Fast Stream social mobility shake-up having an impact, early figures suggest

Written by Matt Foster on 16 November 2016 in News
News

Figures from mid-point of the applications window, highlighted by the Social Mobility Commission, suggest applications from working class candidates have risen sharply

Whitehall sign

There are early signs that the civil service’s efforts to open up the Fast Stream to more working class applicants are making a difference, according to the Social Mobility Commission.

A report commissioned by the Cabinet Office last year, and carried out by the Bridge Group consultancy, found that the Fast Stream’s intake was “less diverse than the student population at the University of Oxford”, and called for a string of changes to the scheme to make it more accesible to applicants from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Those steps have included shortening the overall application and assessment process to avoid penalising candidates who do not have the luxury of being able to wait around for employment, and opening a new assessment centre in Newcastle in a bid to challenge the London focus of the scheme.


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There have also been changes to the interviews conducted at assessment days, and a beefed-up outreach programme to promote the Fast Stream among universities with more diverse student cohorts.

The latest report from the Social Mobility Commission — the government advisory body that tracks progress on social mobility and which is led by former Labour cabinet minister Alan Milburn — shows that the new approach already appears to have made a difference.

According to the report, 14.6% of applications to the scheme so far this year have come from candidates hailing from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. That represents a sharp rise on the 7.9% recorded last year, and the Commission says the figure “suggests that progress is being made”.

"This is welcome although there is still a long way to go," the Commission adds.

The figures should, however, be treated with some caution. The Commission points out that they have not yet been audited, and, with the current Fast Stream applications window still open until November 30, the Commission says the numbers represent “the midway point in the application window”.

And the positive, if tentative, findings on the Fast Stream came as the Commission painted a stark picture of social mobility across the UK as a whole, and hit out at the Department for Education’s much-heralded plans to expand grammar schools as a “distraction”.

Its latest annual report warns that Britain still has “a deep social mobility problem”, thanks to an “unfair education system”, a “two-tier labour market", an “imbalanced economy”, and “an unaffordable housing market”.

It warns that those born in the 1980s are now the first post-war cohort “not to start their working years with higher incomes than their immediate predecessors”, and says there continues to be an “entrenched and unbroken correlation between social class and success” in the UK.

The Commission urges prime minister Theresa May to kick-start a “ten-year programme of social reform” to tackle the problem.

Among the report’s recommendations are a legal ban on unpaid internships, which it warns have “become a new rung on the professional career ladder”, and the setting up of a new fund to support older workers at risk of losing their jobs as a result of new technology.

The Commission also calls for a rethink of the DfE's plan to encourage the expansion of grammar schools, saying that a focus on structures is “at best, a distraction and, at worst, a risk to efforts aimed at narrowing the significant social and geographical divides that bedevil England’s school system”.

It adds: “The Commission is not clear how the creation of new grammar schools will make a significant positive contribution to improving social mobility”.

The Commission also calls on the DfE to carry out a “fundamental review” of the further education sector, warning that the government’s bid to increase apprenticeships has “diverted crucial funding” from the “struggling FE sector”.

“Half of all FE colleges are in financial deficit as their budgets have been raided to pay for increased apprecnticeship funding,” the report warns.

The Commission also highlights the fact that Whitehall is not alone in struggling to ensure its top jobs go to applicants from low socio economic backgrounds — just 4% of doctors, 6% of barristers and 11% percent of journalists hail from working class backgrounds, the report says.

About the author

Matt Foster is CSW's deputy editor. He tweets as @CSWDepEd

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