Analysis & Opinions -

How Can We Make Britain More Equal?

| July 23, 2009

Hard work and talent don't determine a child's destiny — but they should.

It is a commonplace to say that Britain is an unequal society. Many things will affect the life chances of two children born on the same day twenty years ago. Do they grow up in the country or in a major city? What kind of school do they go to? Do their parents have books in the house? Are they well-connected?

Of course, in an ideal world, a child's life chances would depend more on how hard she worked and the skills she developed. For about thirty years, until the seventies, we seemed to be moving in that direction. But then, for various reasons, we fell back. Compared to their parents, the life chances of the generation born in the eighties were less likely to depend on their own skills and effort.

Across the political spectrum there is an acceptance that that is a negative trend. What is at stake is nothing less than the extent to which we control our own destiny or have it shaped by factors beyond our own choosing.

Like most people, I would like to believe that we could make success depend less on these external factors. Despite a council estate upbringing, I was lucky enough to be the first one in my family to go to university, and later on, thanks to the financial companies I set up, I was able to start charities to provide family counselling in Glasgow, schooling to children in Pakistan and clean water to those who need it most.

But I was particularly pleased to be asked to join the government panel on social mobility, because however much we would like to think that work and talent should determine a child's destiny, that's not true for most people. Hopefully the policy ideas we have come up with will begin to change that for the majority.

The report contains ideas on many different areas affecting this big topic; my team was asked to look at how we can improve internships.

For many people, the chance to do an internship in the kind of environment in which they aspire to forge a career is a springboard to making that aspiration a reality. In some sectors, such as journalism, you can barely expect to get any job unless you work for no or low pay first. But for everyone for whom an internship has been a path towards the career they wanted, I expect there are four or five people who have not had that opportunity.

The reasons are often simple. Many young people cannot afford the luxury of working for free. Others simply live in isolated places. Because so many professional jobs are based in London or the big cities, it is often impossible to travel into work each day, and unless you have a friend to stay with, paying for accommodation to do unpaid work is often out of the question. Or, just as likely, you might simply never hear about the internship or even think of doing one. Those from a background in which internships are rare are not only less likely to know about them. They are also less likely to have the contact with relatives or friends who employ interns, who might be able to tell them what qualities internship schemes are looking for.

The first challenge is to ensure that the maximum number of young people hear about internships when they become available. My team have set out some solutions. Firstly, we suggested that professional associations encourage their members to advertise their internships on 'Talent Pool', a central website, so that those who want to find an internship know that there is a central place they can look. The website will be a one-stop-shop for everything that the applicant might need to know, including details of what support is available for each internship, the criteria by which it is disbursed, and how to apply. We also recommended that the government make sure that Talent Pool advertises itself not just to students already in universities, but also to pre-university students who might not know that that financial help towards the internship was available, and to young people in schools with a high proportion of kids on free school meals. The site will have been a success if one year from now applicants to internships are coming from a wider range of socioeconomic and geographical backgrounds.

We have offered solutions for a range of other problems. For students who currently might not be able to afford to take an internship, we have looked into the possibility of the Student Loans Company offering loans to cover living costs over the period of an internship, and changed the structure of student loans so that students can use some of the money to do an unpaid internship.

We also recognise that sometimes the internships themselves could be improved. For students who do get an internship but find themselves sitting at reception waiting to be given a task, we have improved the information available to applicants, so that they can know in advance that it will be a worthwhile experience. We suggested both a kite-mark scheme to guarantee the quality of the internship, and an online facility to publish experiences to bring organic market pressures to bear to drive up the quality of internships. We are also looking into solving the geographic barriers to internships by encouraging universities to offer accommodation to interns in the holidays.

If we are successful, the best and most talented will be able to compete for internship places based solely on intellect, talent and potential. It will not solve all the inequalities in the country by itself, but it will be a step in the right direction.

Azeem Ibrahim was a member and sub-team leader on the prime minister's Panel for Social Mobility and Access to the Professions. He is also a research scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a world fellow at Yale.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ibrahim, Azeem.“How Can We Make Britain More Equal?.”, July 23, 2009.