A recent study from the Social Mobility Commission found that only 18% Senior Civil Servants are from lower social class backgrounds, what we might traditionally call ‘working class’ backgrounds’, and this is down from 19% in 1967!
The majority of senior civil servants are from privileged, higher social economic backgrounds, many having benefited from an independent (private school) education.
The proportion of employees from low social economic backgrounds varies a lot according to role, region and department.
For example, 40% of those those working in operational roles, delivering services are from lower SEBs compared to just 19% working in policy (policy jobs tend to be more prestigious).
And only 12% of people working in the Treasury are from low SEBs compared to 45% working in ‘work and pensions’.
And 22% of of London based civil servants come from low SEBs compared to 48% working in the North East.
The report is based on a survey of 300 00 civil servants so is very representative and 100 hour long interviews to explore why there is such a class divide in the senior ranks.
Why are the working classes underrepresented in the senior civil service?
The title of report points to an explanation – it is called ‘Navigating the labyrinth’ for a reason.
The authors put it down to a number of ‘hidden rules’ surrounding career progression in the civil service which create cumulative barriers that make it more difficult for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to make it into the Civil Service.
For example, there are some roles within the civil service that act as career accelerators but getting into these roles depends on who you know, such as having access to already senior staff and ministers, and those from lower SEBs lack this kind of in-house social capital.
There are also dominant behavioural codes within the senior civil service, which those from higher SEBs are more familiar with, they come naturally to them, one aspect of this is ‘studied neutrality’
The report describes Studied neutrality as having three key dimensions:
- a received pronunciation (RP) accent and style of speech
- emotionally detachment and an understated self-presentation
- prizing the display of in-depth knowledge for its own sake (and not directly related to work).
On the later point, some of the lower SEB interviewees in the study mentioned that there is a lot of talking in Latin, which many senior staff would break into sometimes during meetings, far from necessary from doing the job!
A final factor is that those from SEB backgrounds are more likely to specialise in a particular career path, which isn’t necessary for career progression.
Does the class divide in the senior civil service matter?
According to those in the senior service, no it doesn’t, because they see themselves as ‘neutral advisors’.
However, from a more Marxist point of view clearly it does! Just from a social justice perspective we have here a classic example of cultural capital blocking those from lower social backgrounds progressing to more senior positions, and those with cultural capital (from higher economic backgrounds) having an advantage.
And, despite claims to neutrality it’s unlikely that those from privileged backgrounds are going to advise on policies which promote more social justice and greater social mobility as that would be undermining the advantage they and their children have with the status quo!