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Worried about Britain’s poor social mobility? Here’s a way to change things

28 August 2014

10:36 AM

28 August 2014

10:36 AM

Today’s report about the penetration of the privately-educated at the top of British society should be familiar: the Sutton Trust has been producing this study for years and the picture seldom changes. By its nature, of course, this survey says more about educational opportunity decades ago than today – but does anyone really believe the system has improved?

Britain has the best private schools in the world, so it should be no surprise that their graduates flourish. It would be perverse to discriminate against anyone, and bigoted to think less of them, because of their CV: you play the hand you’re dealt in life. The aim should be meritocracy.

At The Spectator, we now have a specific recruitment policy for jobs and internships: we ask applicants not to include education on their CVs. It’s just not a factor in journalism: Frank Johnson didn’t even finish school and he was one of the greatest editors of this magazine. We have an intern starting next week (who responded to this blog), and none of us have the faintest idea about his background. Just his abilities.

But there is something else we do, which has worked out really well for us – and I’d like to recommend it to any employer, anywhere. For some years now, we have collaborated with the Social Mobility Foundation who send us work experience kids each summer. Anyone who has had to look after a ‘workie’ will know that it can be an annoying experience if you’re landed with someone only there because Uncle Henry called in a favour for his son who is kicking about with no direction in life.

But to spend a week in the company of an SMF student is a joy. They’re from less-advantaged backgrounds, but are only taken on to the scheme if they’re super-bright and mustard-keen. The SMF are quite rigorous about this, so any employer can be pretty sure they’re getting kids who treat work experience for what it is: a golden opportunity, so often beyond the reach of those without the family connections. Especially in journalism: a recent survey found that 83 per cent of journalists who started work in the past three years did work experience first, 92 per cent of which was unpaid, before getting their first paid job. But this set-up obviously works in favour of those who can afford to work for nothing. We do pay our interns (although not very much) and do what we can to accommodate (sometimes literally) those who struggle to see out two weeks in London.

The Spectator has (so far) hired two of the bright young things the SMF has sent our way. We have also set up our answer to the old school tie: a Spectator/SMF alumni event, where we invite back those who have passed through our doors (normally when they were at GCSE level) and keep in touch to ask what more we can do to help. In any situation.

As Andrew Neil put it at our inaugural alumni meeting, they should use us, at The Spectator, as their network because the people they’re up against will be using their contact network too. If we can use our connections to do them a favour somehow, we ask them to let us know.

Andrew Neil with the Spectator's SMF students (Photo: Charlotte King Photography)

Andrew Neil with the Spectator’s SMF students (Photo: Charlotte King Photography)

Many employers allow staff to act as mentors to SMF students. Some of us here at the Spectator do this, and it doesn’t take much: emailing advice, helping with these ‘personal statements’ the poor things have to write nowadays and answering questions about their careers. To give these fiercely bright kids the kind of help that the private schools specialize in.

The SMF are expanding out of London, and I’d urge other employers to learn more. And this can be in the self-interest of all companies – we wouldn’t be hiring SMF graduates if they weren’t the very best.

So if you’re an employer reading today’s newspaper reports and lamenting Britain’s poor social mobility, then you can do something about it. Email the SMF today.

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