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  1. Politics
9 September 2014

How the Square Mile could be an unexpected counter to our “Downton Abbey-style society”

After recent reports that Britain is "deeply elitist", the City of London insists that social mobility is being championed where you would least expect.

By Mark Boleat Mark Boleat

Hot the heels of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission study which concluded that the UK is “deeply elitist”, the TUC’s Frances O’Grady has added that we are becoming a “Downton Abbey-style society”. These headline-grabbing comments make for depressing reading, but only tell part of the story. I firmly believe that momentum for social mobility is gathering pace in places people would least suspect.

The aforementioned study paints the picture that the top professions are occupied by the “male, pale and stale”. The financial Square Mile business district is of course not immune to such criticism, but some of the most exciting initiatives to engage young people from deprived backgrounds are, perhaps unexpectedly, happening in the City. Whether the motivation is altruism or just business sense, the City recognises its important role in developing and sourcing talent from some of London’s poorest communities.

Within the Square Mile, we are surrounded by London boroughs like Tower Hamlets where almost half the young people live below the poverty line. There is not only a social inclusion argument to be made, but our long-term economic sustainability is left vulnerable unless we improve diversity and cast the net wider in the search for talent.

Recent reports suggest we have a huge mountain to climb when it comes to levelling the playing field, but I’m reassured that there is the appetite for real change in the business sector. The most successful impact often occurs from multi-organisational partnerships, tackling the issue on a variety of fronts. More businesses need to work with schools to improve dramatically, the life chances of young people. Social mobility starts with young people actually envisaging themselves in top careers and having their expectations raised by teachers and business leaders.

Unfortunately, there are still too many young people who live in boroughs like Tower Hamlets who see the impressive City skyline from their bedroom windows but fail to realise the opportunities available for them. But I’m happy to say that every day I see and hear examples of this reality shifting. Firms like KPMG, our co-sponsors of the City Academy Hackney, provide one-to-one mentoring for the pupils to enhance their wider learning development. Schemes such as City Careers Open House, give local schools the opportunity to spend a day at a City-based organisation, including Bank of England, Eversheds, PricewaterhouseCooper and UBS. They meet employees and find out more about what a City career entails. Around 64% of participating students said the experience gave them much higher career aspirations.

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Other established City firms like ING and Deutsche Bank are offering more paid internships to pupils from London’s poorest areas, drawing in a diverse range of talent not just attracting pupils who can afford to work for free. Lloyd’s of London championed a programme that reached 3,000 young people in Tower Hamlets – supporting students with literacy and numeracy, with the key aim of boosting employability from a young age. It also set up a bursary fund giving bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds access to finance (a common barrier to social mobility) to help with university living costs.

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Businesses in the City and elsewhere are naturally concerned with hiring the best person for the job, but they have to get creative if they want the widest talent base. Withers LLP, a global law firm has just piloted an innovative work experience scheme. It targets young unemployed parents in Islington, an area with 15,000 households where no-one works. Opening up its doors to an often over-looked group has proved valuable all-round.

I’m confident that real change is pushing ahead in the City and beyond. If we want to maintain and develop our position as a global economic power, we need all our best players on the pitch. Social mobility is not just nice to have – it is an imperative.

Mark Boleat is the policy chairman of the City of London Corporation