Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Banning interns won't increase social mobility

Much frothing and spluttering among the political classes about Nick Clegg's social mobility strategy - or rather about the matter of so-called "interns".

Nick Clegg's scathing attack on inequality of opportunity was branded ‘total hypocrisy’ last night.
As he unveiled a drive to improve social mobility, it emerged his millionaire father had secured him the internship that launched his career and a titled family friend helped get him his first proper job.

The LibDem leader was also forced to make a humiliating apology for employing unpaid interns in his own office, while criticising the practice in public.

There was further embarrassment for Mr Clegg as it emerged that the LibDems may not even have paid expenses to some young people.

The party hurriedly brought in new guidelines yesterday to ‘put our own house in order’.
As they say round here – “oops”!

However, I am struck by the possibility that rules restricting internships will impact on genuine volunteering. It seems to me that there’s a case for stopping internships being used as a smooth route for the children of the wealthy to secure employment in professions like law where there are limited opportunities (and too much supply). But would this prevent, for example, a community law centre offering unpaid volunteering to young aspiring lawyers?

My concern is that HR managers in the voluntary sector (and let’s not forget that political parties are, in principle, part of the voluntary sector) will interpret any new rules in such a way as to prevent young people using volunteering as a way to secure experience – to make a meagre CV look a little more sparkly. And charitable organisations already face huge pressures that are eased by the use of internships. Here’s one household name’s offer:

This summer we'll be offering internships lasting three months in a wide range of areas, including community fundraising, events, marketing, communications and healthcare. Whatever team you join, you'll make a big difference to Macmillan and to the lives of people affected by cancer.

We'll be recruiting for summer interns between mid-April and mid-May - pop back from 11 April for more information. Unfortunately we are unable to accept CVs, covering letters or applications for summer internships, until 11 April.

Are we saying that charities should be stopped from making such offers in case those taking them up gain some sort of advantage as a result? At the same time as we speak of ‘Big Society’ and the encouragement of volunteering?

As is often the case with these debates, the choice of a relatively insignificant barrier to social mobility as a high profile target completely misses the point. If we see the lack of upward social mobility as a problem (and not everyone does), then we must address the source of that problem – the continuing failure of our education system and especially the ever-widening gap between the privately and publicly educated. Gabbing on about interns, babbling about ‘income equality’ or beating up merit-driven university entrance won’t address our problems.

From 1964 to 1997 – thirty-three years – our nation was led by the products of grammar schools, people from pretty ordinary backgrounds. After 40 years of comprehensive education, the nation’s leaders – in politics, business, arts and literature – are the products of private schools and a privileged background.  And unless we give children a better start, all the fixing of internships, “fair access strategies” and other elements of Mr Clegg’s social mobility plans will achieve nothing – except the inevitable unintended consequence.


No comments: