From education to employment

Removing the barriers to success

Reading Peter Wilby’s recent article in the Guardian (Britain’s qualification spiral is beginning to unravel – ) made me reflect upon the fact that there has been a drift over the last forty years towards making entry to the professions more dependent upon achieving higher and higher levels of qualification and grades. This trend has meant that the best jobs are often concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest.

There has been a dramatic reduction in the number of successful bright grammar school children who have come from a working class background but have been able to enter the higher professions (the Andrew Neil/Cherie Booth route) and comprehensive education has failed to provide a similar ladder for academically gifted poor kids.

The professions have become increasingly dominated by people from a relatively narrow range of backgrounds.  Politics is a good example.  34% of MPs have come from a fee paying school background compared to a national average of around 7%. As a recent Smith Institute report on the composition of the 2010 intake of MPs states:

“Parliament today better reflects the gender balance and is more ethnically diverse, but in terms of educational and vocational background the new political elite look remarkably like the old establishment. It is surprising how many of our MPs were privately educated, went to Oxbridge and worked in the professions, particularly Conservatives and Lib Dems. It seems that our Parliament is becoming less representative in terms of education and occupation, and continues to attract similar types of people from a rather narrow professional base”.

There is a form of closed shop that is operated by the professions that actively restricts the range of people who can enter them. You have to eat dinners at an Inns of Court to become a barrister, and you have to be able to base yourself in London and be paid next to nothing while you do your pupillage. Even to become a solicitor requires doing the Legal Practice Course prior to (hopefully) getting a junior post with a firm (which means financing an extra year with no income and paying fees on top of University tuition).

It is very difficult to work in the national media or publishing sectors unless you can afford to be based in London and to start your career by working for free or for a wage that is insufficient to live on (in the Capital) – although the recent BBC move to Manchester may change this. This restricts access to these professions. Once again, they tend to be rather dominated by white, upper middle class people as a result.

These barriers to entry to the professions have grown over my working life, at the same time that other closed shops (in the print industry for example) were – rightly – swept away.

At the same time that the professions have become ever more inaccessible to children who don’t go to a fee paying school, the range of occupations that are open to poorer kids has been diminished in status and pay.

Although the creation of a new route to the professions for employed apprentices, as described in Peter Wilby’s Guardian article, is to be welcomed in theory, in practice entry to it could be restricted to the richest and best educated young people.

When I attended a recent ‘Voice of the Apprentice’ event in November hosted by unionlearn, I came across an Apprentice undertaking the Rolls Royce Higher Apprenticeship route who was already a graduate but had decided to undertake this Apprenticeship as a post-graduate option. This illustrates that, despite good intentions, sometimes the best Apprenticeships may be taken up by people who have already had a university education, thereby limiting the range of opportunities available to young people with lower educational attainment levels.

I remain to be convinced that the new access to the professions via apprenticeships won’t follow a similar pattern and will require pre existing degrees (or A* A levels at least) before prospective candidates will be accepted. This will continue to restrict entry to the offspring of the wealthiest kids.

I think that the growth of credentialism is a real phenomenon. I think that the underlying problem that fuels the growth in credentialism is that there is a shortage of employment in the economy.  Once you have a permanent underclass and surplus labour army of the unemployed, all employment becomes such a valuable commodity that many people are prepared to pay to get it, via loans, internships etc. I don’t think the growth of Apprenticeship routes will address this fundamental lack of paid employment in our economy and truly open our professions to applicants from a wider range of backgrounds.  I hope that I’m proved wrong.

Ian Bond is project officer for Apprenticeships at NIACE, which encourages all adults to engage in learning

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