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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Fri 19-Jun-15 10:07:04

Guest post: The 'poshness test': "we can't just blame employers - the divide starts much earlier"

As new research indicates top firms are discriminating against working-class applicants, Bristol Betty argues that early intervention is necessary to increase social mobility

Bristol Betty


Posted on: Fri 19-Jun-15 10:07:04


Lead photo

"Why not make it unlawful for employers to discriminate on grounds of socio-economic disadvantage?"

If you were in charge of recruitment at a law or accountancy firm, who would be your job candidate of choice? A slightly diffident applicant with a regional accent, a clutch of dodgy A-levels from an inner-city comprehensive, and a first-class degree obtained as a mature student at a former polytechnic? Or an urbane ex-public school boy with an air of easy assurance and a solid 2:1 from a Russell Group university?

New research by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission reveals that working-class applicants struggle to gain access to the best jobs. In some solicitors' firms, trainees are five times more likely than the population as a whole to have attended a fee-paying school. The Commission concludes that firms are applying a 'poshness test', excluding bright young people simply because they come from the wrong side of the tracks.

At this point, I'll come clean: I'm one of the privately educated elite to whom the report refers. At my fee-paying girls' school in Manchester, we had elocution lessons – misleadingly timetabled as 'speech and drama' – the sole purpose of which was to eliminate our flat northern vowels. But there are degrees of poshness, and I was always aware that my parents – a teacher and a receptionist – didn't move in quite the right circles.

These days, parents like mine can't afford to pay for their children's education. Research published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies in 2010 revealed that school fees had risen at nearly three times the rate of household income since 1992. Average day-school fees now stand at more than £12,000 a year, well out of the reach of the average teacher, let alone a cleaner or call-centre worker. Private education, it seems, is increasingly the preserve of the very rich.

When I started university, I mixed with students from schools that were even posher than mine. You could spot the public-school brigade easily - they were immediately on first-name terms with professors, chatting unselfconsciously at sherry receptions about gap years in Nepal and summer placements in their fathers' firms. At the age of nineteen or twenty they were already plotting out their career paths, joining clubs and committees and effortlessly forming the connections that would guarantee success in their professional lives.

The truth is that it feels safer and less threatening for privately educated interviewers to recruit in their own image. Are the qualities we value in a job applicant – such as eloquence, confidence and polish – simply a convenient shorthand for posh?

After graduation I joined a national law firm, where for every clever solicitor from a state school, there were ten affable but academically less stellar public-school types. Pitted against these people at interview, the working-class candidate doesn't stand a chance. From the moment he walks into the room, he sends out a thousand tiny signals that reveal his background.

The truth is that it feels safer and less threatening for privately educated interviewers to recruit in their own image. That's why so many law firms are full of clubbable chaps and chapesses who obtain partnership primarily on the basis of their ability to schmooze clients. A group of them once poured scorn on my suggestion that our firm should seek out and offer assistance to socially disadvantaged job candidates - they were against positive discrimination, but they failed to recognise that they had benefited from a far more subtle and insidious form of it over the years.

Still, it seems unfair just to blame employers - in truth, the divide opens up decades before that first job interview. Middle-class parents confer all sorts of benefits on their children, simply by virtue of their money and social capital. Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds tend to have poorer language skills when they start school, whereas middle-class children, who grow up listening to dinner party conversations and Radio 4, seem to absorb their parents' high expectations.

To compensate for social disadvantage, it's clear that intervention is needed at an early stage. How unfortunate that the Sure Start programme, with its emphasis on quality childcare and early education, has been undermined by funding cuts, with many centres forced to close down. Another progressive initiative is the pupil premium – school funding targeted at children from disadvantaged backgrounds – but its future is uncertain under a government that has already announced a real-terms cut in the education budget.

There are other, more radical solutions. I don't suggest that it would be practicable to dismantle the private education system but I do think reform is possible, given the political will. Changes that could go some way towards redressing the balance include removing private schools' charitable tax status; obliging them to offer a certain number of well-publicised bursaries; or imposing a quota system so that the proportion of privately educated students at the Russell Group universities bears a closer relationship to the seven per cent of pupils in the general population who attend fee-paying schools.

Another means of redress is discrimination law. The Equality Act already rules out recruitment decisions based on a candidate's sex, race or disability; why not make it unlawful for employers to discriminate on grounds of socio-economic disadvantage? While none of these suggestions is uncontroversial, I believe they deserve to be explored.

Meanwhile, those of us who have benefited from a private schooling, and who now act as gatekeepers to the best jobs, need to ask ourselves some difficult questions. Has our privileged education opened doors that would have remained firmly closed if we'd attended the local comprehensive? Do our recruitment decisions reveal an unconscious bias towards those who look, sound and act like us? And are the qualities we value in a job applicant – such as eloquence, confidence and polish – simply a convenient shorthand for posh?

By Bristol Betty


MrsHathaway Fri 19-Jun-15 10:52:56

Very interesting.

However, I think you're looking at it slightly inside-out.

There's a step missing here, for example:

In some solicitors' firms, trainees are five times more likely than the population as a whole to have attended a fee-paying school. The Commission concludes that firms are applying a 'poshness test', excluding bright young people simply because they come from the wrong side of the tracks.

People achieving traineeships should be compared against the subset of the population with a law degree (or conversion) and then against the subset of the population who started a law degree, and then against the subset of the population applying to read law, etc. Where is the bias actually starting?

It's already being addressed that disadvantaged children are less likely to achieve the school exam results required even to apply for higher-status jobs such as law (also medicine, etc). Are "posh" youngsters more likely to be accepted once they've applied? Are they more likely to stay the course? Are they more likely to get internships? Are they more likely to get trainee posts? Are they more likely to be offered partnership?

At every step where family background plays a part, the Law Society could have a financial input to level the playing field. Law degrees could necessarily involve confidence training (IYSWIM). Unpaid internships could be banned, or the LS could offer means-tested grants for those taking them up. CPD could have to include soft skills rather than updates on statute and case law, etc.

I don't deny there's work to be done. I just think your suggestion will unfairly disadvantage some of the strongest candidates, because the result of their earlier privilege could well be higher earning potential for employers.

Bonsoir Fri 19-Jun-15 11:10:20

Is the guest post in the OP using "poshness" as synonym for "social skills"? A lot of what private schools and privilege impart are social confidence and that social confidence is a pre-requisite for success in many of the most lucrative and desirable careers. It is a non-starter to attempt to get firms to ignore social confidence when recruiting on the basis that ex-comp DC won't have as much of it as ex-public school DC when it is a necessary skill for success in the world of work.

MyFirstFire Fri 19-Jun-15 11:36:58

Prior to the recession, when there was plenty of money floating around, top firms recruited the genuine brightest and made all trainees attend additional training days which were all about how you dress, elocution and 'polish'. I should know, I benefitted grin
The recession killed that where I worked, it was seen as excess funds, and besides there were so many top quality candidates applying (because of the general drop in traineeships) that why not pick the posh ones that were as clever as many of the clever state applicants - it wasn't as simple as 'Tim nice but dim' vs 'clever from wrong side of the tracks'.
As it was, so it will be again, with recruitment rising and firms having to work a bit harder to get the best, they will probably put those kind of training schemes in place and encourage state/deprived applicants again.
It's good to raise awareness of the issue though.

TheWordFactory Fri 19-Jun-15 11:59:20

Obviously, independently educated people dominate some industries and we need to look at that as a society.

Also, the firms themselves often do look at it. Many now offer paid internships and give financial help through law school.

However, large law firms etc can only choose candidates from those that apply. Working class candidates just don't apply, in anything like numbers.
And often those that do, do not have the requisite qualifications.

Widening participation in any area, has to start early. You cann't ask universities/employers to bridge a gap that starts at birth!!!

We can ensure that young people receive the right advice/information in schools if we want. But many schools and teachers are reluctant to do so (having bought into the policy of equivalence ).

As for soft skills, well these are important. The post seems to pour scorn on employees getting partnership because they can smooze clients. But that's a partner's job!!!!! Anyone can be trained to do the legal work (within reason), it's being able to preserve client relationships that is the real skill.

Yes, we can look at how to help those in state education gain these skills. Though I think many do actually. But that's not the job of private firms.

CatOfTheGreenGlades Fri 19-Jun-15 12:07:42

Private education, it seems, is increasingly the preserve of the very rich.

I've always thought it was the preserve of the very rich. I grew up with parents who were a teacher and a nurse and I would never in a million years have imagined going to private school. The problem isn't that it's harder to go to private school these days (though it may be).

I agree cultural capital is the main thing and this has been known for a long time – there have also been efforts to address it for a long time, but it's difficult to do - but I think the increase of free state nursery education is a move in the right direction. I don't think more people going to private school is a solution - though I would remove the charitable status thing.

One of the problems with private education, and a reason I don't like it and wouldn't use it, is it imbues kids who go there with a sense of innate superiority. That gives them confidence individually, but it's at a cost to society. If those people end up as judges and politicians, they're making decisions that affect the poor/the masses while having no idea about poverty or normal lives at all.

I once saw a postcard with a quote on it "The day shit is worth money, poor people will be born without arseholes". Not very tasteful but it makes the point that poverty and disadvantage is stubborn and gets passed on down the generations.

TheWordFactory Fri 19-Jun-15 12:14:41

I would add that plenty of young people who have attended private school and have oodles of cultural captial, still find it tough to secure jobs in these competitive industries.

Positions are few and there are applicants from around the world. Uber educated polyglots who fancy a job in London!

cogitosum Fri 19-Jun-15 12:14:43

Actually I think one issue is that in competitive industries where late firms have their pick of talent, the best way to get ahead is to do unpaid or very low paid work experience. On the whole this can only be afforded by those who can be subsidised by parents.

TheWordFactory Fri 19-Jun-15 12:17:02

cogito unpaid internships are a real issue in some industries. Particularly media/politics/fashion etc

Law is not so bad. Summer placements while at university are usually paid. And two weeks in what is obviously your dad's firm when you're 18 doesn't impress anyone wink.

Bonsoir Fri 19-Jun-15 12:26:09

My DSS1 and lots of his university friends (end of Second Year Economics) are doing internships in finance/consulting at present and they are paid enough to cover their expenses (suits/rent/food/transport) in London etc. though not enough to save money for next year.

CitrineRaindropPhoenix Fri 19-Jun-15 12:31:42

Law isn't very bad at all, especially at the City/big regional firms where internships are competitive and properly paid.

Far more of an issue is the human rights/ high street work which is in many cases more appealing to people when they set out to qualify as a lawyer but which is more likely to be low paid for years and incur enormous training costs.

Some law firms are trying to address this earlier - I am aware of a number of scholarships for disadvantaged undergraduates to be sponsored throughout their degree.

TheRealMBJ Fri 19-Jun-15 12:38:07

Ah, but Word, the securing of a placement at a school chum's dad's firm is not so easy to spot. grin

Private Education does help to give children and the adults they become, confidence and the self assurance that their voice is worth being heard, these are unfortunately characteristics that are very hard to impart if one does not posses them oneself, I do however, bristle at the assertion that privately educated individuals have a superiority complex. Many of the kindest, most humble people I know were privately educated, they do however, have a quiet confidence in their own abilities and very few chips in their shoulders.

I don't know what the solution to all of this is, but creating a society where all individuals feel valued and supported, receiving good quality education and heath care, adequate housing and are well fed, without reference to background of bank balance would be a start. When people feel valued, they value themselves and others and have confidence in their abilities.

This is why I fully support progressive taxation and the welfare state, whilst preparing to send my children to a fee paying school.

GoodToesNotSoGoodToes Fri 19-Jun-15 12:55:49

It's a case of who you know not what you know.

I don't know what class I would fit into. I lived a varied socio-economic life and mixed widely.

My children were given guidance and experiences I didn't have.

My observations are that not everyone wants money, status, responsibility, power and control.

Happier people have lower expectation levels of satisfaction.

There are a higher proportion of psychopaths in the top tiers of business, than in the general population.

Bonsoir Fri 19-Jun-15 13:10:44

A friend of ours who is a senior partner in a global professional services firm told us that there are two competing schools of thought on recruitment of interns/graduates. On the one hand, some partners don't want any recruitment of sons/daughters/nephews/nieces/DC of friends of existing employees and want systematic binning of applications that come through recommendations. So far, so PC and for one season this policy was applied rigorously.

However, that season was the worst season ever for quality of recruitment. So currently the second school of thought, which is that sons/daughters/friends etc are a fabulous source of fantastic candidates that they don't want to lose to the competition, has won...

TheWordFactory Fri 19-Jun-15 13:17:49

Thereal I figure any 17 year old doing a pointless two week stint at a magic circle law firm, has pulled a favour grin.

I figure the powers that be in law firms know that too.

I know DH utterly refuses to do any such favours as he finds it just makes life harder having to find 'work' for someone who can't attend meetings/look at files etc.

Now publishing is a dreadful industry for unpaid internships. Every time I meet my editor there is some posh youngling in tow!

GoodToesNotSoGoodToes Fri 19-Jun-15 13:18:29

What were the issues with the recruits?

TheWordFactory Fri 19-Jun-15 13:21:47

Bonosir that's interesting.

DH's firm certainly wouldn't refuse a proper vac placement to the child of a friend/client/brother etc In some ways these young people are very alive to the rigours of what's expected (having witnessed it first hand).

But they wouldn't be given special consideration. Unless they were a massive client I guess.

But those two week work experience jobbies done whilst at school don't have sway IYSWIM.

Bonsoir Fri 19-Jun-15 13:29:20

A partner (another friend) at the same firm/different office saw his own son get a job at Competitor No Uno due to another recruitment policy cock-up and is excessively pissed off about it!

MoreBeta Fri 19-Jun-15 13:37:56

This story was got up in the Guardian last week and what was not reported was how a significant number of Guardian journalists and editorial team are private school then Oxbridge educated.

There was a very good post on Guido Fawkes about it as posted below:

Then why doesn’t the Guardian take a lead on this?

Guardian Staff: (all school fees are as 2013/14)

Katherine Viner / Ripon Grammar School (Selective) / Pembroke College, Oxford (English)
Alan Rusbridger / Cranleigh Independent Boarding School (per term £10610) / Magdalene College, Cambridge (Eng Lit)
Martin Kettle / Leeds Modern School (Grammar) / Balliol College, Oxford.
George Monbiot / Stowe (fees per term Day £7500 / Boarding £10325) / Brasenose College, Oxford (Zoology)
Jonathan Freedland / University College Independent School, Hampstead (per term £5720) – / Wadham College, Oxford
Catherine Bennett / Lawnswood High School /Hertford College, Oxford.
Zoe Williams / Godolphin and Latymer Girls School (per term £5760)
/ Lincoln College, Oxford (Modern History)
Tanya Gold / Kingston Grammar School (Independent – admission by exam and interview) / Merton College, Oxford
Marina Hyde / Downe House for Girls (per term Day: £7 910 / Boarder £10930) / Christ Church, Oxford (English)
Bidisha Bandyopadhyay / Haberdashers’ Aske’s Independent School for Girls (admission by exam and interview) / St Edmund Hall, Oxford (Old and Middle English, LSE (MSc in Moral and Political Philosophy and Economic History)
Emily Bell / ? / Christ Church College, Oxford (Jurisprudence)
Peter Bradshaw / The Haberdashers’ Aske’s Independent Boys’ School (admission by exam and interview) / Pembroke College, Cambridge (English)
David Mitchell / Abingdon School Oxford est. 1100 (per term Day £5290 / Boarder £11180) / Peterhouse, Cambridge (History)
Riazat Butt / ? / /A. N. Other College, Oxford
David Shariatmadari / ? / King’s College, Cambridge
Timothy Garton-Ash / Sherborne School est 1550 (per term Day £8545 / Boarder £10555) / St. Antony’s College, Oxford (Modern History)
Simon Tisdall / Holland Park School (generally receives 1000 applicants for its 240 places a year) / Downing College, Cambridge (History, Politics and Philosophy)
Jane Martinson / ? / A. N. Other College, Cambridge (English)
John Hooper / St Benedict’s Independent School, London (per tern £4450)
/ St Catharine’s College, Cambridge
Ian Black / ? / A.N. Other College, Cambridge
Sam Leith / Eton College (per term £11090) / Magdalen College, Oxford
Peter Preston / Loughborough Grammar School est 1495 (per term Day £3575 / Boarder £7705) / St John’s College, Oxford
Andrew Rawnsley / Lawrence Sheriff School (selective boy’s grammar) / Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (History)
Simon Jenkins / Mill Hill School est 1807 (per term Day £5948 Boarder £9398) / St John’s College, Oxford (PPE)
Alexander Chancellor / Eton College (per term £11090) / Trinity Hall, Cambridge
Richard Norton-Taylor / Kings School, Canterbury (per term Day £8090 Boarder £10745) / Hertford College, Oxford
Clare Armitstead / Bedales (per term Day £8,590 Boarder £10,930) / St Hilda’s College, Oxford (English)
Janine Gibson / Walthamstow Hall Independent School for Girls (per term £5470) / St John’s College, Oxford (Eng Lit)
Martin Wainwright / Shrewsbury School Independent School est 1552 (per term Day £7100 Boarder £10140) / Merton College, Oxford
Victoria Coren / She attended various girls’ independent schools from the ages of 5 to 18 / St. John’s College, Oxford (English)
Nick Cohen / Altrincham Grammar School for Boys est 1912 (admission by exam and interview) / Hertford College, Oxford (PPE)
Ben Goldacre / ? / Magdalen College, Oxford (Medicine)
Seumas Milne / Winchester College Independent School for Boys est 1382 (per term Boarder £11250) / Balliol College, Oxford (PPE)
Rowenna Davis / Hampstead School (Comp) est 1862 / Balliol College, Oxford (PPE)
Hadley Freeman / She attended a “boarding school in Cambridge” / St Anne’s College, Oxford (Eng Lit)
John Harris / Wilmslow High School formerly Wilmslow County Grammar School / Queen’s College, Oxford (PPE)

Reposted without comment.

JFV72 Fri 19-Jun-15 13:41:56

What about the expectations of youngsters from state schools? Sounds like these need to change as well. Rather than talk about them like hapless victims, maybe they need to stand up for what they want and have clarity on what is needed from them. Punishing private schools by taking charity status away sounds like jealousy speaking and doesn't solve anything. Be clear to kids what correctly spoken english sounds like, basic manners, work ethic etc. I think parenting is more of the problem, but always convenient to blame others.

GoodToesNotSoGoodToes Fri 19-Jun-15 13:45:52

Who says they want to conform to life in a law firm? They may enjoy shorter working hours and less responsibilities.

longestlurkerever Fri 19-Jun-15 13:50:26

There was a brilliant thread a while back where someone from a working class background was asking how to give her children that sense of confidence that private education seems to give. She got great advice which largely boiled down to how she talked about herself and her expectations of her children, never making them feel like something was not for them and how it was a case of "fake it until you make it" and would require effort, whereas it would come effortlessly to others. It was really interesting, and quite inspiring.

My dds are relatively privileged but won't be attending private school. I hope no doors are closed to them, but also agree that sometimes private schooling can come with quite narrow definitions of success. I went to a comp but also Oxbridge, where I mixed with lots of public and privately educated people, and went on to train at a city law firm. I have moved into the public sector now and am much happier. I have sacrificed the potential to earn mega bucks but have a comfortable life. Many of my contemporaries are miserable but don't seem to be able to turn their backs on the type of lifestyle (huge house, private schooling for dcs) that they had growing up for fear they would somehow be letting their parents down. Understandable but quite limiting in its own way.

Yamahaha Fri 19-Jun-15 14:02:30

I certainly don't think quotas at universities for those that have been to fee-paying schools is the answer.
Firstly, a child does not choose how he is educated so it is discriminatory. Secondly, the umc will simply send children abroad for university to ivy league and Europe (and benefit from absence of fees there, too). Finally, HE is now a buyer's market, as heinous as that may be, that is the situation.

KatharineH Fri 19-Jun-15 14:09:40

The ex public school pupils do have advantages, and have the air of confidence and of being successful already. This, I imagine, is very attractive to employers.

They have been disadvantaged throughout their school years, forgoing normal family time and free time. They have worked hard, probably more than the equally bright 'day-pupil' who could go home for some 'down-time'.

So therefore there is an air of certainty and entitlement which is accepted, maybe especially to another ex public school pupil who knows exactly what they have been through. smile

vixsatis Fri 19-Jun-15 14:47:48

I'm a Partner in a city law firm; and involved in trainee recruitment.

1. In some ways we actively prefer people who have not had an easy start in life: to have got as far as applying to us shows that they have fight, determination and ambition.

2. It's much harder for the public school types to demonstrate those qualities; and it's also harder for them to demonstrate that they are really committed and won't simply flit off when they get a bit bored.

3. No-one gives applicants any credit for expensive gap years or work experience obtained other than through their own merits (and we probe this). We're far more impressed if someone has, for instance, got a first notwithstanding a part time job in a care home.

4. We want people who will be fabulous lawyers who will make the firm lots of money: we really don't care about their backgrounds.

5. Nobody cares if someone has a regional accent.

6. Most of the "social information" which comes with a candidate (address, university, school) is used to give the benefit of the doubt to the under-privileged rather than a leg up to the fortunate


1. We need people who are not just clever but educated: raw IQ is of little use if the candidate has not learned to use it. We need people who have been trained to reason, who can formulate subtle arguments, who can express themselves verbally and in writing with clarity and elegance. These are skills which are not innate but are learned and some schools and universities seem to be better at teaching them than others. Candidates who have acquired these skills without having been at a good school have usually acquired them at a good university.

Whilst we will help with some extra training (for instance in writing grammatical English or speaking in public) we cannot provide a full remedial package for those who have had (through no fault of their own) a sub- standard education.

2. Law firm culture is inherently middle class. No law firm could exist without middle class values, such as hard work, aspiration, admiration for intellectual achievement, self-reliance. I'm not saying that no working or upper class person has those values; but they are part of what defines being middle class and people who do well in law firms, whatever their original background, have to sign up to them. Not everyone wants to and that's fine but they need to think about an alternative career.

3. We need people who can engage socially with clients from a wide range of nationalities and backgrounds and talk knowledgeably about lots of things. Many people here from working class backgrounds are great at this; but it tends to be independent and grammar schools which actively teach people to do it, so that even those for whom it does not come natually acquire the skill. This is not something which we can teach: it is too late.

4. We need people who can take criticism without taking it personally. Speaking very generally, those who have been through the independent system seem a great deal more used to being told that they need to do better.

Of course we are not perfect; but we are very very aware of the need not to recruit in our own image. We want to be a real meritocracy; but we cannot change the failings of the education system, which itself has its work cut out dealing with the fact that some children are disadvantaged by the time they are six months old.

Personally, I think it is careers like jourmalism, acting, media, in which people are far more likely to proclaim publicly their urgent desire for a just society, which suffer most from nepotism and the advantages conferred by wealth

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