Page last updated at 14:05 GMT, Tuesday, 21 July 2009 15:05 UK

Move on up: Is biography destiny?

The top rank of professions are increasingly closed to the masses, says a report into social mobility, but how impenetrable is that glass ceiling?


It seems The Apprentice winner cracked the glass ceiling.

She left school at 16 after sitting exams in just three subjects. But she worked her way up in the IT industry to become a successful City business consultant.

Michelle Dewberry
Dewberry won the second series of The Apprentice

"I do believe that it's more difficult for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. But with persistent confidence and self-belief you can make things happen for you.

"Your biography does not equal your destiny but you have got to work.

"People have to have aspirations. That's not easy - if you're a child on a council estate, not surrounded by high achievers, those aspirations can be hard to come by. There's a responsibility to give these young people exposure to relevant role models.

"Once people realise they can be anything they want, how do you make that happen?

"They need a support structure with mentorships, that extends into their careers advisors, people they can look up to."

And universities must look at pupils' vocational skills and aptitude, not just the grades, she said.

Jobs for the boys

The solution also lies in tackling the old boys' network that still permeates City appointments.

"When I was 23 and working as a consultant in the City, earning a decent six-figure sum, I thought of going into banking.

"But it was so difficult, there was such an old school boys network. They asked 'Where's your 2:1?' but what had that to do with whether I could do the job?"


"Aspirations can be high," says social housing manager Brian Capaloff, but "they're relative to the environment you're brought up in."

Brian Capaloff
Brian Capaloff would retrain as a housing lawyer

His parents and teachers may have had high hopes for him in school.

But raised in flats in the relatively deprived London Borough of Hackney, and attending Hackney Downs school - which was later closed down - it was more a case of "I know my place".

The government's idea of "pushy parents" is one thing, but hopes of more privileged parents would have been set higher.

He works in Clackmannanshire and would retrain as a specialist solicitor, but the cost of entering the profession holds him back.

"I would love to be able to do a law course, to become a solicitor or barrister, but I have no prospect of being able to do it, no financial backing to do the course and articles.

At school, he took English A-level in a class where no-one passed. He went on to study the relatively-affordable Applied Social Sciences at Kingston Polytechnic in the days of means-tested grants - today it would be even more difficult.

"I enjoyed my sixth form, but there wasn't that expectation for children who went to that school. And it was also the affordability."


The glass ceiling is strong and gilded for Hana Johnson.

Hana Johnson
Social mobility is fixed after graduation, says Hana

She feels the restriction on social mobility pinches after university, when people want to go on to a postgraduate course - or need to work for the experience for free. Only a certain section of society can afford it.

She graduated with a first and has a place to start in September. But £4,500 in fees lies between her and a course in political communications. Beyond that, a job in charity campaigning or advocacy.

"I knew that funding was tight, but also assumed that being a continually high-achieving student I'd be able to get some kind of funding, or half decent loan.

"My parents cannot afford to pay for the course, and neither can I, so I am having to re-evaluate my life's ambition for the sake of £4,500."

Her solution, to open-up opportunities? "I've been at university with people who dropped out after a year, it wasn't for them.

"Rather than giving easy access to funding for first degrees, the government should put more money for people who want to do training after university.

"Research councils should means test grants. Career development loans should not be handled by the banks, but by the government."

Print Sponsor

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