If you were in charge of recruitment at a law or accountancy firm, who would be your job candidate of choice? A slightly diffident applicant with a regional accent, a clutch of dodgy A-levels from an inner-city comprehensive, and a first-class degree obtained as a mature student at a former polytechnic? Or an urbane ex-public school boy with an air of easy assurance and a solid 2:1 from a Russell Group university?
New research by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission reveals that working-class applicants struggle to gain access to the best jobs. In some solicitors’ firms, trainees are five times more likely than the population as a whole to have attended a fee-paying school. The Commission concludes that firms are applying a ‘poshness test’, excluding bright young people simply because they come from the wrong side of the tracks.
At this point, I’ll come clean: I’m one of the privately educated elite to whom the report refers. At my fee-paying girls’ school in Manchester, we had elocution lessons – misleadingly timetabled as ‘speech and drama’ – the sole purpose of which was to eliminate our flat northern vowels. But there are degrees of poshness, and I was always aware that my parents – a teacher and a receptionist – didn’t move in quite the right circles.
These days, parents like mine can’t afford to pay for their children’s education. Research published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies in 2010 revealed that school fees had risen at nearly three times the rate of household income since 1992. Average day-school fees now stand at more than £12,000 a year, well out of the reach of the average teacher, let alone a cleaner or call-centre worker. Private education, it seems, is increasingly the preserve of the very rich.
When I started university, I mixed with students from schools that were even posher than mine. You could spot the public-school brigade easily – they were immediately on first-name terms with professors, chatting unselfconsciously at sherry receptions about gap years in Nepal and summer placements in their fathers’ firms. At the age of nineteen or twenty they were already plotting out their career paths, joining clubs and committees and effortlessly forming the connections that would guarantee success in their professional lives.
After graduation I joined a national law firm, where for every clever solicitor from a state school, there were ten affable but academically less stellar public-school types. Pitted against these people at interview, the working-class candidate doesn’t stand a chance. From the moment he walks into the room, he sends out a thousand tiny signals that reveal his background.
The truth is that it feels safer and less threatening for privately educated interviewers to recruit in their own image. That’s why so many law firms are full of clubbable chaps and chapesses who obtain partnership primarily on the basis of their ability to schmooze clients. A group of them once poured scorn on my suggestion that our firm should seek out and offer assistance to socially disadvantaged job candidates – they were against positive discrimination, but they failed to recognise that they had benefited from a far more subtle and insidious form of it over the years.
Still, it seems unfair just to blame employers – in truth, the divide opens up decades before that first job interview. Middle-class parents confer all sorts of benefits on their children, simply by virtue of their money and social capital. Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds tend to have poorer language skills when they start school, whereas middle-class children, who grow up listening to dinner party conversations and Radio 4, seem to absorb their parents’ high expectations.
To compensate for social disadvantage, it’s clear that intervention is needed at an early stage. How unfortunate that the Sure Start programme, with its emphasis on quality childcare and early education, has been undermined by funding cuts, with many centres forced to close down. Another progressive initiative is the pupil premium – school funding targeted at children from disadvantaged backgrounds – but its future is uncertain under a government that has already announced a real-terms cut in the education budget.
There are other, more radical solutions. I don’t suggest that it would be practicable to dismantle the private education system but I do think reform is possible, given the political will. Changes that could go some way towards redressing the balance include removing private schools’ charitable tax status; obliging them to offer a certain number of well-publicised bursaries; or imposing a quota system so that the proportion of privately educated students at the Russell Group universities bears a closer relationship to the seven per cent of pupils in the general population who attend fee-paying schools.
Another means of redress is discrimination law. The Equality Act already rules out recruitment decisions based on a candidate’s sex, race or disability; why not make it unlawful for employers to discriminate on grounds of socio-economic disadvantage? While none of these suggestions is uncontroversial, I believe they deserve to be explored.
Meanwhile, those of us who have benefited from a private schooling, and who now act as gatekeepers to the best jobs, need to ask ourselves some difficult questions. Has our privileged education opened doors that would have remained firmly closed if we’d attended the local comprehensive? Do our recruitment decisions reveal an unconscious bias towards those who look, sound and act like us? And are the qualities we value in a job applicant – such as eloquence, confidence and polish – simply a convenient shorthand for posh?
This article was originally published as a guest post on Mumsnet.