• Reading Level 5
English | Science | History | Citizenship | PSHE

Civil service posher today than in the 1960s

Is social mobility a myth? The UK civil service is dominated by privately educated Latin speakers, a new report revealed yesterday. For some, it is proof: hard work does not equal success. The staff at the senior civil service meeting laughed uproariously. Their discussions about how to implement the latest government policy had been a huge success, and now the boss had told a hilarious joke about life in Brussels. But one woman was not smiling. Kristine stared at her colleagues in confusion. She had no idea what everyone was laughing about – because they were all speaking Latin. Incredibly, experiences like Kristine’s are far from uncommon. According to a shocking new report by the Social Mobility Commission, Britain’s top civil service jobs are less accessible to people from working-class backgrounds today than they were in the 1960s. The numbers are staggering. In 1967, two thirds of all senior civil servants were from privileged homes. Now, this figure stands at 72%. For working-class employees such as Kristine, rising up the ranks of the civil service is like trying to climb a “velvet drainpipe”. To be successful, civil servants must master an “alienating and intimidating” behavioural code. People who speak with perfect received pronunciation and make jokes about cricket are favoured for the top jobs. “I used to put on a bit of an accent,” says civil servant Pauline. “Ridiculous and humiliating, when I look back on it.” But are their stories really that surprising? Across the Western world today, politicians insist that with enough hard work and determination, anybody can be successful. “Once upon a time, the distribution of power and privilege was determined by birth,” summarises literary critic Stefan Collini. “Now, it is determined by merit.” “The Britain of the elite is over,” declared former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1997. “I want Britain to be the greatest meritocracy of the world,” said Theresa May in 2016. “A country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow.” In the US, politicians from Barack Obama to Donald Trump have spoken of the power of the American dream. There are many success stories. Apple founder Steve Jobs was born to working-class, immigrant parents. By the age of 23, he was a millionaire. JK Rowling was a single mother living on benefits when she wrote the first Harry Potter novel. But not everyone who works hard will become a multimillionaire, campaigners point out. US professors Mark Rank and Lawrence Eppard believe “the American dream of upward mobility is broken”. Today, some elite New York preschools have an acceptance rate of just 5% – making them harder to get into than Harvard. In the US, only 8% of children raised in the bottom 20% of income distribution will climb to the top 20% in adulthood. And the statistics tell a similar story in the UK. In 2018, just 26% of pupils eligible for free school meals went to university – compared to 45% of those who did not receive free meals. Is social mobility a myth? Rags to riches Of course not, say some. The politicians are right: hard work and talent do equal success. The statistics are improving quickly – record numbers of disadvantaged pupils are now being offered university places. Studies show that education is the key to better job prospects and higher lifetime earnings. Every child, no matter the family they were born into, has the opportunity to succeed in life. Yes, say others. The report on the civil service was named Navigating the Labyrinth for a reason. In theory, everybody has a route to the top. But in reality, for most people the path to success is hidden. Positions of power and privilege are still dominated by the children of the wealthy. Unless there is a complete overhaul of the education system, social mobility will remain a myth forever. KeywordsCivil service - The civil service helps the government to develop and carry out policies. Civil servants are non-political, remaining in place when political parties enter and leave office.

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