Elite firms still prefer ‘posh’ graduates

New government research finds that top companies are drawn to well-travelled candidates with 'polish'


New research published by the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has shown that socio-economic background is still a major factor in determining which applicants get to the top jobs in Britain.

The review, commissioned to analyse ‘non-educational barriers to the elite professions’, finds that more than two-thirds of job vacancies in elite legal and City firms are filled by privately educated or grammar school graduates.

This is despite just 7 per cent of schoolchildren attending fee-paying schools, and 4 per cent attending grammar schools.

Rt. Hon. Alan Milburn, the chair of the Commission, said:

“This research shows that young people with working-class backgrounds are being systematically locked out of top jobs. Elite firms seem to require applicants to pass a ‘poshness test’ to gain entry.”

However, the Commission emphasises that the imbalance also reflects a lack of diversity among applicants. At leading accountancy firms, ‘typically forty to fifty percent’ of applicants have been educated at a Russell Group university. These Russell Group applicants receive between sixty and seventy percent of all job offers.

The recruitment strategies of elite firms is partly blamed for this; many of those evaluated targeted their advertising campaigns exclusively at Russell Group Universities, offering students there coaching in their selection and interview process.

Participants in the research suggested that graduates from more modest socio-economic backgrounds may opt out of applying for certain posts, even if they have been Russell Group educated, because of concerns about not fitting in.

The report shows that when it comes to interview selection or promotion, discrimination is sometimes unconscious: there is a ‘tendency of more senior professionals to promote in their own image and thus ‘misrecognise’ merit’, ie. many employers are looking for people with similar backgrounds and experiences to themselves.

One participant commented frankly that homogeneity increases efficiency.

The findings also suggest that employers may not always be aware that their preferences are dependent on socio-economic background; for example one employer said:

“The academics are all very good these days, obviously, but . . . I’m very interested in people who’ve gone travelling, who’ve shown initiative, who’ve solved difficult situations in the past.”

Well-travelled candidates, or those who have been able to undertake relevant unpaid internships, are likely to be candidates who have received parental support and thus a certain background is implied. The word ‘polish’ was used repeatedly to apply to speech, accent, confidence and even the ability to name-drop.

Dr Louise Ashley of Royal Holloway, University of London, who lead the research, described the recommendations that had arisen from the research:

“First, amend attraction strategies to encourage higher numbers of applications from students with a wider range of educational and socio-economic backgrounds;

“Second, ensure that these diverse students have access to similar levels of support enjoyed by their more traditional peers, in order to navigate the selection process effectively;

“Third, interrogate current definitions of talent, including how potential is identified and assessed, to ensure that disadvantaged students are not ruled out for reasons of background rather than aptitude and skill.”

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

7 Responses to “Elite firms still prefer ‘posh’ graduates”

  1. Mike Stallard

    Ruby, one thing puzzles me a lot. Both front benches are crammed with people who went to Public School. A lot of politicians send their own children to Public Schools too. Let us not pretend they don’t or that they didn’t. Although you must not talk about it.
    So why on earth don’t the (failing) State Schools try and copy the Public Schools?
    Some ideas: Smaller units, not necessarily smaller schools. Competition in sport and classroom. Teachers treated like humans and men encouraged to be housemasters and then supported against the parents. Leave them to get on with it. Start an experiment of for profit schools. Get OFsted back to what it used to be – a friendly chat with a teacher.
    Silly me! What preposterous ideas!

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