The boom in professional services in the UK after World War 2 was seen as a key driver of social mobility. However, amid concerns that access to these professions has become less representative over time, Gordon Brown’s government set up the independent cross-party Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, headed by the then Labour MP (and current chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission) Alan Milburn.
The Panel’s ground-breaking 2009 report, Unleashing Aspirations, made for disturbing reading, particularly for psychologists.
Firstly, it presented evidence that, in the UK (particularly at the top levels), the professions remain dominated by a social elite, revealing that 75% of judges, 53% of journalists, 50% of doctors, and 32% of MPs attended private school, indicating that the approximately 7% of the population who are privately schooled are massively overrepresented in leading positions across all sectors of society.
Secondly, although over 140 professional organisations gave evidence to the Panel, ranging from expected names like the British Medical Association to more diverse bodies such as the Institute for Archaeologists, the British Psychological Society - who one might have hoped would be in a good position to present evidence on the far reaching consequences of social inequality - was entirely absent from the panel’s work and report.
Supported by a small grant from the Leeds Clearing House we set out to explore whether access to clinical psychology training is similarly skewed, by examining the influence of educational background on the outcome of applications to the UK’s 30 clinical psychology training courses.
Although educational background (particularly where young people completed their A-levels) is a limited and by no means unproblematic metric by which to assess the impact of social privilege in this regard, in the absence of less messy indicators we felt it was sufficient to help answer some important questions about fairness and social mobility.
Taking into account both the type of school and the type of university where applicants completed their first degree (pre-1992 vs post-1992 institutions), as well as their degree class, we looked at data from September 2011 on the 2719 UK applicants for entry to clinical psychology training, of whom 17% (461 individuals) were offered a training place.
Our key findings were:
- Applicants who attended a non-selective state school were more likely to be rejected without interview and less likely to gain a place than those from grammar or independent schools.
- Applicants who attended post-1992 universities were more likely to be rejected without interview and less likely to gain a place than applicants who attended pre-1992 universities.
- A 1st class degree conferred an advantage over a 2:1, as did a 2:1 over a 2:2.
- However, no cumulative advantage resulted from attending a grammar or independent school, and pre-1992 university and a strong degree. Nor did applicants from non-selective state schools, who had a 2:1 or 2:2, from a post-1992 university (or two of these three) experience any significant additional disadvantage.
Some other notable findings:
- At interview, grammar school pupils were far more likely to be successful than applicants from either non-selective state or independent schools.
- While applicants from independent schools were more likely to gain an interview than those from non-selective state schools, they fared no better at interview than the latter. This may be due to them receiving better training in self-presentation for formal applications but not for a training course interview.
- 52% of psychology undergraduates major at post-1992 universities but only 36% of applicants for clinical psychology training were graduates of post-1992 institutions (2010/11 figures). We see a further drop-off in the proportion of graduates from post-1992 institutions during selection as only 23% of places offered to UK graduates in 2011 went to applicants from such universities.
Ultimately we concluded that clinical psychology is much less affected by social privilege than other more established professions, possibly due to its newer, less aspirational status when compared to, say, law, medicine or journalism.
The fact that it is a graduate entry profession and that training places are salaried is also likely to play a part.
All is not well though.
While we may be tempted to explain the greater success of grammar school attendees by referring solely to their academic ability, this ignores the fact that only 24% of English education authorities have grammar schools, and the last grammar school in Wales closed its doors in 1988. Thus the most academically able pupils are likely to attend non-selective state schools, creating an uneven playing field.
Research for the Sutton Trust also found that grammar schools (which make up only 5% of English secondary schools) are even more socially selective than other schools, accounting for 17 of the top 100 most socially selective secondary schools in the country.
The large drop-off in the proportion of graduates from post-1992 universities between undergraduate and postgraduate level should also raise concerns, as it is well-documented that pupils from low socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to make early subject choices or hold educational aspirations that put them on course for highly selective universities, and that individuals from BME groups are often disproportionately concentrated in these ‘new’ universities (Turpin & Fensom, 2004).
Thus what may seem like a reassuring picture of fairness in selection is in fact only fairness to a point, with a clear indication that the interaction of social standing and ethnicity makes some sections of society considerably more likely to enter the profession while keeping others out.