Last week the first ever Professions Week sought to increase awareness of the range and variety of potential employment options the professions have to offer, encourage young people to see them as interesting and fulfilling careers, and help employers recruit people from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds.
It was also an opportunity to remind people of the stark levels of inequality of access to the professions that persist in this country. Speaking at the Pathways To The Professions conference that closed the week, I conducted a whistle-stop tour of some of the key facts which can still shock and surprise: that the 7% of young people independently educated (rising to 12% in the Sixth Form) have provided 51% of our current population of senior medics, 54 % of journalists (remember that next time the press carp on about 'toff MPs' - who score better at only 32% independently educated) and 68% of top barristers. In comparison, children eligible for free school meals (about 15% of the population) are consistently less likely than their better off peers to reach the expected levels of attainment throughout their school careers; that while undergraduates from poorer backgrounds who manage to get into the most selective universities perform comparably with their peers (even getting more first class degrees), they are less likely to be employed in a graduate job six months after graduation; and that if they are lucky enough to secure a professional post, they earn between £2,500 and £3,000 less annually than their more privileged peers.
For the first time in a long while, having presented these statistics, I was heckled. Well, not heckled exactly - this was a polite, professional crowd - but following my speech a delegate sought me out, and they were not happy. My comments about the independent sector were, they complained 'divisive and unnecessary' at a conference such as this. Was I not aware that over a third of pupils at independent schools are on bursaries? People like me seeking to create division where it isn't make the situation worse - the problem, if there is one, lies with the universities.
Now although the percentage of bursary-holders in the sector has improved in recent years it's a long time since the Independent Schools Council has tried claiming that it covers a third of pupils, with 'over a quarter' the current stated amount. 58.6% of those receive less than 50% remission however, which is a very long way from putting them in the 'free school meals' category, and the fact that the figures on those holding 100% bursaries aren't given rather reinforces my firm expectation that it's a tiny, tiny number. And while I have nothing but admiration for the standard of education provided by many independent schools, and nothing but high regard for those (like my heckler) who work hard, scrimp and save so that, helped by bursaries, their children can benefit from that excellent education, I remain extremely robust in my view that educational excellence, and all the subsequent life benefits that brings, should not only be available to what by even the most generous measure is far too small a proportion of young people. Parents should not have to rely on independent schools bursaries to get a high quality education for their children - or pay a premium to live in the catchment area of a high performing state school, or pay for coaching for the 11+, for let's not pretend this is just a 'state versus independent' issue. And while we're trying to sort out the chronic issue of educational inequality falling hardest on the poorest it remains urgently necessary to remind anyone engaged in recruiting young people into employment, further or higher education that the playing field is nowhere near level, and that until it is, we simply must find more sophisticated ways to discover and assess individual talent and potential if our society is going to become less, not more, divided.