Fast Stream to open assessment centres outside London in bid to tackle “unrepresentative” graduate intake

Cabinet Office-commissioned report finds flagship Fast Stream graduate programme remains “unrepresentative of the population at large”, as minister Matt Hancock vows to take action

By matt.foster

02 Feb 2016

New regional assessment centres for civil service Fast Stream candidates are to be set up in a bid to break London’s stranglehold on graduate recruitment and open up the scheme to more working class applicants.

The Cabinet Office this week published the findings of a report carried out on its behalf by the Bridge Group consultancy, aimed at understanding why just 4.4% of successful applicants to Whitehall’s prestigious graduate scheme hail from low socio-economic backgrounds.

The report says that while the civil service already has “many good practices” to try to level the playing field for working class applicants to the Fast Stream — including removing candidate screening criteria such as the university they have attended, and publishing data on socio-economic background — the Fast Stream remains “unrepresentative of the population at large”.

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“To put this in context, the profile of the intake is less diverse than the student population at the University of Oxford,” the report notes.

The report finds that there are still “low levels of awareness of the Fast Stream amongst lower SEB students”, with the programme seen as both “attractive and intimidating” to students from poorer backgrounds.

And the wider civil service is still seen as “bureaucratic”, “white, male and Oxbridge”, according to the report, with the effect of lowering applications from graduates of lower socio-economic background.

The study warns that a lack of diversity at the application stage is then “compounded in the selection process”, with “candidates graduating from more selective universities” enjoying “higher odds of passing each recruitment stage”.

The report pins some of the blame for the lack of successful working class applicants on the Fast Stream’s lengthy recruitment process, which it says may be favouring those with the means to wait around for a job.

According to the study, Fast Stream applicants face a wait of 18-31 weeks between applying and joining the programme, against a public sector average of 11.5 weeks. 

This means “many lower SEB students are put off applying”, it finds, while “those who do apply are less likely to take the risk of not accepting job offers elsewhere during the process”.

Meanwhile, the Fast Stream assessment centre based near the Treasury at 100 Parliament Street is described as creating “a sense of mystique amongst some students, which contributes to the experience of intimidation”.

And while salaries offered by the civil service are not seen as deterring working class applicants, the report says the Fast Stream’s “geographical focus on London” is putting off some graduates, with research indicating that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to be able to move to the capital.

Setting out the government’s response to the report, the Cabinet Office vowed to take graduate recruitment “outside of London by establishing regional assessment centres” for the first time. The report recommends that “at least” one new centre be set up outside of the capital this year, with more to follow thereafter.

Hancock: Inequality matters

Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock meanwhile reiterated moves the government has made in recent months to try and improve civil service diversity. That includes a pledge to roll out “name-blind recruitment” across the entire organisation by 2020, and a promise that Whitehall will contribute “more than 30,000” towards the wider public sector’s target of creating 200,000 new apprenticeships by the end of the decade.

Hancock told an audience of business leaders: “I want to see a Britain where nobody is defined by the circumstances of their birth. To deliver that, public services need to reflect the country that they serve.

“Inequality matters. Countries with higher income inequality have lower levels of social mobility. It’s harder to climb the ladder of opportunity if the rungs are further apart. We’re going to put more rungs in that ladder.

“I am not prepared to accept unequal access and unequal progress in Britain’s top institutions. We will tear down these barriers to fairness for all.”

The Cabinet Office also promised that a new public sector “inequality index” — setting out the difference between an organisation’s median pay and the salaries enjoyed by highest paid officials — would be made available, allowing taxpayers to “hold the government to account”.

Last year, the civil service named Ministry of Defence permanent secretary Jon Thompson — who himself became an apprentice accountant straight out of school, later joining Whitehall as a finance director general — as the organisation’s newest “diversity champion”, with a specific remit to help get more people from low socioeconomic backgrounds into Whitehall.

The Bridge Group report stresses the role that civil service leaders can play in improving the organisation’s performance on social mobility, calling for “clearer senior leadership accountability” for socio-economic diversity in the Fast Stream.

It also urges Whitehall to make better use of data to try and help the graduate scheme target those schools and universities that are currently under-represented and “combat preconceptions of the civil service”.

Current Fast Streamers should also be given “specific engagement targets”, the study recommends, with successful candidates encouraged to get involved in outreach programmes with the support of permanent secretaries and senior officials.

Meanwhile, one student taking part in the study set out what they felt the civil service stands to gain from improving the diversity of its graduate intake.

“Having people that have experienced poverty, experienced insecurity, and bringing those lived experiences into the policy making discussions could have a huge impact,” they said. “I don’t think that’s properly appreciated within the civil service, and I definitely don’t think that’s communicated outside of the civil service.”

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