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By Phil Wilson, Chief Psychologist and Chief Assessor, Civil Service Fast Stream

Social Mobility -01

Is Social Mobility a realistic ambition, within everyone’s reach? Phil Wilson proposes business psychology can make a difference!

Social mobility, the capacity for an individual or group to enhance/change their socio-economic status, is a theme that is increasingly conspicuous in public and professional discourse. Concern and opinion are widely expressed about lack of social movement – whether the focus is disenfranchised youth, employment chances, university access or progression into the professions.

Diagnosis of the problem is easier than the remedy however. There are many metrics to highlight the social mobility challenge. Only 20% of young people from the poorest homes achieve five good GCSEs compared to 75% from richer families. Pupils at independent schools are three times more likely to achieve an A* grade at A-level compared to students from comprehensive schools. 70% of the judiciary went to an independent school, along with 54% of FTSE CEOs and 54% of journalists (yes, journalists!). A number of metrics show the UK doing less well than comparator countries in these areas. And so on. (Wilson, 2012 and Cabinet Office, 2011).

Business psychology’s role in the social mobility challenge

Some ideas for amelioration are being formulated. During the writing of this article, a leading law firm announced it will now assess graduate CVs without reference to educational background, to avoid Oxbridge/social background bias (The Independent, 2014). But we can do more – business psychology, perhaps uniquely, can marshal analytical, behavioural and corporate methodologies.

1. Socio-economic status

We may start with how socio-economic status (SES) is conceptualised. There has already been investigation in this respect (Wilson, 2012). A multi-dimensional approach to diversity interventions – by looking holistically at background, race, gender, age, and other attributes – has been asserted (Calvard, 2013). Furthermore, a paper at this year’s DOP Conference described familial SES as having a substantial over-arching impact on psychometric test performance (Hinton, 2014) – no one should be surprised at this, but it certainly elevates debate from a simplistic black-white group dichotomy. The Civil Service Fast Stream graduate programme is now measuring and monitoring SES graduate success rates to a significant extent (Cabinet Office, 2011 and 2012).

A major opportunity rests in constructing effective development opportunities to increase human and social capital (Bourdieu, 1985), with psychologists leading on design elements. Fast Stream has evolved a Summer Diversity Internship Programme (SDIP) for those from lower SES backgrounds. Underlying the programme is the desire to shift the horizons of those from less privileged circumstances and change their aspirations, to view beyond their starting point. Alongside this, the government launched, in April 2013, a major apprenticeship scheme for those who choose not to pursue a university degree. This will provide opportunities for individuals from diverse socio-economic backgrounds – as is increasingly seen in apprenticeships across the country and organisational sectors. The evaluation metrics for SDIP interns have been positive; 94% of the intern group would recommend the programme to other students.

91% would consider applying to Fast Stream as a result of the internship (Wilson, 2013). In the last four years well over 100 interns have gone on to be appointed to Fast Stream. Interns have also been offered intensive coaching to support selection success, with as many as 35-40% of Coaching Programme participants being successful at Fast Stream, representing an appointment rate 15 times better than for Fast Stream itself.

The SDIP won the 2012 National Placement and Internship Awards’ diversity award and was ‘Highly Commended’ in the 2012 National Council and Work Experience Awards. In 2013 it was finalist for these same awards, as well as for a social mobility award. The Coaching Programme itself was ‘Highly Commended’ in the 2012 Race for Opportunity Awards.

2. Developing self-efficacy and confidence

There is much else that business psychology can offer. An example might be workshops to develop broader capacities such as self-efficacy and confidence. Practical skill sessions at an early stage for disadvantaged college students have been implemented for potential Fast Stream applicants. Aspirational sessions on career planning and extending political and emotional intelligence have also been initiated at school level.

3. Fairness and diversity

Working to ensure fairness and diversity within selection and recruitment systems (Wilson, 2014), including for unconscious bias, is another area where the profession may excel. And using different psychological models to enhance career success, such as team working, transactional analysis, visualisation for goal setting and even neuro-linguistic programming for anchoring appropriate emotional states have been well received amongst student groups (as delivered by Fast Stream) with further development and evaluation still to be instigated.

4. Recognising the influence of contextual factors

More radically, Fast Stream is supporting a wider UK initiative to recognise contextual social, educational and family background when comparing degree and A-level grade achievements between privileged and less privileged applicants (Rare Recruitment, 2013). Business psychology can add much to this new diversity area and can be at the forefront of addressing narrow life opportunities.


  • Bourdieu, P. (1985) The social space and genesis of groups. Social Science Information 24
  • Cabinet Office (2011) Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility
  • Cabinet Office (2011 and 2012) Fast Stream Recruitment Reports. Cabinet Office website
  • Calvard, T. (2013) Workplace diversity: How can OP help to differentiate the differences? OP Matters. No.19, July 2013
  • Hinton, D. (2014) Towards Greater Understanding of Ethnic Bias in Ability Testing for Selection. Division of Occupational Psychology Conference, Brighton
  • The Independent (2014) Law firm adopts ‘CV blind’ policy to break Oxbridge recruitment bias. 10 January, 2014
  • Rare Recruitment (2013) Social Mobility in Graduate Recruitment
  • Wilson, P. (2012) Social mobility – occupational psychology’s role in the new diversity challenge. Division of Occupational Psychology Conference, Chester
  • Wilson, P. (2013) Harnessing the benefits of internships – an award winning diversity internship programme. Division of Occupational Psychology Conference, Chester
  • Wilson, P. (2014) Enhancing Diversity at Assessment Centres through Positive Action. Division of Occupational Psychology Conference, Brighton

About the author

Phil Wilson -01Phil Wilson is Chief Psychologist and Chief Assessor, Civil Service Fast Stream.

He previously led Occupational Psychology for London Fire Brigade, held a similar role at Greater Manchester Police and a consulting role at SHL.

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