Are senior civil servants really as privileged as they were 50 years ago?
“The class composition of the senior ranks of the civil service has barely changed since 1967, research reveals.”
“Senior civil servants are as privileged today as 50 years ago, with fewer than one in five coming from a working-class background, a report backed by the government has concluded.”
“Almost three-quarters (72%) of those in senior posts are from privileged homes, up from two-thirds (67%) in 1967.”
A recent report from the government’s Social Mobility Commission has received a lot of media attention for its finding that the Senior Civil Service (SCS) is essentially as privileged as it was back in 1967, the last time such a study was undertaken.
One of the key findings to support that conclusion, appearing on the first page of the report, is that, in 1967, 19% of the SCS staff were from low socioeconomic backgrounds, while in 2019 it was 18%.
But, as the report later acknowledges, since 1967, society has changed a lot, and the group categorised as being in the lower socioeconomic class is much smaller than it was, now accounting for around 37% of UK workers. So while the class background of SCS workers hasn’t changed much, nowadays it much more closely matches the class background of the public more generally (though it still overrepresents people from the high socioeconomic group and underrepresents people from the low socioeconomic group).
The socioeconomic groupings are also worth looking at in detail. Throughout the media reporting and the report itself, people from a high socioeconomic background are described, variously, as “advantaged” or “privileged” but the group is less exclusive than it might sound.
It includes people such as the children of chief executives and solicitors, but also the children of teachers, nurses and social workers, who might not be assumed to come from a “privileged” background.
In comparison, professions counted as being from a low socioeconomic background include plumbers, electricians, bar and waiting staff and sales assistants, while jobs such as secretaries, call centre agents and small business owners are counted as “intermediary”.
Using another measure of privilege, the report notes that 25% of the SCS, and 59% of permanent secretaries (the heads of government departments), attended an independent school. Back in 1967, their representation in the SCS was much higher at around 37%.
By contrast, 7% of school pupils in England are currently at an independent school which has remained roughly the same since 1967.
This suggests SCS employees are still more likely to come from a privileged background than average, but less so than was the case 50 years ago.
Update 3 June 2021
This article has been updated to clarify that the problems with comparing the composition of the SCS since 1967 using socioeconomic classifications is discussed in the report.