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28 August 2014updated 26 Sep 2015 7:47am

Social mobility and the New Statesman

What we're doing to tackle the “7 per cent problem”. 

By Helen Lewis

The latest findings from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission make sobering reading. They include the fact that 71 per cent of judges, 43 per cent of newspaper columnists and 36 per cent of the Cabinet went to fee-paying schools – whereas the overall figure for the overall UK population is 7 per cent. 

This is something the New Statesman has addressed several times recently – we ran a special issue on the “7 per cent problem” of private school pupils’ dominance of British public life earlier this year. Social mobility is a topic particularly close to NS editor Jason Cowley’s heart – he went to a comprehensive school and Southampton university, making him a relative rarity in the Oxbridge-dominated media. (You can read his superb introduction here, the Kynastons’ essay here and Michael Gove’s response here.)

We asked the Labour schools secretary, Tristram Hunt, to contribute to the “7 per cent problem”, but he declined – perhaps afraid that his own privileged background would be brought up. That is an understandable response, but it also holds back the conversation – if the elite we currently have can’t or won’t talk about the problem, it makes it harder to tackle. Just this morning I saw Owen Jones, a writer who has done an enormous amount to highlight class issues and the self-perpetuating stranglehold of the “establishment”, lambasted once again for being too privileged to talk about it. That also places an unfair burden on those who aren’t from the typical elite background – whether because of class, race, disability or gender – if they are expected to do all the legwork of bringing the issue to public attention. 

Spectator editor Fraser Nelson has written a great blog on what his magazine is doing to address the problem of Britain’s poor social mobility, and I thought it was only right for us to mention what we’ve been doing, too. Fraser says: “At The Spectator, we now have a specific recruitment policy for jobs and internships: we ask applicants not to include education on their CVs.” I think that’s a fascinating idea, and it’s something I will think about next time we advertise an entry-level position.

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But I do want to sound a note of caution: we have already moved to a recruitment system where we ask for a sample blog or story when looking at candidates. We look at this first, winnow the pack – and only then look at the educational backgrounds of applicants. But there’s a problem: we often find that the resulting shortlist is dominated by the privately educated and Oxbridge-polished. There are obvious reasons for this, not least that under the tutorial system, Oxbridge graduates will have written one or two essays a week for several years; that surely gives them an advantage over students who have produced one or two a term. Similarly, those with well-off parents are likely to have been able to undertake more work experience, meaning that they have a better idea what a magazine like ours is looking for – they are better equipped to replicate the tone, and style, of a New Statesman piece.

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In other words, although recruiting “blind” looks like a great way to encourage diversity, it has its own limitations. So this is where I differ from the Spec: I believe in positive action. One of the best things we’ve done this year is partner with the Wellcome Trust to offer two fellowships, paid at London Living Wage, to black or minority ethnic candidates. (The Guardian runs a similar scheme, from which we recruited Samira Shackle, now at New Humanist, a few years ago. Our former blogger Bim Adewunmi, now at the Guardian, was also on it.)

Our first Wellcome Trust scholar, Ajit Niranjan, left us in July to prepare for the final year of his engineering degree. As part of his placement, he wrote an appraisal of the scheme. In it, he said:

“Mainstream media really suffers from its artificially homogeneous make-up, and ethnicity is just one area that is disproportionately represented in the old boys’ club of white, privately educated Oxbridge males. The Wellcome Trust Scholarship provides an imperfect solution to a very serious problem of a lack of diversity in journalism. It’s a tricky issue and I recommend checking out this piece by ex-New Statesman writer Rafael Behr for a bit of background.” 

(Raf’s piece is from our “race in the media” special issue.)

I think Ajit is right to say that the fellowship programme is an imperfect solution: any positive action scheme can only tackle the lack of diversity on one axis, and I think that class – which is less visible than race, gender or physical disability – is particularly hard to address. Like the Spectator, we’ve been working for the last two years with the Social Mobility Foundation (it is now expanding outside London, and I’d encourage anyone reading this who has input into HR in their company to look at its website and get involved). They target those who have achieved 5 As at GCSE (6 for those who want to study Medicine) and are predicted at least ABB at A-level, and are either eligible for free school meals, or attend a school where 30 per cent of pupils are eligible, and are in the first generation of their family to attend university in the UK. We’ve hosted SMF students for week-long placements, and I am currently mentoring a fantastic young woman called Nabeela, who I know is going to be a huge success one day. The NS team is also looking at other ways that we can give opportunities to people from backgrounds which are traditionally under-represented in journalism, and I’ll update our readers on that as soon as I can.

There’s one other way in which the NS team’s thinking has changed in the last few years. In my last post on the subject, I wrote that we had been working to make work experience better, and were now mostly offering paid, structured placements through the SMF, Danson Foundation and Wellcome Trust, alongside a few two-week unpaid placements in the Christmas and Easter holidays. Our worry was that the “work experience culture” of journalism was giving an advantage to those who could afford to live in London without an income.

We’ve now decided to go further and scrap all unpaid work experience – as I mentioned before, if done right, managing students on work experience is a labour-intensive job. It’s currently been falling to our indefatigable editorial assistant Phil, but we now think it’s better to focus his time on paid placements which address a specific diversity issue. (If you’re a charity and would like to sponsor a placement, get in touch.)

These are only imperfect solutions, and there is much more to do. But the “7 per cent problem” won’t go away on its own.