‘Elitist Britain’ report: how can we break through the class ceiling?


Sandra Kerr OBE








Blog by Sandra Kerr OBE,  Director, Race for Opportunity 

A study – ‘Elitist Britain’ – published by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMCPC) last week found that many of the top jobs in Britain are filled by those who were educated at independent schools and Oxbridge. Sectors such as the judiciary, armed forces, civil service, politics and journalism were all overwhelmingly dominated by people who had attended these elite institutions. So how can we ensure that more people from disadvantaged groups are able to reach these senior positions?

The under-representation of people from certain educational backgrounds also seems to apply to race. Earlier this year we published our Race at the Top report, which found that there were very few BAME people in many of the top roles in the sectors also highlighted by the SMCPC.  For example, just 5% of senior civil servants, 4.8% of judges and 6% of journalists were from BAME backgrounds in 2012. As well as not being reflective of multi-cultural Britain, these low numbers also mean that there is a lack of positive BAME role models for young people, which may have a negative impact on their aspirations.

Perhaps surprisingly, BAME children and young people make up 28 per cent of pupils at private schools in the UK (though this number may be skewed by high numbers of overseas students). Yet BAME students remain under-represented at Russell Group universities. This is a problem if the sectors spotlighted in both Race at the Top and Elitist Britain continue to recruit from this reduced sphere of talent. Employers and the top universities both need to take action to address this.

I welcome the report recommendations to Universities to expand their outreach and work with schools to engage young people early on and encourage them to apply. They may also wish to examine their application processes to address unintentional barriers to BAME students and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, such as by monitoring applicants’ progress at each stage and providing unconscious bias awareness or training for tutors.

I also welcome the report recommendations to employers, as those which favour only the top institutions are likely to have a much smaller talent pool to tap into, meaning they may miss out on potentially excellent candidates.  We particularly welcome the recommendation for monitoring of the workforce by social background along with ethnicity and believe that publishing it is necessary to increase transparency and fairness – not only at the most senior levels but within workplace succession and talent pipelines.

Therefore I strongly encourage employers to cast their nets widely and apply similar strategies to their graduate scheme recruitment processes. With recent reports that two-thirds of graduates are unhappy in their first job after university and a quarter plan to leave within a year, ensuring that the right people are in the right roles has never been more pressing.

Let me be clear: we are not going to fix the current situation overnight. But if we can increase the number of BAME students being accepted into top universities and get more of the best graduate talent into the career path that suits them, we will lay the foundations to create a better future for BAME representation at all levels of the workforce. I think that the ‘Elitist Britain’ report highlights that it time for us to recognise that many people with talent and potential may not be able to afford to attend an independent school or a Russell Group university and to find ways to recognise that talent and unleash potential in new and creative ways.