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Sharpening elbows

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Mark Easton | 13:10 UK time, Tuesday, 21 July 2009

When a Labour prime minister asks a former Labour cabinet minister to look at "fair access to the professions", some might well expect a bit of class war: a report full of cunning ways to disempower privileged and pushy parents; an attack, perhaps, on the advantages of wealth - private schools, private tutors, the old boy network.

unleashing aspirationBut Alan Milburn and his panel of senior professionals - most of who enjoyed the advantage of private school themselves - have agreed a different strategy (Unleashing Aspiration [613Kb PDF]): not to try and blunt the sharp elbows of the upper middle-classes, but to sharpen up the elbows of everyone else. Theirs is a plan (in the old Blairite mantra) "for the many, not the few".

Mr Milburn strikes a populist tone in his foreword. "Britain's got talent - lots of it," he says. "It is not ability that is unevenly distributed in our society. It is opportunity."

His panel doesn't shy away, though, from accusing the professions of what it calls "opportunity hoarding" - limiting access to people like themselves.

The common practices include offering work experience to the children of friends of friends; internships restricted to those whose parents can afford for their children to work for nothing and selection procedures geared to those with the wherewithal to navigate their offspring through the best schools to the best universities and into the best jobs.

Indeed, the panel produces evidence that the professions have become even more elitist over the past decades.

"The UK is a highly unequal society in which class background still too often determines life chances. A closed shop mentality in our country means too many people, from middle income as well as low income families, encounter doors that are shut to their talents."

This chart illustrates what has happened. Comparing professionals born in 1958 with those born in 1970, it is clear that access to the most sought after jobs are increasingly restricted to the rich.

Comparison of the family income background of typical professionals

Take accountancy. A typical accountant in his early fifties will come from a family which earned an average income. A typical accountant in his late thirties will come from a family earning something like 40% above the average. It is a similar story with journalists and bankers, lawyers and doctors.

The report calculates what the trends mean for bright youngsters today.
• the typical doctor or lawyer of the future will today be growing up in a family that is better off than five in six of all families in the UK
• the typical journalist or accountant of the future will today be growing up in a family that is better off than three in four of all families in the UK
• the typical engineer or teacher of the future will today be growing up in a family that is better off than two in three of all families in the UK

There are a few careers which have widened access - teachers, artists and musicians - but overall, says the report, "if action is not taken to reverse the historical trend, it would mean that the typical professional of the future will now be growing up in a family that is better off than seven in ten of all families in the UK".

However, you won't find criticism of ambitious families, those prepared to do and to pay what it takes to give their offspring the best start in life. The title of today's report is "Unleashing Aspiration", and, if anything, it is parents who strive for their children who are the role models.

The plan is to create structures which allow talented young people from whatever background to enjoy the same advantages as those from what the jargon describes as "the higher professional managerial" class. How? Well, for a start, government careers services need to be abolished. Particular criticism is levelled at the system in England.

"Throughout our work we have barely heard a good word about the careers work of the current Connexions service. We can only conclude that its focus on the minority of vulnerable young people is distracting it from offering proper careers advice and guidance to the majority of young people. This is simply not good enough and the service requires a radical rethink."

Instead, government is urged to provide a broad, high-quality system which acts as a sort of surrogate pushy parent: inspiring ambition, instilling self-confidence, offering encouragement.

And helping with the practical: university applications, CVs, accessing work experience.

Chenai MautsiYesterday, I met Chenai Mautsi, a young black woman from Forest Gate in east London. Applying to medical school? Becoming a doctor? That kind of thing wasn't for people like her. Despite stellar exam results at GCSE, she almost threw her university application into the wastepaper basket.

"I was filling it out and then I got scared and said I'm not going to apply for medicine. My chemistry teacher took me to the side and he was like, 'you're going to do this because you can get in - if you don't fill out this application form, I'll be so disappointed in you'. Just seeing someone else believing in me I was like, 'okay - maybe I'll do it and see what happens'. I was so scared I didn't even tell my parents until I got an acceptance letter."

Chenai was accepted by the world-famous King's College London medical school - a model for the kind of widening participation programme today's report would like to see as the norm.

Each year, the college accepts 50 students from local comprehensive schools, even if they don't have the grades normally required. One entrant came with a C and two Ds at A-level. But she rewarded their faith, going on to pass with a first-class honours degree to her name.

Dr Pamela Garlick, who runs the programme, says there is no question of the university lowering its standards:

"They have to take exactly the same exams as the conventional students and they have to get exactly the same pass mark. They have no advantage because of the backgrounds that they've come from. In fact, they're not going to be second-class doctors at all. If anything, I think they're going to be better doctors than some of the conventional students."

Today's report comes up with many examples of programmes which have unlocked talent by inspiring ambition. Morpeth Comp in the London borough of Hackney was a school where few saw themselves staying on past 16, never mind going on to higher education.

Leon WilliamsA mentoring scheme gave 25 youngsters one-to-one support and encouragement. Of those 25, 21 went to University. Some are now mentoring at the school themselves, people like Leon Williams who became the first in his family to get a degree after a trip to a university campus changed his life.

"I was very naughty at school, excluded many times. At 15 you start to hang out more on the streets, start making more and more friends, girls, start to become involved. You're more active. You don't think about academics that much. I was clever but I didn't think of further education as a target for me until I went on the university trip."

Supporting able students is only part of the equation. Today's report urges ministers to measure schools' performance by how pupils do after they leave. It recommends that universities publish details of the social background of pupils admitted to every course they run and that some professions do the same - perhaps starting with the senior civil service. It calls for work experience to be put on a more formal footing, so that all can access it.

You cannot legislate away all the advantage of supportive, ambitious, wealthy and well-connected families. But today's report hopes, at the very least, to inspire a debate about how to ensure children from every background can enjoy some of those advantages too.


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