James Turner writes for The Guardian on the need to open up the professions.
Unlocking the vice-like grip that the privileged classes have over the most influential positions in society would be some feat for a comprehensive schoolboy from Newcastle. But this is the task facing Alan Milburn as his panel on access to the professions launches its first report.
The evidence he faces is depressingly familiar. The Sutton Trust has long-charted the historic decline in social mobility, as well highlighting that opportunities to rise up the social ladder do not seem to have improved in more recent years, despite record investment. No wonder that in seven out of the nine professions we’ve studied, the majority of leading figures were educated in fee-paying schools.
One response is that inequalities in the professions are simply a function of inequalities in our education system. Elite universities, for example, provide a springboard to the most coveted careers, yet access to them is skewed towards the well-off, principally because these students perform better in exams. Addressing this will take more than a panel of experts reporting within a six-month timeframe.
But this is not the whole story. As the Trust’s submission to the Milburn commission makes clear, lower aspirations, a lack of contacts, poor advice and difficulties in accessing internships and postgraduate studies are all significant obstacles facing non-privileged youngsters getting on the first rungs of the professional ladder. And there are concrete steps that can be taken to improve things.
There is certainly a case for intervening early on, getting young people from poorer homes used to the idea that a professional career is for them, as well as improving guidance in schools so they know how to get there. State schools might also benefit from a national alumni programme to link pupils with successful professionals – something common in the private sector, which is better geared-up to exploiting the old-boy network.
Milburn is right to single out internships for particular scrutiny. For many professions, some experience on the “shop floor” is a necessity. But these opportunities are often informally organised, poorly paid (or not paid) and come about through personal links. This immediately disadvantages those from poorer and non-graduate homes and those who live outside the main urban areas, particularly London. Walk through parliament and you are more likely to meet a privileged intern from a US Ivy League college than a UK youngster from a modest background.
So work experience schemes need to be open and transparent and recruit the best young people, regardless of financial means. Importantly, those firms that run such programmes should be rewarded. The idea of a “social mobility charter mark” to recognise best practice could be good news for social mobility as well as making sound business sense. The possibility of one firm having such an award while a competitor did not would surely encourage companies to get their own house in order.
The panel should also consider extending the student financial support system to quality-assured internship schemes, as well as to key “gateway” postgraduate courses. These are increasingly important in many professions, yet remain a major hurdle for those from poorer backgrounds. How many aspiring journalists have been deterred because of the prohibitive costs of spending a year on a master’s course with no salary?
It would be foolish to think that Alan Milburn’s panel can reverse deep-rooted inequalities overnight. But a few bold steps and clear messages would be an important boost for social mobility. And as the decisions made in courtrooms, in parliament, in boardrooms and at newsdesks are so far-reaching, it is important to every one of us that the professional elites fully reflect the diversity of our society.
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