The UK’s lack of social mobility is stifling talent

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Last month, a report published by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMCPC) revealed that a small close-nit “cosy club” at the top of British society get the best jobs at the leading institutions and effectively run the UK.

Many of the high-profile roles including senior judges, MPs, civil servants and newspaper columnists go to recruits who have come from just seven per cent of the country’s schools and just two per cent of its universities.

Critics against the SMCPC report will say that the cream will always rise to the top but this rules out the carefully managed cultivation of talented employees. There is clear a lack of investment in nurturing new talent and according to figures, 85 per cent of employers in the UK do not offer apprenticeships.

As a result, the UK economy is missing out on the potential creativity and productivity. Prospective employees are not being given the opportunity to show their abilities and talent is being held back.

The chairman of the SMPC, Alan Milburn, argues that the establishment has come to permeate every facet of people’s day-to-day lives.

He said: “The risk is that the more a few dominate our country’s leading institutions, the less likely it is that the many believe they can make a valuable contribution. A closed shop at the top can all too easily give rise to a ‘not for the likes of me’ syndrome in the rest of society.”

Currently, one third of the 650 MPs in the UK went to an independent school. This is in comparison to seven per cent of their parliamentary colleagues who attended a public school – 78 per cent of those attended either Russell Group or Oxbridge Universities.

The theme of under-representation continues throughout front-line politics, with 59 per cent of the Cabinet and 33 per cent of the Shadow Cabinet attending Oxbridge, compared to less than one per cent of the UK population as a whole.

If those in power come from such a narrow group in high-society, then clearly there is a democratic deficit for voters. In 2012, there was heavy criticism of Chancellor George Osborne after he introduced the deeply unpopular so-called ‘pasty tax’, which was eventually scrapped.

In 2003, the majority of public opinion did not favour the war in Iraq and 750,000 people marched against the war in London in the UK’s biggest ever demonstration. On this basis, charges of politicians being ‘out of touch’ with the people can be fairly levelled.

Many people are put off by the ‘Punch and Judy’ nature of Westminster politics and right now, apathy is the only winner. At the last general election, 35 per cent of the electorate did not vote.

The media is also not immune from criticism. As the statistics show, there needs to better representation in the industry – some 82 per cent of new entrants come from managerial or professional backgrounds and there seems to be a big gap between the qualifications gained at university and the amount of opportunities available once the course has finished.

There are few candidates who have the luxury of being able to work without pay for seven weeks – which is considered standard for new entrants into the industry – and current journalists must do more to challenge the prejudices that both in society and their own profession.

The industry has big problems with declining sales and falling advertising revenues. There is a need now more than ever for greater diversity in the workforce and this can only be gained by drawing on the widest range of candidates.

Milburn has called for more action from all institutions and challenged them to do more’ to open up to people from different backgrounds. As he suggests, the most sobering aspect of the SMCPC report is that successive governments have all tried and failed to make institutions more accessible.

Institutions should reflect the people they serve. Unfortunately it would seem that it’s not what you know but who you know that is key to getting ahead in the UK today.


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