Supporting social mobility

Social mobility sits at the heart of prime minister Theresa May’s commitment to create “a country that works for everyone” by improving movement across social positions and addressing elitism. For employment, this means no one should be prevented from fulfilling their potential purely because of where they were born, the school they went to or the jobs their parents do.

Recent figures from the Social Mobility Commission show that in the UK 7 per cent of children attend fee-paying schools. However, the Sutton Trust found that in 2014, 34 per cent of new entrants into investment banking over the previous three years had attended a fee-paying school.   The picture is similar in other professions – 71 per cent of top military officers, 74 per cent of top judges and 61 per cent of the country’s top doctors attended fee-paying schools.

The Panel on Fair Access to the Professions released a report on the opportunities available as well as highlighting the pragmatic and practical steps employers could take. Even with this, progress is slow. In law, there has been a 2 per cent shift in the last 30 years of those educated in independent schools, from 76 per cent in the 1980s to the 74 per cent we see today. Of current FTSE chief executives, 34 per cent were educated at independent schools compared with 70 per cent in the late-1980s, partly due to the internationalisation of top posts.

Assessing talent by academic success alone is a blunt and lazy screening tool, and is not a clear-cut indicator of future success or potential

Employers pride themselves on being true meritocracies – hiring the best person for the job – but there is too much reliance placed on academic qualifications and where they were achieved?

Academic achievements

Some will argue that good qualifications from an impressive university, such as Oxford or Cambridge, will result in hiring the best, however there is much more required to building a successful career such as a good work ethic, resilience and interpersonal skills. Assessing talent by academic success alone is a blunt and lazy screening tool, and is not a clear-cut indicator of future success or potential.

As one boss says: “I would rather have someone on my team who is determined and has had to work hard for everything they have achieved than someone who has had it all handed to them on a plate.”

A small number of businesses are taking note, with some working together to drive change. The Cabinet Office created the Social Mobility Business Compact with the aim for all supporting companies to work with schools to raise the aspirations of young people, provide fair, accessible and high-quality work experience and internship opportunities, and recruit fairly and ensure their recruitment practices eliminate barriers to social mobility.

As a result, EY removed academic qualifications from its trainee application process for graduates, undergraduates and school leavers. They are no longer required to comply with achieving a minimum of 300 UCAS points. Instead they conduct a number of online strengths assessments and numerical tests to assess the potential of their applicants. To ensure the assessments were measuring the key elements required for people to succeed in EY and drive the business forward, surveys were conducted with key stakeholders across all business areas to hone critical assessment.

In 2011, the legal profession launched PRIME, a programme to tackle social mobility in the sector. To date 89 firms have signed up to a number of commitments including specifically targeting work experience at school-age students who have the least opportunity to access it otherwise, provide financial assistance to ensure they can attend work experience and maintain contact with the firm after work experience has ended. PRIME exceeded their initial aim by providing high-quality work experience for almost 4,000 young people and has raised awareness of the legal profession. However, a recent review showed that more needed to be done to maintain contact between the law firms and those taking part in the work experience.

Specific steps taken by some of the law firms include, Hogan Lovells, a founding member of PRIME, offering bursaries to those interested in a career in law. The aim is give students from less privileged backgrounds an insight into the legal profession and demonstrate how they could achieve a career in law.

Pinsent Masons have taken a step closer to schools and developed a structured school work experience programme open to students who are at least 16 years old and studying towards either AS or A-levels or equivalent qualifications. These opportunities enable students to experience life at a top law firm and broaden their horizons. Nearly a quarter of their annual placements are allocated to students from less privileged backgrounds.

An increasing number of professions offer internship opportunities. Historically, in some industries there are examples where these were offered as a goodwill gesture to the children of high-revenue clients rather than an opportunity actively to seek out a wider pool of potential talent. Organisations such as are creating more transparency around internships and raising awareness far wider than the closed contacts of parents who may have a social network that enables them to access entry routes to sectors such as insurance and investment banking.

Placing vocational learning on an equal footing with academic courses is an important tool for meeting future skill requirements across the UK

Employers such as the Bank of England and Morgan Stanley post intern opportunities on their websites. People who have completed an internship with the companies are also able to post honest feedback about their experience, which really opens the door on what it’s like to work inside these organisations.

Vs vocational training

Focusing on increasing transparency, removing barriers and bias from recruitment processes, and broadening the reach much wider into wider communities are all important factors for increasing social mobility for those who decide to stay in full-time education and progress to university.

However, they are not the only solutions as there is a wider pool of talent who will decide to leave full-time education at the earliest opportunity for a number of reasons. Given the increased government focus on apprenticeships and the imminent implementation of the apprenticeship levy in the UK, companies are increasingly assessing how they can attract a broad pool of talent via apprenticeship programmes.

Placing vocational learning on an equal footing with academic courses is an important tool for meeting future skill requirements across the UK. Direct Line is one company that has taken the apprenticeship route seriously as an alternative for talented people to get noticed by employers. Their programme enables people to gain valuable work experience and a recognised qualification without the longer-term burden of university tuition fees.

Social mobility is a complex issue that can’t be remedied with quick-fix activities, but this isn’t going to go away or remedy itself. For organisations to widen their horizons and increase the potential pool of talented individuals for their organisations, the following three points are a good place to start.

Firstly, broaden access points into the organisation – talent comes in all shapes and sizes and talented people don’t all go to university. Ask how you can access those who choose to start their careers without completing the university years. Secondly, remove information on a candidate’s educational background from the recruitment and promotions process to neutralise any bias towards particular institutions. Challenge qualification requirements on job roles. Ask are they absolutely necessary for e