We’ve all had our tuppence-worth over who and what was responsible for the riots that took place in August 2011. Now that peace has been restored, eyes are now moving towards the various institutions and the ‘decision makers’ within them in terms of what happens next.
The police are continuing to make arrests, the courts administering justice and the prisons and young offenders’ centres taking on those jailed. (See The Guardian’s datablog for some of the numbers).
But what about the long term actions?
The first thing to look at is the decision makers – who are they? In the civil service, it is the cohort of senior civil servants within each department – which is lead by a permanent secretary. A quick search through their backgrounds shows Oxbridge comes up regularly – similar to the historical background of previous civil servants that has become so engrained it’s now on the revision materials for some politics students!
But having been to Oxford or Cambridge is not a problem in itself. Having worked with a number of their graduates and having a number of friends who graduated from the latter, Oxford and Cambridge are not universities that you get into by accident; it takes years of hard work just to get there, and then years of ‘work hard play hard’ once you’re in there.
However, track back the (lack of) diversity from the current cohort of permanent secretaries downwards and you find the problem is institutional. The diversity reports for the civil service fast stream show that Oxbridge graduates make up a far greater proportion of candidates selected for appointment than non-Oxbridge candidates. In fact, it is such a politicised issue that the statistics break down applicants into Oxbridge and non-Oxbridge applicants. That alone speaks volumes.
Track back further to accessibility for Oxford and Cambridge and we find, for the latter that four leading independent schools and one Cambridge sixth form college (for the record, my old one – Hills Road Sixth Form College) contributed more students to Cambridge than the bottom 2000 schools and colleges put together.
During my time at Hills Road, it was noticeable that there was a large intake of students who had previously been in schooled at private fee-paying schools such as The Leys, The two Perse schools and St Mary’s. But from a government statistics perspective, the students who transferred into the state system for the sixth form show up as state-schooled students. For somewhere that has the record that Hills Road has for exam results, from a parents’ perspective why pay fees for private education when you can send your children somewhere that on paper gets results just as good as a private education, but with the bonus of being a ‘state sector’ applicant at a time when the establishment is leaning on top universities to make their institutions more accessible to applicants from the state sector?
My point in all of this?
When you go into the civil service – especially if you go into a policy team (which is a given in the generalist stream of the fast stream), your job is to help solve problems: society’s problems.
However, if your background prior to getting onto one of the most prized graduate recruitment and career development programmes in the country is one that may well have insulated you from very problems that large sections of society have to face daily, does this limit both the insights and your ability to work towards solutions to those problems?
Again, my point is not to tear into those who happen to have had that background and are now working their socks off to try and solve these problems – especially in the face of the bloodbath that is every other civil servant fighting for their jobs and careers. My point is about the institutions – and how to improve them.
During my time in the civil service I was a member of two trade unions – the PCS and FDA unions. I was also, at separate times on the branch executive committees on one or the other – giving me face-to-face negotiation time & experience with senior managers. With the latter, one of the things that through the FDA I helped push for was for Cabinet Office to target more of its FastStream publicity towards those universities that had a more statistically diverse intake – pointing them to the statistics at the Higher Education Statistics Agency. (Another was to consider hosting outreach events at the ‘new’ universities where cities had an established and ex-polytechnic university after asking whether a student at a new university was more likely to cross town to an event at the more established university, or vice-versa).
But what can be done prior to all these bright young things joining the graduate recruitment schemes? Boris Johnson made a call some time ago about encouraging gap-year students to take on a volunteering challenge in London rather than abroad. Even the Conservative Party launched their own scheme for young party activists (which is abroad) in Rwanda.
A year after graduating, I found myself ‘drifting’ and in the need of both some guidance and a challenge. So I threw myself into a Prince’s Trust Team. It was three of the hardest months of my life – but for all of us who made it to the end, life-changing. We were all there for different reasons. Some struggled with reading and writing, others had been in trouble with the police while some had come from genuinely tough backgrounds but wanted to make a positive change to their lives. This was a big change from having gone through an education system where beyond secondary school, I became more and more isolated from people who were more likely to experience those challenges.
That experience was to have a profound impact on my interests and decisions I made in the civil service – that impact being ‘little but often’ on the day-to-day things that I did or did not do. (For example choosing to follow-up what seemed like random enquiries from members of the public lost in the maze of transferred telephone calls to making it my business to accept invitations to visit places far away from the bright lights of London). It was those insights that re-enforced by view about what the civil service is – or should be: a service for the people. After all, it was people – tax payers – who paid my salary.
The challenge for institutions – not just the civil service – I think is to ensure that those that come through their ranks to the world of senior management have had experience of spending time and ‘living’ some of the problems that those at the sharper end of society’s problems have to face on a day-to-day basis. This is exactly what the series Tower Block of Commons did with a handful of MPs. But this was just a small number of people for a TV series. If our top institutions that are charged with dealing with the aftermath of things like the riots, sending a few people on some day visits is not going to be nearly enough. Engagement with our more deprived communities has to be on a much larger scale, over a longer period of time and systematic and regular to give us the chance of preventing violent events such as the riots from ever happening again.
But that takes leadership
And it requires people to take risks – ones that put them in places where they may feel very uncomfortable.
- How many well-paid senior managers or holders of political office would choose to give up nice homes in affluent communities to spend a couple of months living and working with people who, for all we know may simply have not been blessed with the opportunities that they have?
- How many gap year students would choose the opportunity to work on a literacy or numeracy project in inner-city UK ahead of somewhere abroad?
- How many student political activists would choose to do a voluntary work in a community suffering from multiple deprivation when you can afford to buy yourself an internship in Central London (or rather, self-fund) that will make a great headline on a CV?
Despite the negative headlines you see in the newspapers and in the media, there are many great people out there in those communities. We just don’t hear about them.
Yet if we in the big institutions don’t listen to the people living in communities suffering from poverty, crime and multiple deprivation, why should they listen to us?