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Top U.K. professions exclude the poor

Stephen Beard Aug 4, 2009

Top U.K. professions exclude the poor

Stephen Beard Aug 4, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: We have some pretty significant social and economic divisions in this country between the poor, the lower middle class, the middle class, and so on. But we’ve got absolutely nothing on the British. The government there is out with a new report on social mobility in the UK. It says lower-class Brits are routinely excluded from the top jobs. And professions like medicine and law are increasingly closed to all but the most affluent families. From London, Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports.

STEPHEN BEARD: Among the children at this primary school in a deprived part of North London there’s no lack of ambition.

STUDENT: I’m 10, and I want to be a lawyer.

STUDENT: When I grow up I would like to be a doctor.

Sadly, their chances of achieving these ambitions are slim because they come from less affluent families. Former Labour Government Minister Alan Milburn has just completed a study of social mobility in Britain. His findings are bleak.

ALAN MILBURN: Far too many kids from middle-income as well as lower-income families are missing out in the race for professional jobs because they don’t have the right connections, they haven’t been to the right school. They haven’t had a place at university.

The vast majority of lawyers come from families earning 60 percent above the average. Seventy percent of doctors come from the country’s top two socio-economic groups. Most doctors and lawyers have been privately

MILBURN: I want to see a genuine meritocracy in our country. And I think it is a terrible thing when you see too many able kids losing out in the race for these jobs.

Some commentators blame the government of which Milburn was a member. Ruth Lea is economic adviser to the Arbuthnot Banking Group. She argues that the Labour government has presided over a catastrophic decline in the quality of state-funded schools.

RUTH LEA: They don’t have the discipline, they don’t have the standards, and they don’t give their pupils adequate foundation for them to go on to university and get the qualifications and then go on into the professions. That is the problem, it’s education.

And the British Medical Association, which represents the country’s doctors, also claims the Labour government is partly to blame for making the medical profession less accessible. University education used to be free until Labour introduced tuition fees 11 years ago. Tim Crocker-Buque of the BMA says in the case of medicine these fees are becoming a deterrent.

TIM CROCKER-BUQUE: This is a massive consideration for kids from lower socio-economic groups. If they are graduating with 50, 60, 70,000 pounds worth of debt that is an astronomical figure to them when their family income may be a fraction of that.

Breaking into a profession is not the end of the battle for working-class kids. Making their way up the hierarchy can be more of a struggle. Take the legal profession. There are no High Court judges from poorer backgrounds — 75 percent of them went to private school. Constance Briscoe, a black lawyer of humble origins, definitely feels disadvantaged — as she told the BBC.

CONSTANCE BRISCOE: My background, certainly my education has prevented me making the kind of connections that those who went to a better school have. And I do believe if I was from the right background, I probably would have been more successful than I have been thus far.

The Eton Boating Song, celebrating Britain’s most famous private school which trained the country’s elite. This was once the anthem of the ruling class. It all seemed passe when Margaret Thatcher — a grocer’s daughter — got into in power.

But after the next election, the two most powerful jobs in the country — that of Prime Minister and Mayor of London — may both be held by old Etonians. When it comes to social mobility, some fear that Britain is rowing backwards.

In London this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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