A new Cabinet Office report reveals that in nine of the UK's top 12 professions, there's been a relative rise in the number of wealthier applicants - a sign, according to the Prime Minister's social mobility adviser Alan Milburn, that Britain is becoming ‘more, not less, socially exclusive'. It's an embarrassing admission for a Government that has made great play of its commitment to making Britain a meritocracy - though to its credit, at least the appointment of Milburn is an attempt to do something about it (or create a sacrificial lamb for policy failure, the cynic might suggest).
According to the report, from the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, the UK's top jobs are increasingly going to those from wealthier backgrounds: for instance, although only 7% of the population are privately-educated, they currently account for 75% of judges and 70% of FDs. The Government's hardly a model of best practice either: 45% of senior civil servants went to private schools. And the bad news is that these proportions seem to be going up, rather than down: for most of these professions, the average family income of entrants is further ahead of the national average than it was in the previous generation.
Milburn reckons that one of the big problems is work experience and internships - still an absolute requirement for most of these professions. For one thing, it's usually based on ‘who you know, not what you know' - well-off parents tapping their contacts for favours. Second, it's usually unpaid, so only rich kids can afford to do it. As a result, some of these professions are effectively becoming a ‘closed shop' to children from poorer families, he says. So employers can expect some strong action there when the final report comes out in July.
The report also found that family background made a huge difference to aspirations: 41% of young people from the AB socio-economic group want to work in the professions, compared to just 13% of DEs.
This all adds up to a serious problem, because decreasing social mobility isn't just unfair - it also threatens the UK's growth prospects. The Government thinks 7m new professional jobs will need to be created by 2020 as Britain moves towards becoming an economy based on services and knowledge. Unless something changes radically, there just won't be enough talent to fill these roles. Milburn and co have a big and important task on their hands...