Dr Matt Dickson is Reader in Public Policy at the University of Bath's Institute for Policy Research, and leads the Institute's work on widening participation into higher education.
Social mobility has rarely been far from the top of the political agenda in Britain in recent years. There is agreement across the spectrum that life chances must not be dictated at birth and the aim of ensuring equality of opportunity for everyone in society commands a broad coalition of political support. Indeed, from Tony Blair to Theresa May, each incoming prime minister has made bold statements regarding the socially mobile Britain their government will create. Yet despite two decades of rhetorical commitment to the cause, Britain is still a deeply divided country.
There remains a stubborn gap in higher education attendance between children from better- and worse-off families, and the top professions continue to recruit disproportionately from a narrow strata of society – only 6 percent of doctors, 12 percent of journalists and 12 percent of chief executives coming from working-class backgrounds. The particular dominance of the private and independently educated in society’s upper echelons is well documented: in addition to law, finance, medicine, and FTSE 100 companies, areas such as politics, the civil service, journalism and the arts are disproportionately populated to a huge degree by the 7% of people educated in private or independent schools.
Education policies at all ages – from provision of affordable quality pre-school, to initiatives to widen participation in HE – can make a difference, however such policies alone will never solve all of the issues. The problems of social mobility extend far beyond the education system. Even people with the same education fare differently in accessing elite professions depending on their background and progressing within these jobs is also related to school type. More broadly, recent research has found a pay-gap equivalent to thousands of pounds difference in annual earnings between those from higher and lower class backgrounds employed in the same high status professional occupations.
So what can be done?
There is huge scope for employers to take the lead in promoting social mobility over the coming years, while central government is pre-occupied with Brexit and local authorities are struggling to do more with less following years of austerity cut-backs.
But why would employers take the initiative? A clear answer was given to this question at a recent conference organised by the University of Bath. By recruiting narrowly from universities, firms risk missing out on a wealth of talented individuals who do not have the traditional academic background associated with future success. Employers such as Grant Thornton, Fujitsu and the Ministry of Justice have started to realise this danger and to take action.
Common amongst the employers tackling this issue was to approach the problem in the way they would with any other business challenge: by formulating a systematic plan to change their recruitment and progression procedures to ensure that all of the brightest talents out there are given a chance.
For all of its recruitment, the MOJ has recently moved from a competencies-based model focused on traditional markers of talent, such as university performance, to a strengths-based model that considers each individual’s skills and potential, rather than their academic polish. This has been accompanied by outreach activities targeting young people from schools in disadvantaged areas, and schemes to bring those from poorer backgrounds into summer schools and internships. Mentoring within these programmes builds young people’s confidence and the mentoring continues within the MOJ, with new recruits from non-traditional backgrounds mentored throughout, helping their career progression and not just access to the job in the first place. Apprenticeship schemes operate within the Ministry so that people are able to move from operational roles into policy-making roles, breaking through ceilings that may otherwise hinder progression of those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
Grant Thornton also changed its recruitment practice in 2012, removing minimum academic entry requirements and focusing instead on key skills and values. Whilst before it was all about Russell Group graduates, now there is a process that considers an applicant's range of interests and experiences. Trainee recruitment includes bespoke help for the applicants, with mentors assisting throughout – a common theme amongst these opportunity employers. Once applicants are in the system, Grant Thornton discovered that the information gleaned at the interview stage is a much better predictor of how people will perform in the firm – much more so that degree attainment or exam scores. Moreover, evaluation of performance in the job has revealed that the recruits who come in without degrees and top exam grades perform just as well within the firm and their assessed potential going forward is just as high.
It is a similar story for Fujitsu, they discovered that most factors in their recruitment process – such as telephone interviews, criteria related to work experience or UCAS points – were redundant and so from 2015 many of their former recruitment metrics were ditched, including the requirement of a 2:1 degree or above. Instead applicants are presented with situational scenarios, where current employees from a diverse range of backgrounds present real challenges to be solved, assessing a candidate’s whole range of skills, not just their exam taking ability.
As a result of their changes, the MOJ, Grant Thornton and Fujitsu are all highly placed in the Social Mobility Employers Index, a benchmarking tool constructed by the Social Mobility Foundation which ranks firms on the actions they are taking to ensure that they are recruiting and progressing talent from all backgrounds. The lessons from these top opportunity employers are common:
- Use data to understand recruitment patterns and progression within work for individuals from different backgrounds.
- Reach out to schools and colleges, not just universities, particularly schools with more disadvantage.
- Support those who can influence and help young people – parents, teachers, school leaders, careers advisors.
- Mentor recruits from non-traditional backgrounds throughout recruitment and beyond, help to provide the social capital and knowledge of the triggers for promotion and reward so that they progress within the job.
It has often been said that ‘talent is everywhere, opportunity is not’. Now it seems many employers are beginning to realise that there is value in changing their recruitment practices to extend opportunity to places it has previously been lacking. For social mobility this is already good news and as the best practice of these firms spreads, more employers can start to do for Britain’s mobility what prime ministers have been promising to do for years.