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"Sorry chap, old boys only..."

"Sorry chap, old boys only..."

"Sorry chap, old boys only..."
20 February 2013

The biggest obstacle to your career could be your social class. ShortList’s Mike Peake investigates whether the posh elite still run a closed shop.

If you’ve never had a game of ‘social class bingo’ while watching the opening episode of a new The Apprentice you’ve missed a treat. Self-made man? Tick. Tousle-haired dandy from an ultra-exclusive school? Tick.

The narrator tells us that each of the 16 candidates is among the best in Britain, hand-picked for their abilities and sparkling CV, but you’re already pigeon-holing them as winners and losers after just 10 seconds of carefully edited boasting. Be honest – into which category do you place the token northerner from an inner-city comp? Do you see him running a crack-team in The City or re-educating Silicon Valley about The Next Big Thing? You do not. And that’s because social background, whether we like it or not, hovers over all of us like a big black arrow.

But don’t take our word for it: a government-backed report last year confirmed that you’re more likely to make it into a top job in certain professions if you have a privileged background.

Labour’s former Health Secretary Alan Milburn, presenting his findings to the press, confirmed the existence of old boys’ networks in which the right schooling and Daddy’s affiliation to the correct kind of clubs will get you a long way.

“At the top, especially,” Milburn said, “the professions remain dominated by the social elite. The glass ceiling might have been scratched, but it’s not been broken.”

What’s surprising, perhaps, is that this was news at all. Anyone who’s ever tried to make it far in, for example, the legal profession will know only too well the myriad social and financial obstacles that litter the paths of aspiring barristers. Indeed, students responding to a recent survey by industry magazine The Lawyer said they felt that social background was the profession’s biggest barrier.

And then there’s The City and the senior ranks of the civil service, where comprehensive school backgrounds and harsh, regional accents at the top level remain tellingly thin on the ground.

Your education and hometown speak volumes not just about your abilities, but about the manner in which you were brought up – and in certain sectors, it counts. In the words of Mr Milburn, private schools – which educate just seven per cent of all pupils – have a “stranglehold” on the country’s top jobs.

But perhaps you brushed it aside, this suspicion that your education and dad’s preference for football over polo might count against you. Social mobility, you might think, has never been more evident – isn’t it all about talent these days?


“My experience of the class system in the workplace dates back to when I worked for a private bank in Mayfair,” says 28-year-old Eshaan Akbar, who now works with UpRising (, an influential network of emerging leaders from diverse backgrounds.

“I was educated at a private school, and while they made it clear that ethnicity and race didn’t matter, it was obvious that I was educated at the ‘wrong kind’ of private school.

“I wasn’t like the rest of [my colleagues]. They would make references to Eton societies and rituals and the people in their network – things I had no idea about but were social norms to them.” Akbar claims that the bankers of his age who did well were the ones who knew, for example, “the owner of a certain club or the father of someone from a particular company”.

Matters came to a head when Akbar found himself excluded from a skiing trip and was told, when he asked why, that it was an “Eton-only” reunion. Frustrated and believing he wouldn’t get very high up the ladder, he started planning his exit strategy. “It seemed as if my talent and abilities were irrelevant,” he says.


Today, Akbar is working with UpRising to help create an alternative ‘old boys’ network’, of sorts, for young people who lack a privileged background. The aim is to lift the lid on traditional routes to power – not easy with two “arrogant posh boys” running the country.

That inflammatory quote was aimed at David Cameron and George Osborne, and coming from one of their own – Tory MP Nadine Dorries, last April – it was particularly explosive. “There is a very tight, narrow clique who act as a barrier to prevent Cameron and Osborne and others from really understanding what is happening to the rest of the country,” she said of the duo.

Dorries was alluding, in part, to senior civil servants, posts that tend to be filled by a very particular kind of candidate. Colin Talbot, Professor Of Government And Public Administration at the University Of Manchester, is a former specialist advisor to several government Select Committees. Having left school at 16 he knows exactly what it feels like to be the outsider among this elite social group.

“They all know each other, there’s a very strong network, cut-glass accents, and they’ll throw Latin phrases at you every so often, maybe even a bit of Greek. They’re testing you,” says Talbot, author of the Whitehall Watch blog, “seeing if you respond to it, trying to gauge what sort of school you went to.”

The class ceiling has always existed and opinions vary on whether it is becoming more permeable. What seems irrefutable is that a university education followed by a year of unpaid internship is becoming simply too expensive for many: figures from UCAS show England’s university intake was down 13 per cent in 2012. “You’ve got to have families who can support you,” says Talbot. “I know people who have allowances well into their twenties and are having houses bought for them. It makes a huge difference in what you’re able to do.” Your best hope, perhaps, is that you lucked out on a career where talent prevails – and where your Latin will never be put to the test.


Stuart Sawyer, CEO of D3O, a company that makes a type of ‘flubber’ that momentarily sets rock-solid on impact, argues that progressive, newer companies seek out people who aren’t just well-educated clones. “When I recruit, I want people who stand out from the crowd,” he says.

Steve Booth, chief executive of agency Arena Media, concurs. Having risen from tea boy to the top himself, he’s proof that in the creative/advertising boardroom, it’s mostly meritocratic. “Advertisers want people who are bright, committed and fast,” he says. “A degree used to be important in advertising, but I think we’re seeing a shift to different values.”

Advertising, architecture, anything creative, then, mostly favours flair and raw talent. The law, government, The City – and you can add big business, broadsheet journalism and the top end of the medical profession to the list: these may well call your social or academic bluff when you least expect it.

But you’ve probably been subconsciously waiting for that day all along: “In Britain there is a sense of ‘knowing one’s place’,” said Adam Haslett, writing in the Financial Times. “Accent, and the history of your family’s class that it serves to announce every day, limits the imagined possibilities of upwardly mobile self-transformation.”

The Apprentice’s social class bingo is all the proof you need. Just as the smart, well-educated brigade seemed destined for greatness, candidates such as market trader Adam Corbally are reduced to soundbites. “Start the car!” was his much-replayed refrain.

“Your best bet is to work hard and overdeliver,” says D3O’s Sawyer. “Get to the point where your reputation outweighs your education.”

Talbot puts it another way: “Just keep kicking,” he says. “You have to play by their rules… and outplay them.”

(Image: Rex Features)