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'Who Gets the Best Jobs?'

Did anyone else watch this documentary last night on BBC2? (If you didn't and you are interested in any of the issues discussed, you can see the entire programme here http://www.bbc.co.uk/i/yb5kv/ .)

Good programme. Evidence that the Beeb is sometimes capable of doing an opinion piece that doesn't mislead or selectively choose evidence to back up its own official view perhaps, but that's another matter.

I say good programme, because it reflected a lot of my thoughts on this issue. The programme alleged that Britain is now less socially mobile than at any time since the 1920s. I wouldn't say I agreed with all of the reasons the programme gave - at times, it seemed to me that cause and effect were confused. However, a lot of the case studies shown struck a chord. The programme was partly about social mobility in general but especially about access to the professions. As you may have guessed from all my posts about 'You're Hired!', this is a subject very near to my heart.

Since not everyone who reads my journal knows me, a bit of personal background. I'm a senior manager in one of the 'big four' accountancy firms (which I refer to as 'JOLF' in this journal). Like three current members of the Cabinet, I studied PPE at Magdalen College, Oxford in the early 1990s, back when the Prime Minister was from Brixton and had left school at 16. I went to a comprehensive school in North Wales and my father was a factory worker. I have the sort of background that Magdalen PPEists aren't supposed to have.

Also, since the 'You're Hired!' competition includes all sorts of schools from wrong-side-of-the-tracks comprehensives through single sex grammars to the city's top fee-paying independent, I see a lot of different types of pupil and teacher and school and their attitudes to work and careers.

Factors suggested as reasons by various experts in the programme as to why people who go into the professions tend to be the children of people already in the professions:

1. Internships. Interesting one this. According to the programme, to get into many professions, you need to work for several months in a succession of unpaid internships, usually in London. As the presenter says, clearly you need to be rich or have family in London to be able to live in London without earning a wage. Strangely, JOLF's interpretation of the law is that unpaid work experience is illegal because of the Minimum Wage Act.

2. It is easier to get work experience if you have contacts. The medical profession was singled out for this - you apparently need medical work experience and this is difficult to get if you don't know a friendly doctor. So it's easier if mummy and daddy are doctors. Or if daddy's golfing partner is a surgeon. Apparently professional parents even 'trade' internships for the children with each other. Only one in seven medical students come from the poorest half of households. The legal profession comes in for similar criticism.

3. Most professional jobs are in London (and this is increasingly the case), so there is a distinct bias against anyone from other parts of the country. There is also a bias against poorer people since London accommodation may be out of reach for those starting in the professions.

4. In the past, someone with good O-levels could get an office job on the bottom rung of the ladder and work their way up, while someone with more vocational skills could get an apprenticeship at the factory and work their way up. Now, there is a big gap between those with qualifications (increasingly degrees) and those choosing a vocational route into the workplace.

5. The gap between rich and poor has widened and this makes social mobility inherently harder.

6. On average, cleverer, more middle class parents produce more talented children while working class parents produce less talented children.

7. It's not that the lower classes have a "dearth of aspiration", it's that they lack the resources to make the most of what they have.

8. Grammar schools gave talented children from poorer backgrounds a path to a better life, and encouraged those children to believe they could get that life. Comprehensive schools tend not to give that encouragement.

9. What Alan Milburn (the government's 'Social Mobility Tsar') calls the "Not-For-The-Likes-of-Me Syndrome". The programme shows Mr Milburn speaking to some pupils from a comprehensive school from the area where he grew up. Asked what they wanted to do when they left school, they all said 'actor' or 'actress'. When he asked them if "someone from around here could make it to the top", one girl said "Yeah - Cheryl Cole did". He asked them if they'd had careers advice at school - "boring". He asked them if anyone had ever spoken to them about jobs in medicine, journalism, the law, accountancy, architecture. They just shook their heads.

10. Middle class parents do more to push their kids and get the best for the kids. What Alan Milburn calls "sharp elbows and shrill voices". He thinks more people should have sharp elbows and shrill voices.

11. Independent schools (and to be fair, the better state schools) make sure that pupils are equipped with the sort of skills that professional employers look for.

12. When teenagers from poorer backgrounds decide they do want to try to get a high-achieving career, reactions from their school friends can be negative.

13. People from poorer backgrounds see the sorts of people already in the professions (or perhaps the media stereotypes) and think that there is no way they would be able to fit in with those kinds of people.

14. Top employers in the professions concentrate on the 'Russell Group' universities (the top 20) and ignore or are biased against candidates from other universities; and pupils from poorer backgrounds and poorer backgrounds are less likely to go to Russell Group universities. (Na_lon's employer was the other university highlighted.) Also, the better universities prepare students better for job interviews and applications.


( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 3rd, 2011 10:18 pm (UTC)
I saw an article about this prior to the programme. I was sufficiently interested to take their "class test" - thought I would be a good subject, as I don't really fit neatly into any class boundary. Results, as you might expect, were inconclusive.

I can also add another point to the ones you list above, and this comes from lengthy conversations with several children from a particularly disadvantaged family. (They'd have been less disadvantaged if their mother hadn't been quite so stupid, but then you get stupid people in every class.) The eldest boy in the family was actually quite bright, but he was weak and easily influenced. Consequently, he was absolutely convinced that he was stupid, partly because he'd always been told he was at school (it was apparently expected of him, given his background), and partly because he obviously didn't get any intellectual stimulation at home.

Now I don't have any outstandingly special qualities, but I helped that boy. It wasn't exactly rocket science. He spotted soon enough that I was a heck of a lot brighter than his mother - not that this was a very high bar to jump - and so if I told him he'd just said something clever, he tended to take notice. It's exactly the same as Mole taking notice when Robin Blaze tells him he can sing. :-) By the time the family moved out of the area, I'd got that child convinced that he had a brain in there and could use it, and was well on the way to convincing him also that he didn't have to listen to anyone who a) told him otherwise or b) thought it was a good idea for him to break the law. He got a job helping at a local farm - he was brilliant with animals, and even he realised that - and a few years later, he came back to see me. He was still doing well.

As I say, I'm nothing special. It didn't take very much for me to break through his conditioning; he just needed someone who was reasonably intelligent to tell him he had a brain. But, sadly, he's not by any means the only child from a poor background who's been made to think they're stupid because other people expect it of them.

I wish I could do something for more children like that. Unfortunately I'd be useless as a teacher - it's the introvert thing again; I literally cannot cope with a whole room full of kids. I'd need to talk to them all, one at a time.

That's a lot of children. It'd take a while. :-(
Feb. 4th, 2011 01:19 am (UTC)
"...and so if I told him he'd just said something clever, he tended to take notice"

...which is such a powerful message to give, because they won't get it from friends and family. In fact, for many of them, being clever will be seen negatively by the people they deal with every day. I have absolutely no idea how to cure this on a large scale, but it might be the biggest problem of all.
Feb. 4th, 2011 08:47 am (UTC)
I think you're right. You know I used to be on the Education Committee here in Sheffield (one of four non-council members)? During that time, we used to do school and college visits, and there was one school that was particularly outstanding. It was in a very poor area, but it got consistently good results and the atmosphere was amazing. The children in general were friendly, relaxed and respectful. The head teacher of that school made it clear that she had high expectations of the children - not trying to push them beyond what they were truly capable of, but equally well not expecting them to fall short of it. Children left that school with a firm expectation that a reasonable proportion of them would eventually go on to university, and the figures showed that a lot of them did, even though they'd been through various secondary schools of somewhat assorted quality in the meantime.

Now it's easy to say "if one school can do it, why can't all of them?", but I suspect it's a lot more complicated than that or they'd all be doing it. This was one exceptional head teacher. She had the self-belief and the strength of character to take on low parental expectations - which is where it all starts - and win. Doing that one child at a time is not too difficult, but doing it for an entire school is something else, and I take my hat off to her.

I'm also not inclined to blame the parents. That too is easily done, but we've got to remember that the reason they don't expect much of their children is that not much was ever expected of them. Unravelling where it all started is going to be complicated; on the bright side, I doubt that it's actually necessary for a solution.
Feb. 4th, 2011 01:16 am (UTC)
Some of my thoughts on this...

3) is undoubtedly a big problem, but it isn't restricted to the professions. Basically far too much of what happens in this country is based in London. Countries like Germany and the USA benefit from having more than one major city. The UK has everything in the same place.

4) is probably inevitable given a combination of fewer manufacturing jobs and higher university attendance. I remain to be convinced of the merits of sending half of eighteen year olds to university. I don't think it has any positive effect on social mobility. The more academic people should go to university.

5) I think this is mostly the other way around. Social immobility means that people with high-paying jobs have children with high-paying jobs, then die and leave their fortune to their already well-off children. Meanwhile poor people have poor children and so on. Interestingly if you think of some of the professions with the greatest income inequality - say acting and banking, barriers to entry for poorer people are arguably lower than in other professions.

6) I don't think there is anything sinister or eugenicsy about this. What might be happening is a correlation between being good at passing exams and having good social skills (that is, the skills more likely to get you a good job) and having good parenting skills.

7) This was the view of a Cambridge professor and it directly contradicted Alan Milburn. Frankly, I agree with Milburn - many kids from the wrong side of the tracks _do_ have a "dearth of ambition". Alternatively, they have ludicrously high ambitions and imagine that they will become professional footballers or famous actors. The problem is a terrible mix of adults not giving them any insight into what they could achieve and a different set of adults (mostly in the media) telling them they can "be whatever they want to be".

8. There are good comprehensive schools out there. And there are bad ones. What there aren't are 'bog standard' ones. That's a myth. I see both in Plymouth. My impression is that the better comprehensive schools are the ones that still stream by ability.

9. I thought this was the most depressing point of all. I'd love to say that 'You're Hired!' helps with this. Unfortunately, seventeen is probably too old to make a difference. You need to catch them much younger. I once spent a day at a comprehensive in Watford for a work charity day. The idea was to show younger children the sort of jobs they would need to get to have the sort of lifestyle they wanted when they were older, and how hard they would have to work in school to get the qualifications they would need to get into those jobs. I was stunned at how few children had made the connection between working hard at school and having a nice house and car when they were older. It was a really powerful message to give.

11. The better schools have rules. The professions have rules. Rules on things like acceptable appearance, the way you interact with school visitors / customers are remarkably similar. The two biggest differences between 'You're Hired!' heats at the better schools and at the worst schools is that at the better schools, all of the pupils _look_ employable and are able to talk to visitors in a professional manner. I am sometimes tempted to say to the teachers that based on appearance alone, some of their pupils are essentially unemployable for many jobs. But that's somewhat outside of my remit. I'm also stunned that people who have opted to enter further education can sometimes be so uncommunicative.

14. Yes they do. (JOLF certainly does for graduate recruitment events, which is annoying because that excludes Plymouth University, by far the major supplier of recruits for my office.) But the question is why. The answer for the most part is that the best candidates tend to come out of these universities. And to get to the bottom of why that is, you need to answer all the other questions.
Feb. 4th, 2011 09:17 am (UTC)
1. I've never heard of anyone in real life doing an unpaid internship.

2. My experience when I was a working class teenager who wanted to enter medicine (I later changed my mind), was that many middle class people do go out of there way to support bright working class kids they come across. Certainly I was able to get work experience and there were doctors who gave their time to advise me.

7. The other problem is that the people around working class kids have a very narrow idea of what jobs and careers are out there. I was encouraged to be a doctor, because that is a well known and prestigious profession, but announcing I wanted to be an academic bought incomprehension and hostility from my family who didn't really know what it meant.

8. Yes, my own comprehensive was not as supportive as I needed. However it wasn't as bad as some of them sound these days!!

11. Presentation and communications skills really are a major problem for working class kids, agreed.

I think there's also a point that's been missed here. Working hard on a degree, working part time jobs to pay for expensive London accommodation, finishing a higher degree and such all require emotional stability and support from other emotionally stable, sensible people as well as intelligence. If someone is from a family where relationships are fractured, where there are drink, drugs, mental health problems etc, then that person is more likely to have their career derailed by their own problems, and perpetuate the cycle.
Feb. 4th, 2011 10:21 am (UTC)
I think 'unpaid internship' might be American for 'Work experience placement' ?
Feb. 4th, 2011 10:53 am (UTC)
Yup! We used to sell, on behalf of a US publisher, a book on Summer Internships in the US as they sold our Summer Jobs Britain.

(gah finger trouble)

Edited at 2011-02-04 12:38 pm (UTC)
Feb. 4th, 2011 03:14 pm (UTC)
I think there's also a point that's been missed here. Working hard on a degree, working part time jobs to pay for expensive London accommodation, finishing a higher degree and such all require emotional stability and support from other emotionally stable, sensible people as well as intelligence. If someone is from a family where relationships are fractured, where there are drink, drugs, mental health problems etc, then that person is more likely to have their career derailed by their own problems, and perpetuate the cycle.

Damn right.

Edited at 2011-02-04 03:15 pm (UTC)
Feb. 4th, 2011 05:07 pm (UTC)
Re 11. It's very noticeable seeing presentations by pupils in heats for You're Hired! that those at the grammar schools and the public school we go to are much better. I think there are two forces at work here, but I'm not sure on the ratio:

1) Pupils at the poorer schools just aren't as confident at speaking in public.

2) Pupils at poorer schools aren't trained in presenting.

The confidence thing is a strange one - they are fine asking questions and talking one to one, but put them in front of an audience and they clam up.

Presenting is something you can be taught. And if you can't do it, you are going to be at a massive disadvantage later in life. JOLF's graduate recruitment process for example includes a formal presentation to a partner. If you want to be a teacher, then clearly you need to be able to present. Even if you want to be a shop assistant or a barmaid or a timeshare salesman, you need to be able to get your message across to other people.

This is a major issue for 'You're Hired!'. Many of the challenges in the final demand presentation skills. Our fear is that many otherwise strong finalists are going to underperform because their presentation skills are so poor. As we sat watching abysmal presentation after abysmal presentation at the last heat, we started wondering whether we should give presentation skills workshops to all the finalists.

We don't have the budget to do this professionally. This is a shame because I know someone who would be perfect (a Clare Associates client who taught me presentation skills at JOLF). However I reckon the various employers involved could do something if only the schools will let us have their pupils for a day.
Feb. 4th, 2011 12:37 pm (UTC)
Although I too would find it odd that there was such an emphasis on unpaid work, in London and the professions too! But I do know that when I was at Sussex in '95 we were told that to get a museum job you did need to have done volunteer/unpaid work for a musuem. Perhaps it's someone's reasoning of a way around the whole 'you need experience to do this job, but how do you get experience if nobody will give you a job' problem. Which probably applies to 2) as well.

3 is I think a bit of media self-selection, London gets a lot of emphasis in the media but actually there are other cities in the UK too (with 'professional' employers, even poxy Wolves has a street full of insurance companies and legal firms so ...). It's just that the media doesn't talk about them much as that would mean travelling, and thus more and more people think that the only jobs/lifestyle etc are in London.

4 I agree with you and the programme, after all why else has there been a crisis in the number of plumbers and then all the chaff about Polish plumbers? In fact some carpenters are having trouble finding apprentices (see the programme's 9*) so...

5 I agree with your explanation but not with you saying that it is the other way around as I don't know what you mean, that social mobility has hardened thus widening the gap, or what?

6 I also agree with you and the programme its just down to genetics and that's not sinister, after all in the 14th C the classes who could eat better were supposedly taller/healthier than those who couldn't (and what has changed?). But I'd also say there was an influence the engagement/encouragement time that parents can commit to their children (see the 10 above), some working single mums will work their arses off in order that their children can go on and be the best they can etc, others with no work will still they and do that within the means they have. Others have been discussed above.

7 I think that the programme and Milburn are both right because it varies from place to place but as others have said a lot of poorer families look askance at intelligence and a desire to read & study and the peer pressure at school can be even worse. Plus when all the factories and workshops are shut, and there's no money to travel to college, what can you aspire too if you're 'not very bright' (or have been told so) (*).

8 Grammar schools can be good or bad, so can independents and comprehensives. But good schools always benefit the kids. That said I think the path grammars offered did do a lot of good even if some kids hated it and the 'damage' not getting in caused others. Also all schools should be encouraged to stream by ability, after all all children are individuals and all individuals are different in some way or another - heck it may even help integration in some areas - and that shouldn't be covered up by foolishness. I was put in a CSE maths class whilst doing O levels in all the others, yes there were some lads who didn't like me being there, so what.
Feb. 4th, 2011 12:38 pm (UTC)
9 * Sadly this is all too true :(

10 ditto on the 10 above (and 12, vice other comments) a lot of children would benefit from the support, engagement, and encouragement of their parents aboutt school and getting the best out of it and themselves. I'd also note though that not all kids have a clear idea of what they want to be (like me) or could be, and the careers teachers need to work on that; at my school he was a lazy sod who if you didn't know wouldn't talk you through possibilities.
I don't know if its true but I've mentally ascribed the success of kids at independent schools (in as far as oxbridge, jobs, networking go) as being down to the addition of teachers being able to talk to them, in and around class work, and prepare them for life/college interviews on (based on their experiences) top of any talent or work the kids put in - this may not be true but it seems likely to me. This may also tie in with 11.

11 I agree with you and the programme, I think rules are good and kids need boundaries. I was musing this morning on how poor Wolves is and yet so many schools here have uniforms with blazers and ties (I was one of two boys wearing a tie in my first year at secondary school, it menat I got seen as posh as my wearing it lasted more than a month as mum wouldn't let me off). Sadly the nation's children and schools seem to have suffered from a bunch of hippies who had bad school experiences and decided to change everything.

13 Fitting in seems to be a problem not helped by the negativity of family and peers, as the comments above and my own feelings show. A lot of these things are linked and very depressing as it could all be so different and positive.
Feb. 4th, 2011 05:18 pm (UTC)
You make a very good point about uniforms. The school we went to this week for YH was in one of the poorest parts of Plymouth. It has had a terrible reputation in the past but is in the process of trying to turn itself around. It has a charismatic new headmistress, it has changed its name from [T] Community College to [M] Academy and it has acquired academy status. And (after a referendum of the _pupils_) has introduced full uniforms for all except the sixth form*. I actually remarked to one of the other employers that it was interesting how smart most of the children were. You can wear a uniform because you have to without it being smart - wearing your tie stupidly short, not tucking your shirt in, having more petroleum products on your hair than a seabird in the Gulf of Mexico etc. But these kids were (with very few exceptions) genuinely smart.

I wonder how much of that is down to teachers that can actually be bothered to enforce the uniform rules (and all the teachers I met were smartly dressed too). And I also wonder, trite though this may sound, how much is due to the pupils having some sort of 'buy-in' to the question of uniform. They voted for it, so what would be the point of rebelling against it?

* The only school I know that has uniform in the sixth form is the public school we go to. I've always thought it odd that the comprehensive featured in 'The Inbetweeners' has a uniform for sixth formers.
Feb. 4th, 2011 01:54 pm (UTC)
even poxy Wolves has a street full of insurance companies and legal firms
BUT, how many training places do they offer, compared with their London offices? And is the training, and the consequent opportunities comparable? What about the connections and chances to impress senior management that you get during training - are they as influential as they might be in a London office?

Of course it is possible to get jobs outside London, we have all done it - but I think it's a fair point that the further you are from London, or a large city, the harder it is to get a first job that will lead to a top level job, rather than a sort of middling kind of job.
Feb. 4th, 2011 04:30 pm (UTC)
Re: even poxy Wolves has a street full of insurance companies and legal firms
Dunno about the insurance broking profession, but I do know how accountancy works. You will find firms of chartered accountants in every small town in the country. Chances are if you look at these firms, you will find that the partners trained with one of the Big 4 global firms (or Big 6 or Big 8 depending upon how old they are - the number of big accountancy firms keeps decreasing) or at the very least one of the bigger national firms in a big city office, simply because that is where most accountants are trained.

And if you work for one of the bigger firms' smaller offices*, it is generally the case that to reach the higher ranks, you will have to work in London for a time before you get there, or just get lucky that someone above you retires or moves and leaves a space for you to get promoted into. Even then, almost nobody makes partner now without working in London.

If you look at the very top of the accounting profession - at chartered accountants who are out there running big multinationals, you'll find that pretty much all of them worked in London when they were in practice. That's where most of the training contracts are and where the biggest clients are.

* And here I speak from personal experience.
Feb. 4th, 2011 04:53 pm (UTC)
Re: even poxy Wolves has a street full of insurance companies and legal firms
Yours & Bunn's comment above it make for worrying reading in that case then.
Feb. 4th, 2011 04:59 pm (UTC)
Re: even poxy Wolves has a street full of insurance companies and legal firms
The same may be true of consulting actuaries in the big firms. (I can't be sure, because I've never been one; but I have known quite a few in my mumblemumble years in the profession). So a high proportion (I might guess at around 65%) will have worked in London at some point; and possibly around 85% of partners.

However, most actuaries are not employed by consultants (certainly in life insurance; it's different for pensions); and of those who are not, most will never have been employed by a consultant.

It's complicated by the way the picture is changing. Mumblemumble years ago, there was a straight split; almost all life insurance actuaries were employed by insurance companies; almost all pensions actuaries were employed by consultancies.

There has also been a move away from London, especially for life insurance companies, but also to some extent for consultancies.

I have never heard of unpaid work experience / internships for wannabe actuaries. It's not unknown to employ people on a gap year somewhere along the line (or, more likely, a summer holiday from university), and pay them low wages; certainly when I was looking after summer students the wages were very low; but that was mumble years ago.
Feb. 4th, 2011 10:10 pm (UTC)
On #6 and more generally, have you seen this?

(Um, I can't find a direct link; but you can go to the website, then click on the link for "TubemapLE2001-05.ppt [42.5K]​").
Feb. 4th, 2011 04:48 pm (UTC)
Something related to this, which I find quite interesting (pun very much intended) is the number of famous people who were expelled from their posh schools. My suspicion is that for most pupils at less august schools, expulsion is very damaging indeed to future life prospects. Provided you come from the right background though, you do ok...

Famous people expelled from posh schools:

Stephen Fry (twice)
Lily Allen ("several times")
Amy Winehouse
Elizabeth Hurley
Richard Branson
Guy Ritchie
Feb. 4th, 2011 04:52 pm (UTC)
To get a full picture, though, you'd need to know the numbers expelled from both posh and less august schools; and how many of those went on to become famous.
Feb. 4th, 2011 06:34 pm (UTC)
True, and I don't have that. Lewis Hamilton was the only example of a successful person expelled from an ordinary (British) school that I came across.
Feb. 4th, 2011 09:38 pm (UTC)
I may have been hasty and overly-pessimistic when I said that children from poorer backgrounds couldn't all become famous celebrities. The nearest-but-one comprehensive to us (an underperforming one at that) has produced a supermodel / movie star and a very successful singer in recent years!



( 21 comments — Leave a comment )