Fast Stream "harder to coach for" after social mobility shake-up, says scheme's head

Fast Stream assessment now much more focused on "real-life work scenarios", says Gillian Smith, after report warns of lack of working class representation in the scheme

By Matt Foster

11 Oct 2016

Fast Stream assessments are now "much more difficult to coach for", the head of the civil service graduate programme has told CSW, in the wake of a hard-hitting report on the lack of working class representation in the flagship entry scheme.

Earlier this year, a report on the Fast Stream by the Bridge Group consultancy found that just 4.4% of successful applicants to the scheme hailed from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds, compared with 24% of the overall graduate population. The group pointed out that that intake made the Fast Stream “less diverse than the student population at the University of Oxford”.

Speaking to CSW as part of an in-depth look at social mobility in the civil service, Gillian Smith, head of the Fast Stream, acknowledged that scheme had seen only “small, incremental changes, year-on-year” in its socio-economic diversity, and said her team had realised it "needed to do something very different" to address the problem.

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 “I think we knew we wouldn’t like what we would find, because all of the evidence that we collected internally and our own sense was that we simply weren’t shifting things quickly enough,” she said of the Bridge Group report.

In response to the Bridge Group's findings, this year's Fast Stream assessment process has seen a number of changes, including a move away from verbal and numerical reasoning tests which are shown to disadvantage candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

While Smith said the Fast Stream had "never looked for polish", she acknowledged that some candidates from elite universities and top schools "came with a lot of polish" – and said the scheme had made a number of changes to try and level the playing field.

"In particular, the Bridge Group challenged us on two things," she said. "One was the cognitive loading of the initial online test – particularly the verbal and numerical reasoning tests, which we knew had some adverse impact on diversity. So we've taken those out for this year.

"Now the online test is a situation judgement report – essentially a set of real-life work scenarios against which you apply some judgement and select a multiple choice answer. That's much more difficult to coach for."

While numerical and verbal reasoning tests still form part of the Fast Steam assessment process, Smith said they had now been moved "to the back-end", and integrated with a wider analytical exercise.

Meanwhile Fast Stream interviews themselves have undergone a major change to make them “less focused on competency" and more on “strengths-based questioning” – including the replacement of face-to-face interviews with video questioning so that “everybody is asked exactly the same pre-recorded set of questions”.

“People are able to respond to that in a timed period on the app, in the privacy of their own study space,” she told CSW. “They can do that at a time when they’re ready for it, when they feel relaxed and able to perform at their best, rather than feeling like it’s all hinging on an interview in an assessment centre where you can see your competitors around you."

The Fast Stream has also opened a new assessment centre in Newcastle in a bid to challenge the London focus of the scheme, while Smith's team have also cut down the programme's lengthy recruitment process.

According to the Bridge Group, Fast Stream applicants faced a wait of 18-31 weeks between applying and joining the programme, way above the public sector average of 11.5 weeks. 

The Bridge Group said this long wait was deterring "many" lower SEB students – who often do not have the financial resources to wait around for employment – from applying, while those who did put their names forward were, it said, "less likely to take the risk of not accepting job offers elsewhere during the process”.

Smith told CSW she was hopeful that the changes would have a noticeable impact on the diversity of the latest Fast Stream intake, and said the scheme could act as a "microcosm of what happens across the whole of government".

The Cabinet Office is currently working with the Bridge Group to gather more robust data on the state of socio-economic diversity in the Senior Civil Service, including asking detailed questions on the background of the government's top officials.

"I think getting it right in the Fast Stream bodes well for the rest of the civil service," Smith said. "Because if it works in the Fast Stream its likely to work elsewhere".

Read CSW's full report on civil service social mobility here

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