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David Johnston and social mobility

6 July 2019

8:10 AM

6 July 2019

8:10 AM

For some time now, I’ve been involved in the Social Mobility Foundation, whose interns we take at The Spectator (and who were at our summer party last week). It has been run by David Johnston, who has stood down after ten years. What he has achieved at the SMF has been nothing short of extraordinary. The idea was that it takes bright teenagers who qualify for free school meals, and help them with internships – and other forms of support – to give them more of the opportunities available to wealthier families. When this all started, it was against the grain: a great many employers couldn’t see what was wrong with giving internships to their friends and family. But anyone who has benefited from an internship (myself included) knows their life-changing potential, and the SMF sought to build a coalition of the willing. It sought, and still seeks, companies willing to take its brilliant teenage interns. And this is just a part of it: its Aspiring Professionals Programme gives several thousand teenagers a mentor from their chosen profession and access to scores of events over their sixth form and uni years. And beyond: the SMF alumni who were with us last week were at the start of their working careers. We have an annual reception for every SMF pupil who ever interned with us (the last took place a couple of weeks ago), and we like to keep in touch. It’s one of hundreds of events the SMF provides.

We at The Spectator have hired three of them over the years – as have 150 employers in total. The idea has taken off, and the SMF now has offices in Birmingham, Cardiff. Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle. Employers are even starting similar schemes now. It has been a huge success, but a hard-won success.


David didn’t found the SMF, but joined when it was a very different (and far smaller) organisation than it is now. He leaves it standing as a brilliant example of what’s best about this country: the way that employers, schools and others can come together and make a transformational difference improve the system. For two years, now, The Spectator has made an appeal asking readers to offer internships: we had a huge response from financiers, scientists, the military and even the Royal Household. To promote social mobility schemes in Britain, now, is to push at an open door. David Johnston’s ten years with the SMF have played a big role in opening that door.

I’m on the board of the SMF and have known for a while that David was thinking that ten years was about enough, a stage where you either settle down for life in a job or go off to the next challenge. He’s now going off to find his, and I suspect it won’t be long before he finds it.


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