Political Promise

Positive Discrimination in Government Departments

In Uncategorized on August 24, 2010 at 3:12 pm

By Nick Leahy

While the government of Great Britain and Northern Ireland should undoubtedly be made up of people from a variety of backgrounds, races and religions, it is disappointing to see that many of the opportunities to forge a career in Whitehall nowadays are open not to white middle class applicants (as in the past), but exclusively to minority groups. Swinging the balance back in the favour of a more equal applications system should not be achieved by positive discrimination, but by basing admission to the civil service and other government departmental jobs on merit alone.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) currently offers work experience only to those from a partner university, or more importantly, and disappointingly, to students from a black or minority ethnic background, or to those with a disability. Ironically, on the website of the FCO can be found the claim that the department seeks “strength through diversity”, and that “all successful applicants are appointed purely on merit”. However, in the very next line it is stated that the FCO “especially encourage applications from members of currently underrepresented groups”. Written another way, this means that the FCO does not in fact appoint solely on merit, but gives priority to applicants from the aforementioned categories. This pattern is reflected across numerous government departments, affecting not just those seeking work experience in the civil service, but also those applying for permanent positions.

What needs to be addressed to broaden the social backgrounds of civil servants is not the admissions process, but the education that those from underrepresented groups receive. Too often, those achieving the lowest grades at both primary and secondary levels of education are from minority ethnic backgrounds, or other minority groups. To add to this, the gap in standards and achievement between the private and state sector schools is inadequate, and will require more investment and reform to ensure that the state sector catches up. There is also a discrepancy between the quality of schools in inner city areas – areas which incidentally are frequently inhabited by larger numbers of ethnic minority groups – and suburban areas. Only once these imbalances in our education system are addressed so that our schools provide all children with an excellent level of education that enables them to aspire to the highest paid jobs, of which a career in the civil service is an example, will we begin to see the range of applicants to such jobs reflect the ethnic balance of our society.

The action being taken by the new coalition government with regards to education looks promising (in particular its commitment to allow parents, charities and teachers to set up their own schools), but will have to be judged ultimately on whether standards in the state sector are improved and on evidence that demonstrates the opportunities being offered to those from not only minority groups, but all pupils, are equal. The “pupil premium” championed by the Liberal Democrats as members of the coalition government is a positive step in the right direction, but again the focus must be on giving a high level of education to all pupils, and not just investing in those from the poorest backgrounds. True, the poorest are the group that need the most help, but this must not be to the detriment of those from more privileged homes. When this problem has been proven to have been solved, it will eradicate the need for departments to positively discriminate in their admissions processes, and ensure that all applicants, regardless of social background, ethnicity or physical ability, will receive the same treatment, and gain entrance into work experience or jobs in government departments based solely on merit.

The current policy of departments such as the FCO is unacceptable, and only serves to heighten the sense that the highest level of British government is dominated by those from a privileged upbringing, whilst at the same time masking the deeper problems in British society, which demonstrate that to this day candidates are selected because of who they are or where they come from, rather than on the skills and competencies that they can offer in the workplace.

Nick Leahy is a 19 year old second year politics student at the University of Nottingham. He was born in London and is particularly interested in the politics affecting this region. Other political interests include foreign affairs, international development, international relations and education policy. His hobbies include football, tennis, and swimming and cycling. When not playing sport, he enjoys reading.

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