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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Defining our progress on social mobility

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Civil Service Leaders
Head shot of Jon Thompson
Jon Thompson

If the highest income earner in your household was employed when you were aged 14, did they supervise any other employees? What type of school did you attend?

These are just two of the questions senior civil servants have been answering anonymously over the past month, all with the aim of gauging how socio-economically diverse the most senior ranks of the Civil Service are.

It’s not as easy as it sounds.

Ask three people from similar backgrounds “are you working class?” and I expect you’ll get three different answers. Is your socioeconomic status decided at birth, or is it shaped by where you go to school, where you work and where you live? It’s a really complicated topic, which is why we’ve chosen some more nuanced questions, as well as trying to get at the role self-perception plays by asking “do you consider yourself to be from a lower socio-economic background?”.

No socio-economic survey can be perfect, but by asking questions about people’s education, family background and work history, we hope to get beyond personal biases or assumptions.

Why do we need this data? Social mobility is usually defined as the relationship between where we start in life and where we end up. By looking at where our senior civil servants started out, we can try to assess how good we are at recruiting people from diverse backgrounds, and then encouraging those people to progress.  

'A great place to work' logoWe’ve come a long way already. We’re making our Fast Stream more attractive to people from diverse backgrounds through better outreach, a shorter assessment process, the creation of regional assessment centres and a better offer for people who join through summer diversity internships. When it comes to applying for the scheme, we know that some people get more support from their university or their friends and family than others, and it’s our responsibility to make sure we don’t miss the potentially exceptional civil servants who haven’t got access to that support.

We’ve also expanded the apprenticeship route into the Civil Service, so that we bring in more people from backgrounds that are traditionally underrepresented. To complement that, we’re working more closely with schools, offering students mentoring and CV workshops led by civil servants.

We know that this survey seeks responses on issues that some of us may find difficult to address, but with the insights gained, we will be able to derive a small set of the most effective measures for understanding socio-economic background. Armed with quality data, we’ll be much more able to refine and target the steps we take to improve our socio-economic diversity. It’s really ground-breaking stuff.

When I think about social mobility in the Civil Service, I remember the moment when one of my former bosses said to me ‘which college did you go to?’ When I replied, Norwich City College, it quickly became clear they’d been expecting an answer more along the lines of St John’s, Trinity or Christ Church. No one should be made to feel that their background isn’t ‘good enough’ to get them to the highest levels in the Civil Service.

This survey helps us make sure we’re doing everything we can to achieve that goal. It’s a goal that really matters – not just for us, but for future civil servants and the people we serve.

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  1. Comment by Juliet posted on

    No survey will ever be perfect but that doesn't mean that we should not explore the background of the most senior people we currently have in the Civil Service. The more diversity we can get the better and we have to start with understanding what the current profile looks like before we start looking at barriers. I was more than happy to take part and shall be interested to see the results.

    I find a lot of staff make assumptions about what you need to be SCS which can hold them back in terms of ambition. The more we can showcase people who have succeeded from a range of backgrounds the more we break down the barriers. I know when I do talks about my career path people are always shocked to find out that I did not go to a girls private school and went to a Boy's Secondary Modern school hat had just become a comprehensive. I started life with a broad Norfolk accent but years in the Civil Service and moving around have apparently transformed me.

  2. Comment by Dan greaves posted on

    Having joined the civilast service only 16 years ago this article really resonated with me. Great start? But let's gather wider data and think about what we can do deliver better results as well as measure them.

  3. Comment by Fleur posted on

    I am interested to know what you are doing to promote gender equality at senior levels in the civil service including the foreign office. Do your recruitment policies give any consideration to gender balance at the moment? It appears that there is very little gender balance from my experience and it is indicative of modern social mobility problems, with women traditionally being paid less than men and facing fewer mid-career opportunities than men.

  4. Comment by Sophie Dannreuther posted on

    This is an interesting read. Will the results of the survey be made public? And if so, when?

    I've been running a network through the Fast Stream for Summer Diversity Interns and, unfortunately, what should be a great programme is not reaching key sections of society. Crucially, it has done a great job encouraging ethnically diverse applicants, but not so much socio-economically diverse applicants. The fact that I knew two of the interns from my old college at Oxford and one from school would probably not sit comfortably with Civil Service Resourcing. Anecdotally, I have heard some fairly negative experiences from the SDIP Interns, including not being told where they were working until just days before, giving them endless admin work to cover annual leave staff gaps, having their Closing Event cancelled and transformed into a statistics-grabbing dial-in to name a few.

    Whilst it is fantastic that the Civil Service has engaged with these very impressive students, many of whom are now keen to apply for the Fast Stream, it is still not reaching lower socio-economic groups and, where it does, their treatment has been problematic. Are there any steps that you could take to improve things next time around? I know Gillian Smith is keen to look at this. Happy to share my experiences if helpful.


  5. Comment by Martin Williams posted on

    Jon. Read and see and watch Grayson Perry examining the idea of social mobility between the classes. The tapestries are a modern evocation of 'A Rake’s Progress', the series of paintings by 18th century artist William Hogarth.

  6. Comment by Disillusioned posted on

    Surveying senior civil servants, who had the massive advantage of access to free higher education, will tell you absolutely nothing about prospective social mobility for those of us who aren't so lucky. I know I will not progress beyond the level I am currently working at as, due to my past and current socio-economic background there is zero chance of me ever contiuing my education. Any attempts I have made to secure funding from my employer - the civil service - to help me furhter my education have been turned down immediately by the very same people who themselves received free higher education. Bitter? Just a bit...

  7. Comment by Mark Crawford posted on

    I hate to be the one to point out that, for this survey to mean anything, you would have to survey the whole of the civil service in order to compare the differing levels of socio-economic diversity throughout the organisation - unless, that is, we are just meant to assume that, when compared to the SCS, greater socio-economic diversity exists throughout the whole of the civil service. That may be a valid assumption - I've no idea - but to rely on such an assumption puts the correctness of the methodology in doubt.

    • Replies to Mark Crawford>

      Comment by The Blog Team posted on

      Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your comment. A similar point was raised in comments on Jeremy Heywood's blog about the launch of the SEB survey - The Social Mobility Team responded to this, among other comments on that blog. You may want to read their full response, but the part relevant to your remarks says:

      "It is worth underlining that the survey of the SCS is not an isolated exercise, nor the last word in identifying the barriers that some civil servants face in reaching the higher levels of the Civil Service. It is, however, an important next step in the process of determining the most meaningful and commonly understood measures of social mobility at all levels of the service.

      "As one of the commenters has remarked, the survey will not only help us understand better what the SCS looks like in SEB terms, it will help us to frame and refine the measures of SEB that we can then apply to the whole of the Civil Service and start dismantling the barriers some civil servants face."

  8. Comment by H Bolton posted on

    Civil Service News 08/09/16
    Fight the fear | Where you’re going, not where you’re from | Get set… bake club!
    Andrew Rhodes comes from a centuries’ long line of coal miners. He is also a senior civil servant. He says his background doesn’t define him, it just states where he started in life.
    Social mobility can be defined as the relationship between our starting point in life and where we end up as adults, usually in relation to income, occupation and status.

    Does “where someone is now” define that person?
    Is too much importance attached to income, occupation and status?
    Is there an assumption that a person of wealth has more value than a poor person?
    Does ownership of possessions e.g. expensive house, car or yacht best reflect success or achievement?
    Do letters after a name or a particular title signify that someone is more worthy that a plain Mr or Mrs?
    Is a focus on social stratification healthy for the whole of society?
    Is any consideration given to/placed on altruism, philanthropy selflessness etc. and other personal qualities that contribute to society?

    Just my working class (in paid employment) thoughts…

  9. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Thank you Jon for your blog and for setting out the background in respect the purpose of the survey. Whilst I can see the reasoning for undertaking this survey and how staff who have been with the organisation for a reasonable period of time, could be considered ideal role models, surely, it would also have been beneficial to have surveyed a cross section of the younger generation of today? The results would certainly have provide you with a more clearer understanding as to why many from the underrepresented groups are not attracted to joining the Civil Service!

  10. Comment by Monty posted on

    The justification for this survey is "By looking at where our senior civil servants started out, we can try to assess how good we are at recruiting people from diverse backgrounds, and then encouraging those people to progress".
    This is a fallacious argument. Looking at the social background of people who joined the Civil Service twenty years ago won't tell you how good you are at recruiting certain types of people in 2016.

    • Replies to Monty>

      Comment by John Williams posted on

      ...but it will give you a baseline against which you can measure current performance.