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Civil Service

My only guaranteed hot meal was my free school lunch

Vicky McGurk, My Life, My Career

From part-time AO to thriving senior leader in the Civil Service, Vicky McGurk is living proof that you can overcome childhood struggles and make life a success. Interview: Lorraine McBride

Born and raised in one of Blackburn’s poorest council estates, it’s fair to say my early life wasn’t easy. I went to a comprehensive school where my only guaranteed hot meal was my free school meal. 

Life was tough being the eldest of five, with parents on benefits, who couldn’t read, write, or help with homework. With no quiet spaces or money for a computer, I shared a cramped bedroom with two younger sisters.

Vicky McGurk and her siblings
Vicky McGurk and her younger siblings

Unfortunately growing up in poverty meant I suffered several adverse childhood experiences, including sexual abuse (within the community) that had a profound impact on my early life, in particular my behaviour as a teenager, where I was loud and had to appear physically and mentally tough to feel safe. 

 Trouble for fighting

I wasn’t an easy teenager and was often in trouble for fighting, in lower sets at school. At the end of Year 7, my headteacher took me aside telling me: “Half the teachers feel sorry for you, Vicky, but the others fear you. Don’t let your past life dictate your future.” 

That was a turning point for me, and this teacher assisted me thereafter.  It was invaluable advice and I rapidly moved through the sets, leaving school as Head Girl, and today I’m a governor of the school, but my journey hasn’t been plain sailing. 

Social class shame 

I remember at around age seven going to a job centre with my mum, and it was the first time I ever felt shame for my social class, when the supervisor was rude. I didn’t understand why the job centre couldn’t give her a job, and vowed that I’d one day work here and change the way people were treated. 

This experience was my call to action to join the Civil Service and at 17, I joined the Department for Work and Pensions as a part-time administration officer.  Although I’d worked since the age of 13 to help pay the bills, the Civil Service was my first grown up job, where I realised I could aspire to be the person I wanted to be.

By the age of 25, I was manager of the same job centre where the benefits clerk had been rude to my mum. I vowed that everybody in my team would speak respectfully to our public, and they were - and are - a brilliant team of civil servants. I later rose to a senior position across the Civil Service, and am now in the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC).

Future Leaders Scheme

I’m on the Future Leaders Scheme (FLS) with aspirations to go even higher. You must really shine against other applicants to get onto the course, but once you’re in, the world’s your oyster! 

Audience of men and women at a Civil Service live event in London 2018.
Vicky will be presenting at Civil Service Live

Through the FLS, I have the opportunity to lead a theme and present sessions at Civil Service Live, which I grabbed with both hands; I’m excited to deliver the Smashing the Glass Ceiling session as I’m so passionate about it. In preparing the session, I’ve looked both at my own journey and spoken to other civil servants about their journeys. 

Inspirational stories

I want civil servants to hear inspirational stories about how they’ve overcome adversity to forge careers in the Civil Service despite their struggles, whilst at the same time, exploring the progress Civil Service is making in regions, expanding opportunities.

Anything is possible with hard work, effort and putting yourself out there. My background has shaped my thinking, and I’m so proud to belong to the social mobility network within the DHSC. Levelling up is key to progression. 


In A Modern Civil Service, the government plans to move thousands of roles around the country to widen the talent net and opportunities. They also want to twin Places for Growth with social mobility, which is really important if you face multiple hurdles. The Smash the Glass Ceiling mantra is all about inspiration.  

Vicki Mcgurk In my private life, I’ve adopted two children and later conceived two children naturally. However, I’ve faced other challenges too, related to being a child in poverty and suffering abuse, which was comfort eating and obesity.

Overcoming obesity

By 30, I was more than 25 stone but after I had children, I wanted to be a healthy role model and joined Slimming World, losing 14.5 stone. It definitely wasn’t easy but was evidence of my past life impacting my future life.

Away from work, I’m a huge community volunteer, sharing my experience and inspiration within charities and the wider community.

I want to get the message out that the Civil Service is an organisation where you can reach your potential, no matter what your start in life is. If you’ve got the belief and skills, there’s nothing to stop you. I started as a teenage AO, yet today, I lead teams across the UK and Europe - I’m so proud of that.

Own who you are

My tip for smashing the glass ceiling is to own who you are. For far too long, I’ve met people who changed their accents to get on in the Civil Service. I always tell them, “Be proud of your accent and where you come from - your experiences make you stand out from the crowd.”  

Whenever I’m involved in policy or operations, I use my real-life experiences and consider, how will this land? I represent the people that I serve in every role that I’ve ever done, and that’s a huge strength. 

 Reach for stars

I encourage colleagues to be authentic and say, don’t just reach for the easiest cloud. Reach for the moon and the stars because it is achievable. If you believe in yourself, have a strong personal development plan, the Civil Service will wrap itself around you to ensure you can reach the moon and stars. You just need to believe it!

Sharing and comments

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  1. Comment by Wendy Marson posted on

    Reading this has encouraged me to keep going in terms of achieving my career aspirations. I too came from a poor background and I can truly relate to the challenges and experiences that came with it.

    Well done Vicky

    • Replies to Wendy Marson>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you Wendy!

  2. Comment by Sheba Johnson posted on

    Very moving, inspirational and motivational blog.
    Thank you for sharing your past personal experiences and to what you have achieved in the present, having a strong personality and determination to achieve higher.

    • Replies to Sheba Johnson>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments Sheba

  3. Comment by Susannah Allen posted on

    Vicky, your Smashing the Glass Ceiling session was my favourite session of Civil Service Live. Thank you for your honesty, you're a real inspiration to those with a similar childhood.

    • Replies to Susannah Allen>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments Susannah

  4. Comment by Joanne posted on

    Dear Vicky

    You are truly amazing!

    I cannot thank you enough for having the immense courage to share such traumatic and deeply personal happenings in your life with us all.

    Your strength, determination, personality and continued courage to not let your tragic past define your future really is awe inspiring - your openess will definitely be of immense help and encouragement to those of us who at this very moment in time have experienced the same or similar trauma and think they are incapable of overcoming it.

    With deepest respect and high regard to you,

    • Replies to Joanne>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments Joanne

  5. Comment by John posted on

    Just amazing!
    Given the response to this blog, both in likes and comments I really hope it’s caught the attention of those higher up, to see how much this means to its people and that they take you onboard as an advocate for this work.

    Well done you!

    • Replies to John>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments John

  6. Comment by Tina Hodgson posted on

    Thank you for sharing your story Vicky - very inspirational. Good luck for the future both professionally and personally.

    • Replies to Tina Hodgson>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments Tina

  7. Comment by Ruth posted on

    Vicky, thanks for sharing your story. You're an amazing and inspirational leader for many already, the Future Leaders Scheme is very lucky to have you!

    • Replies to Ruth>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments Ruth
      See you at module 3!! 😊

  8. Comment by Sakura Nakora posted on

    What an amazing person!
    Great to see the shift in the Civil Service to Social Mobility.
    However there is much to do to ‘level up’ internally, to remove stigma about class, education and opportunities.

    It’s starts with wonderful people like Vicky making
    Room for this conversation, and highlighting how experiences like hers make it fundamental to hear to make good sound policies.

    Clearly from the comments and likes on this post!- those at the top really should be listening. And this lady should be getting CBE’s or something.

    This is true leadership’s not leading in the textbook way, as everyone else does - but going against the norms, breaking the cycle and putting one’s head above the trenches!

    Amazing life Vicky, both as a child but more Importantly what you have done with your decisions as an adult.

    I have no doubt you will go even further.

    • Replies to Sakura Nakora>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments

  9. Comment by Will posted on

    What an inspiring journey! You sound like a wonderfully kind-hearted, driven and successful woman. Thank you for sharing your story Vicky.

    • Replies to Will>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments Will

  10. Comment by Lisa posted on

    I work with Vicky, and reading this and reading the comments, and knowing some of the work Vicky gets involved in, I am just in Awe.
    Your such a great role model in DHSC and we are all better for having you.

    Thank you for sharing this.

    • Replies to Lisa>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments

  11. Comment by Andrew posted on


    Highly inspiring, thank you.

    I very much agree with you about expecting courtesy to all too.

    • Replies to Andrew>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments Andrew


  12. Comment by Andrea Charity posted on

    What an inspirational story Vicky and thank you so much for sharing. Having spent a year with Civil Service Local Midlands I have constantly been amazed and humbled by the resilience and drive of individuals in the CS family. As a career Civil Servant I wish you all the very best for the future.

    • Replies to Andrea Charity>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments Andrea

  13. Comment by Andrew posted on

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    • Replies to Andrew>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you

  14. Comment by Jonathan posted on

    Very powerful, thank you for sharing. The reference to childhood abuse caught my eye and I would like to recommend a charity called NAPAC for anyone who has been through that horror.

    • Replies to Jonathan>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments

  15. Comment by Marcus Ritchie posted on

    Inspiring story Vicky. It would be so easy for you to be a victim of the system but you decided you would take on the system and win. Its heartening that the Civil Service has been a place where you have been given the opportunity to thrive.

    • Replies to Marcus Ritchie>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments Marcus
      I truly love the Civil Service and that everyone can have a fulfilling career.

  16. Comment by Alison posted on

    I used to work with Vicky, in fact she trained me In benefits, and was always the go to person at Blackburn.

    I know first hand how phenomena she is, and how much she always gives back to customers, her colleagues and her wider community.

    She is always the person in the community doing things for disadvantaged children, sorting peoples problems out and helping al those around her.

    I am proud to know Vicky and so happy to know that she is doing so well, gutted I wasn’t able to go to CS Live.

    • Replies to Alison>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Hope you’re okay Alison..
      Thank you for your kind comments

  17. Comment by Anon posted on

    I went to the session on Tuesday and it was very moving.
    I unfortunately suffered similar abuse through childhood by a family member and have allowed it to dictate my life and I have never spoken to anyone about it .
    The impacts for me have been devastating and have meant I have significant mental health problems and struggle at work.

    You were so kind to me when we gave me so much time and coaching, and I cannot thank you enough, as I don’t know how to contact you.

    You are the first person I have ever told about my past, and I feel so much better.
    I am going to start taking back control as you have said, speak to my parents and my lime manager and get support.

    Thank you Vicky, thank you for giving me the space and opportunity to start putting my life back together.

    Seriously thank you.

    • Replies to Anon>

      Comment by Jonathan posted on

      Unfortunately far too many people have been through that horrific experience. Can I recommend the charity NAPAC to you? I had dealings with them when I was a prison officer, for one of my prisoners. They may be able to offer some additional and very specific support.

    • Replies to Anon>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for being brave to talk to me.
      Even if my session only
      Helped yourself. It was worth it.
      My email is if you need anything at all.

  18. Comment by Jerry manelli posted on

    OMG - this was by far the most wonderful session at the event today.
    I have been here 2 days and this was one of my last sessions, at CS Live. She was amazing, authentic, honest and I left feeling not only inspires but really motivated and I am going to do the following.

    Join my departments Social Mobility Network.
    Become a mentor
    Get a mentor
    See if I can do outreach
    And complete my D&I data, Which I never really done before as I didn’t see the point.

    However this session has changed my outlook
    And opinions

    • Replies to Jerry manelli>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments

  19. Comment by Lianna Jeffers posted on

    I heard Vicky speak today and it was so inspiring.
    I have never seen so many people queue to speak to the person delivering as I did today.
    I enjoyed it so much I went to a second delivery just so I could speak to her at the end.

    It’s so great to know that there are leaders out there that have courage to share their story and break the stigma of being from a lower social economical background.

    I just want to say thank you so much!
    We really need this session run for the thousands that can’t attend CS Live.

    • Replies to Lianna Jeffers>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments Lianna

  20. Comment by Sara Minola posted on

    What a fantastic session - I have just left the event- and by far this was my favourite session. It’s the only one I have come away from feeling like I fully understood and felt the session, left with actions I am going to take away and the belief that I can make a difference and get the skills I need to get on.

    I hope to aspire to be a leader like Vicky as my career grows.

    • Replies to Sara Minola>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments Sara

  21. Comment by Manwaye conumbe posted on

    Just been to this session.
    All i can say is wow - it’s the mist inspiring session I have EVER been to in my whole career.
    I have left the session feeling inspired, energised and with a new sense of hope that we can reflect the people that we serve.
    Thank you so so much Vicky,

    • Replies to Manwaye conumbe>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments

  22. Comment by Nick Roberts posted on

    I’m booked onto Wednesdays session, and I cannot wait to hear you speak and if you have time say hello, I think you are inspirational.

    • Replies to Nick Roberts>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments
      Was great to see you

  23. Comment by Sam Cole posted on

    Just amazing
    Well done! A real leader with real integrity

    • Replies to Sam Cole>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments.

  24. Comment by Charlotte Bedford posted on

    SO inspired by your story, Vicky. It's really reassuring to hear about a fellow working class woman doing so well in the Civil Service, and owning their background! Amazing 🙂

    • Replies to Charlotte Bedford>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments

  25. Comment by Mandeep Gill posted on

    So powerful!
    And indeed what a woman!
    This really brings Social Mobility to life, the various complex hurdles one has to jump through and the long term damage it can have individually and in society.
    This shows real grit and see determination, Vicky, especially as the awareness and the assistance and commitment to Social Mobility did not exist.

    We need much more conversations like this, and people to be brave like you to ensure our policies not only reflect our nation but are workable and respectful to our nation.

    Well done Vicky, I agree with other comments, you should be on an advisory board with the very top directing and advising.

    • Replies to Mandeep Gill>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments


  26. Comment by Carol lynn posted on

    I am just in awe.
    I wish we had more leaders like you. This with courage, authenticity, integrity and humility and compassion.

    Thank you so much for sharing

    • Replies to Carol lynn>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments.

  27. Comment by Alan Strickland posted on

    I have just re-read this as it is so powerful and felt the need to comment m.

    Thank you so much for being so brave to share your story. This is what true leadership is about, being able to be authentic, honest and show vulnerability, but in a way that also really shines your integrity.
    I am sure those around you are dedicated to your vision, as your purpose in your career must be so full of clarity.

    Thank you Vicky, I would love to see this session, I will look out for the recording’

    • Replies to Alan Strickland>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind comments
      I understand the recordings ar alive to watch.

  28. Comment by Solly Khonat posted on

    What an amazing story.
    This really does bring Social
    mobility and the various complex areas that can be coupled with Social Mobility to life.

    I have no doubt that Vicky will be an amazing Leader who has lived experience and also natural empathy and view of how to make real policy into real actions.

    We are very lucky to have someone like this in the service.

    • Replies to Solly Khonat>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank You for your kind comments

  29. Comment by Kim Walker posted on

    Wow! I’m sure posts this really resonate.

    Social Mobility and the various complex layers that poverty can create and attract, between adverse experiences, and other inequalities, then often feeds into chaotic adult lives.

    These issues cut across all departments, impacts on our people and the people we serve, via the policies and decisions we make, with a cost of living crisis and deepening poverty it’s really important that we really hear and consult with people like Vicky with lived experience to help shape our policies and understand in some departments how to create policies that make society resilient, and supported to become people like Vicky who go on to succeed.

    These forward thinking policies are those that we need to craft and create that would reduce (not remove) adult issues like crime, addictions and potentially reduce welfare benefits and health inequalities.

    If the government and our senior leaders want to reduce the size of the state, it needs to listen to people like Vicky and make better decisions and policies that support people to being active, healthy adults.

    Vicky your story is amazing, and I hope the powers that be, take the opportunity to work with you to gain advice.

    • Replies to Kim Walker>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind words

  30. Comment by Angie posted on

    One inspiring and courageous lady! Proud to know you.

    • Replies to Angie>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thanks Angie!
      So pleased to be your colleague in FLS too!
      Speak soon x

  31. Comment by Paul Liddle posted on

    I’m gutted. I would have loved to have seen this at CS Live. This story was a topic of conversation across my team today and we would all really benefit from having it and we don’t really do anything for social mobility in my department.

    This is such a truth to power blog and shows why we need people with real life experiences in the service and at the top of the service.

    So inspirational - Vicky, you should lead Civil Service Life Coaching sessions !!

    Please, please please can we have a CS wide virtual session on this? It should be mandatory training!!

    • Replies to Paul Liddle>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Hi Paul,
      Thank you for your kind words.

      I know the sessions were all recorded and should be available to watch.

  32. Comment by John-Paul McNally posted on

    I know this woman! Well
    Kind of, I know about her as I am from Blackburn.

    I know that on top of all of this, she is also a local councillor and helped my family get rehoused and help with utilities, food parcels and help with budgeting, she was amazing and didn’t make them feel bad for asking for help. I know a lot of people she has helped get back on their feet.

    I also saw her on stage a couple of weeks ago, opening a town event. she created and ran an amazing Pride event in Blackburn, it was brilliant with thousands of people young and old came together to celebrate and educate around LGBT+ for the first time ever in Blackburn.

    I didn’t realise she was also a civil servant as I am have only been in my role for a couple of years, but I feel so proud that this amazing person known By everyone locally is also a civil servant and mega proud that she’s from BLACKBURN!!

    • Replies to John-Paul McNally>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind words.
      Always good to get feedback from
      Fellow Blackbernians!
      Glad I could help in any way!

      Kindest regards

  33. Comment by John Coulton posted on

    Just Wow!
    I agree with the last comment. We do need people with these real life experiences advising the top of the Civil Service, to advise, guide and give them a little humility.

    I would love to have a chat and get coaching off this wonderful lady.
    Is there anyway in running the session virtually online?
    My team and I have all been chatting about this article today, and we would really benefit from having the session, live.

    I’m sure others would agree that if there is one session that touches every department. No matter your Preloved soon and no matter your grade, it’s this one. Be great if we could have this session as CL Live online.

    • Replies to John Coulton>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your feedback and kind words.
      I know the sessions were recorded and will be available to watch.
      Happy to assist in any way I can with either teams - or as you say with the top of the cs 😊

  34. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    May I commend you Vicky for sharing with us your personal journey, and for speaking so openly about the personal challenges that you had faced.

    I am really pleased that you have sought to turn negative moments into positive moments, and have been able to have an enjoyable career and realise your true potential.

    I especially like the fact that you had remembered the way that the staff were disrespectful towards your mom, and when given the chance, looked to make certain that others did not have a similar unacceptable experience.

    Sorry to hear that you had experienced a period in your life when you had a problematic relationship with food. I am glad that you have found a way to overcome this.

    Unfortunately, during the pandemic, there was a significant increase in the number of people with an eating disorder and concerns about their body image. It is important that like colleague do not suffer in silence and reach out for professional help.

    I am certain that there are a number of colleagues out there who have come from a similar socioeconomic background. I am sure that your story will inspire them, and will show that with determination and the right level of support, that it is possible to achieve success.

    If you do not mind me asking Vicky, what happened to your younger siblings?

    • Replies to Gavin Thomas>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for you feedback and kind words.
      My siblings are multiple and most of them working, almost all are parents - we are all very close.

  35. Comment by Sally Johnson posted on

    I attended the Session at Civil Service Live, and I have been to many. Vicky was the most authentic person I have ever had the pleasure of listening too.
    The very top of the Civil Service would do well to have Vicky as a critical friend, for really making the policies and ideas real for the people who we serve to make them Successful.

    I will for the remainder of my careers always remember Vicky’s story and also keep it with me, if I face difficulties - what an inspiration this lady is. She really embodies what the heart of the Civil Service is.

    • Replies to Sally Johnson>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your lovely kind words

  36. Comment by Kate Brooke posted on

    What a woman!!

    Your resilience and determination to carry on is inspirational. I particularly love the message about owning who you are in order to move forward.

    Thank you for sharing!

    • Replies to Kate Brooke>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you Katie

  37. Comment by Shuhab Hamid posted on

    Thank you Vicky for sharing and wanting to make a change and impact...really inspiring...all the best and keep going...

    • Replies to Shuhab Hamid>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you Shuhab!

  38. Comment by Godfrey Atuahene Junior posted on

    Inspirational thank you!

    • Replies to Godfrey Atuahene Junior>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

  39. Comment by cathie posted on

    What an empowering example of passion for a Brilliant Civil service and sharing an honest account, bringing Social Mobility to life ! This is exactly why Civil Service asks questions about our backgrounds on vacancies and surveys to help us build an Inclusive business with colleagues from ALL backgrounds. A Fantastic Achievement Vicki. I wish I had attended The Smash the Glass Ceiling, event - is this available for sharing ?

    • Replies to cathie>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thanks for your kind words Cathie
      I understand that the recordings of all of the sessions from CS Live are available now or very soon.


  40. Comment by Vanja Sandelin Blair posted on

    A truly inspirational article on so many levels. Thanks for sharing your story.

    • Replies to Vanja Sandelin Blair>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind words Vanja

  41. Comment by Cliff Sale posted on

    Many thanks for sharing this Vicky and so interesting to hear how your experiences drove you to be the person you are today and how our backgrounds - whatever they might be - are an asset.
    The injustice you felt for your mum means attitudes and processes have changed, which is the real value of having a socially diverse workforce that can bring lived experience to the way we work and the service we provide.
    Thanks again for sharing your story - an inspiring read on an otherwise overcast day in nearby Preston!

    • Replies to Cliff Sale>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thanks Cliff for your kind words, I do believe we truly should be made up of the people we serve and our experiences can help future policies develop.

  42. Comment by Sara Arshad posted on

    An inspirational article, amazing personality and wonderful achievement. Thank you!

    • Replies to Sara Arshad>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you for your kind words Sara 😊

  43. Comment by Darren posted on

    I attended the session with Vicky at CSL in Edinburgh and her story was so powerful.

    • Replies to Darren>

      Comment by Vicky McGurk posted on

      Thank you Darren, it was a real pleasure to meet so many wonderful colleagues in Scotland.