Wednesday 10 February 2021 8:00 am

Social mobility could be the next hot-button issue - and smart firms would be wise to act now

Ross Hawkins is a former BBC political correspondent, and a director at Hawthorn Advisors

Here’s a game for your next tedious Zoom meeting. Take a look at those attentively nodding heads and ask yourself: how many went to an ordinary school?

By ordinary I don’t mean a comprehensive so exceptional that the local estate agents memorise its catchment area. I mean the rest. The average to poor ones. The bog standard, if you must. The sort of places where most kids are educated.

If you’re – say – a BBC senior manager the answer will be: not many. Less than half of them went to non-selective state schools; 28% were privately educated. Naturally, the BBC chooses to share this sort of information. Most don’t. If you work at – say – a City firm the figures may be similar, but prudently unpublished, and they might be about to matter a little more.

Read more: ‘We aren’t what people expect’ – Linklaters on the firm’s virtual internship and social mobility

Cabinet minister turned social mobility activist Justine Greening and the Conservative MP Robbie Moore launched a fresh push on the issue this month. Some firms are recruiting differently. Journalists are starting to pay attention.

The new campaign may go the same way as any number of well-meaning schemes with a website and a slogan, but we’ve seen a pattern over the last few years.

First campaigners worry away at an issue and are told it’s too hard to fix, like the lack of women or executives from ethnic minorities in board rooms.

Then it turns out that answer won’t wash. Governments get engaged. Firms are urged or forced to disclose disobliging statistics. The rows of white men in leadership photos get scrutinised. Before long, investors are asking difficult questions.

At which point you might think – sure, but there’s a pandemic on. If colleagues get by without imploding under the stress of work and childcare, why worry about where they got their GCSEs? You could reasonably bristle at being told there’s another problem business has to put right. As a state school kid at the BBC, I covered plenty of social mobility reports and campaigns, and they’re not above scrutiny.

A lot of the debate focuses on a certain sort of professional achievement: the stories of remarkable children from less well-off backgrounds who win places at Oxbridge, then with the most prestigious employers.

But not everyone wants to move to the City – or any of our cities – to work long hours for the privilege of almost affording a shared flat. Plenty want decent, well paid work with real prospects where they grew up. Changing recruitment policies won’t magic that up.

And yes, when you’re raised by a family without an A-level to its name nothing can magic away the slight culture shock of first encountering the adamantine self-confidence of the privately-educated high achiever. But there can be a sneering edge to the discussion about parents who choose to spend money on their kids’ education, and the achievements of those kids.

You can acknowledge all that, and still see the chances for an exceptionally able child – or come to that an unexceptional one – in a family with no history of post-sixteen education and an identical child from a well-connected family are very different.

I’ll go out on a limb and make a forecast. More people are going to ask more loudly: where and how do you do your hiring and your outreach; from which universities and which communities do you recruit; do you really think you’re getting the best possible people doing things the way they’ve always been done?

When the BBC comes out and says more about the social mix of its staff, as I’m told it will in the coming weeks, campaigners will ask whether the biggest private companies shouldn’t publish more detail and take more action.

Grant Thornton dropped some of its academic requirements and got better recruits. There is some evidence fund managers from poorer backgrounds outperform their wealthier peers. We can confidently predict that if recruitment doesn’t change then the pipeline of qualified contenders for leading roles won’t change either.

Some firms are already acting on this partly because they feel they should, partly because they believe they’ll have a more talented workforce as a result. Others might reflect it’s better to have a plan of your own making now than have one forced on you in future.

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