we should value. So let's separate the skills and training required for a role from the gloss and polish that maybe those already in post feel comfortable with.

  52. Comment by Nuala Gormley posted on

    One of the best blogs I've seen here; thanks so much. I am also interested how this tendency manifests in particular departments and in devolved administrations too, where I believe both the Private School (or Grammar School) and favoured university tendency may operate yet, partly as a function of who occupies the senior (recruiting) cohort just now. I think the 'unconscious bias' training has something to offer here, as we all give out and read 'signals' whereby we recognise those whom we have less/more in common with. That's natural enough, but we need to recognise this and strip it out of the recruitment and promotion processes. I think we need to take a very sharp look at the Fast Stream in particular.

    As an analyst, I love a survey so I'll be encouraging colleagues to complete it and will look forward to seeing the analysis.

  53. Comment by Julian Smith posted on

    I'm from Port Talbot Martyn and I was 25 before I even got to stay in a caravan...

    This week I've been speaking to people about excellent efforts to understand why young people (particularly BAME students) aren't considering UKVI or the Home Office as a career choice. It's not just about seeing why the SCS isn't diverse, it's also about making sure that we reflect the communities in which we work and that our talent initiatives support all those people through their careers.

  54. Comment by Anne Boyd posted on

    Great blog. We are missing a very rich and diverse talent if we continue to source from the same origins and seek only academic success. Born in a deprived ward , left school at 16 and a single parent with 3 fab kids, I have had the privilege of working with Whitehall colleagues but found few from the north of England. Different perspectives are key in policy-making. #ProudNortherner

  55. Comment by Ellie posted on

    Brilliant Blog! Absolutely spot on (with some great cultural references!)

  56. Comment by John Fitzpatrick posted on

    Hi Alex, this is a great post and as a member of the Senior Civil Service (SCS) who is from a working class background, this an issue very close to my heart. I still identify myself as working class - it’s an important part of who I am. I applaud the efforts by the Head of the Civil Service and others to make our top levels more diverse in all respects. Over the past year I’ve been leading a mentoring team at a school near where I live to encourage young people with backgrounds like mine to consider a career in the Civil Service and to ultimately increase the social diversity of the SCS. I do that as part of the Civil Service Schools Outreach Programme. I’m also exploring what more I can do to support people already in the organisation. I feel strongly that the Civil Service leadership must better reflect the society it serves. Failure to achieve that is not just an issue of fairness, but effectiveness too: a cadre of senior people that all look, sound and think in pretty much the same way will surely be denying itself diversity of thought, experience and knowledge and risks becoming less relevant in today's modern world. I know that I'm fortunate in that I do a job that I love: I can’t think of anything else I would rather be doing than working at the heart of our parliamentary democracy, making a difference to people’s lives. The Civil Service is, in my experience, a great place to make a career. But it can – and will - be better still.

    • Replies to John Fitzpatrick>

      Comment by John Wright posted on

      Very interesting post and comments. I too am from a working class background, council estate, first to go to uni etc etc. I work in Whitehall but commute down from the Midlands and after 8 years still find it like moving between two very distinct worlds. I in my late 40s and only joined the Civil Service 8 years ago so it is possible to enter later in life and I've managed 2 promotions since then. However if I hadn't had help with travel costs initially I wouldn't have ended up in Whitehall. The Civil Service wasn't marketed as a career path when I went to school (well not all of it anyway) and I note from my daughter's school in Leicester that not much as changed. I go in to a careers day once a year to talk to students and they have no idea about the breadth of roles. John Fitzpatrick - I wasn't aware of the Civil Service Schools Outreach Programme so i'll give it a google - sounds very interesting, thanks for flagging.

  57. Comment by Jon Hall posted on

    Very interesting perspective. My query is - How important is a degree? In my first CS role, I found myself reporting to people who's lack of uni education actually meant they'd had a 3-year head start in the jobs market to me. Worst, I was told not to raise my education in the office as it 'might offend people'.

    I later moved to my current department, where university education was more common due to the concentration of scientists and other specialist roles, but even then, promotion was determined on my performance reviews and achievements in the service - my educational background was never looked at. As I didn't enjoy uni for the most part - working menially during the summer rather than on exotic missions abroad, I'm starting to think it was just one 3-year intelligence test.

    • Replies to Jon Hall>

      Comment by Daniel Barker posted on

      I identify with Jon Hall's comment. I remember being surprised to see how many people younger than me had gone further in the civil service by not going to university and going straight into it from school. I don't think my degree has come into play either in entering the civil service in the first place or in going for any jobs. Like Martyn I graduated in the 90s recession, and it took me 2 years to get a full time job. And though my degree was in 'Government', I hadn't considered a career in the civil service as a student as I thought it would be too boring! How wrong I was..........

    • Replies to Jon Hall>

      Comment by Matt posted on

      In response to Jon Hall (10/08/2016): simply put, no your degree is not important in its own right in the Civil Service. As an equal opportunities employer it would be unfair for the DWP to discriminate against the people who didn't have the opportunity to go to University. Obviously that itself is not entirely fair either!

      There is a short story by Kurt Vonnegut, "Harrison Bergeron" which describes a world in which things have been truly equalised for everybody. It illustrates the practical impossibility of equal opportunities for all. Some are more equal than others.

      • Replies to Matt>

        Comment by Travers posted on

        I would be careful about bandying about terms such as "discrimination" when there is clearly little grasp of its import. If you wish to check your departmental Equal Opportunities statement, there are plenty of people who have real issues to deal with and they should not be belittled by someone trying to say that of all the protected characteristics there are, "going to university" should be right up there.

        I face impacts of my protected characteristics and discrimination for real reasons every day. My level of education doesn't come into it.

  58. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Thank you Martyn for a honest viewpoint on a very important issue. I have to say that the Civil Service has improved its image and seeks to be inclusive. However, my questions is whether in addition to Universities we should consider engaging with schools where students are encouraged to give some thought to their future career paths? Furthermore, whether we should consider schools that would offer a greater social mix?

  59. Comment by Jenine Kendall posted on

    I would also say that with the entry level requirements needed to enter the Civil Service are we not excluding people with great determination, motivation and intellect that were unfortunately left behind by the British education system? My sisters did not fare as well as me in GCSEs/ A Levels and did not go on to further education but I have no doubt that they could do my job as well as me.

    With there being fewer and fewer E2 (AA) jobs (lower entry levels), how do we include these people?

    (I work within the MOD and so Entry Level may not apply to all services)

  60. Comment by Justin Savage posted on

    A great article on a greater issue. My two points I'd like to share are firstly, let's not forget those who were not even privileged enough to be classed as working class - the so called 'precariat' class with children brought up in households where nobody worked and who couldn't afford gas or electric, or even support a child through school, let alone university (maintenance grant or not).
    I agree that the Civil Service does provide great support and no real barriers to mobility. However, as the example above illustrates, simply taking someone from a poorer socio-economic background and dumping them in an environment that is alien to them, is not enough. We need to consider the support they will need once there.
    Overall, here’s to a Civil Service that is more representative of both the people it employs and serves.

    • Replies to Justin Savage>

      Comment by James Southern posted on

      Great blog on an important issue. And, since I'm also from Bolton (now studying PhD in Diversity at FCO) a lot of your references really hit home!

      I think it's crucial to emphasise just how important the different styles of thinking and acting that people from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds can bring. People who didn't go through "traditional" educational routes into the Civil Service are qualitatively different from those who did, and have crucial contributions to make as a result. I firmly believe that growing up in Bolton makes one interpret and engage with the world in fundamentally different ways to growing up in, say, Oxford. Both are of course important.

      • Replies to James Southern>

        Comment by Rosemary Tyers posted on

        I fear the loss of Leicester office will be disastrous for diversity here, which at the moment is excellent, and it will have a knock on effect on social mobility in the city. Not everyone can move or travel and new starters will certainly be less able to