May 30, 2012 12:51 pm

‘Wider access’ to professions needed

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The chance of “a social mobility dividend” will be squandered unless the professions and the government act to widen access to children from poorer backgrounds, according to a government-commissioned report.

Alan Milburn, a former Labour cabinet minister appointed as the government’s independent reviewer on social mobility and child poverty, looked at the opportunities available to children from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter and progress in high-flying careers.

The prospect that over the next decade the professions would account for more than 80 per cent of all new jobs in Britain, created a “golden opportunity” to widen the talent pool and break the iron link between “demography and destiny”, he said.

But posing the question of how much progress had been made since his initial examination of the social exclusivity of the professions, published in 2009, Mr Milburn said: “The answer is not yet enough”.

The general picture, he said, seemed to be of “mainly minor changes in the social composition of the professions”.

At the top, especially, they remained dominated by a social elite.

Mr Milburn trained the spotlight on journalism, which he said had “had a dramatic shift to a greater degree of social exclusivity”.

Of the country’s top journalists, 54 per cent had been educated at a fee-paying secondary school and a third had proceeded to Oxford.

“The media industry on the whole does not seem to take the issue of fair access seriously,” he said.

Other professions did not escape criticism. Medicine, he said, “lags behind other professions both in its focus and the priority it accords these issues”.

Across the professions as a whole, the glass ceiling “had been scratched but not broken”.

While the legal profession had started to make progress, the judiciary remained solidly elitist with 15 of the 17 supreme court judges and heads of division all educated at private schools and either Oxford or Cambridge.

Among barristers, 43 per cent attended a private school with almost a third winding up at Oxbridge.

Mr Milburn’s old profession of politics was in the firing line. Privately-educated MPs made up 30 per cent of the total in 1997 but that had risen by the 2010 election to 35 per cent. Just 13 private schools educated ten per cent of all MPs, he said.

Describing this pattern as “social engineering on a grand scale”, Mr Milburn called for employers to spread the recruitment net beyond the south east, to encompass the north east and East Anglia and a broader range of universities.

Businesses should also examine the socio-economic background of all their employees and there should be a bigger drive to open up professions to those who had not attended a university, he said.

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