Stiff upper lip not required

The Foreign Office is throwing open its hallowed doors to candidates who can't necessarily mix a perfect gin and tonic.
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The Independent Culture
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) has an image problem. For years its staff have been perceived as the sort of chaps with the stiffest of stiff upper lips - fine, upstanding, public school-educated, Oxbridge types who could keep cool in a crisis, sort out the odd attempted military coup, and mix a decent gin and tonic. But it is an image that the Government is determined to change, by seeking recruits from more diverse backgrounds.

Tomorrow the FCO holds an open day where careers advisers, representatives from the new universities, community and religious leaders and children from comprehensive schools will be invited to visit departments and talk to staff, meet ministers and see displays of the type of work done by the FCO at home and abroad.

The Foreign Office has also started a shadowing scheme, whereby students from Lambeth College, an inner-city further education college, spend time with different staff to learn about the types of jobs available.

The Secretary of State, Robin Cook, says: "I aim to encourage more women, people from ethic minorities, people with disabilities and people from the broadest possible range of backgrounds to join the FCO. It is essential that staff should reflect the diversity of people of the United Kingdom, whom they represent." He adds that these new candidates "will also bring to the FCO a new and rich source of ideas and talent to help shape the future foreign policy of a modern Britain".

Madeleine Campbell, head of employment law and equal opportunities at the FCO, says: "The image of the FCO can put people off. They feel intimidated. I know it put me off - I joined the Central Office of Information and was transferred to the FCO under an internal reorganisation. I never applied to the FCO in the first place, because I never dreamt they would have me."

The cliquism associated with the FCO is partly down to the fact that between 50 and 70 per cent have Oxbridge degrees; 40 to 60 per cent were educated privately. Ms Campbell says this is changing, albeit slowly. This year the number of recruits from Oxbridge was down to 48 per cent.

The traditional route into the Foreign Office for high-flyers is via the highly competitive Civil Service fast stream, now known as the "policy entry point". Candidates have to pass stringent tests, and also prove that they have the ability to think on their feet.

While not all will gain entry at that level, there are opportunities for those who are more practically focused, or suited to dealing with the public, to join at the "operational entry point". Although many who apply at this level are graduates, a degree is not a prerequisite. "There are some extremely interesting consular jobs, and in the commercial section dealing with British business interests abroad, at this level," says Ms Campbell.

There is also plenty of opportunity for promotion. The FCO is a meritocracy and all vacant posts are subject to open competition.

Many graduates join in order to travel, and can do so after gaining a couple of years' experience in the UK. Those wanting to advance their careers rapidly tend to apply for postings in Brussels, Paris, Washington, Moscow or Peking; those more interested in quality of life often opt for places such as Harare and Kuala Lumpur.

While languages are an asset, they are not a prerequisite for a job at the FCO. "We are interested in attracting people who are very practical in an operational sense, and make things happen. Languages would only be the deciding factor between two candidates all other things being equal," says Ms Campbell.

The FCO is also keen to encourage people with disabilities to apply for jobs. In the past staff had to be prepared to serve anywhere in the world - a criterion which disabled people often could not meet because some postings were inaccessible. However, this rule has been relaxed, although the Foreign Office building itself is not ideal.

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, says: "We must also ensure that within the FCO people with disabilities are not disadvantaged. One area in which we must improve is the physical working environment. Our main London location in a historic building imposes considerable restraints, but we are trying to come up with imaginative solutions."

Ms Campbell adds: "We want to open up the FCO to a much broader range of people, and demonstrate that it is a welcoming place and that there are people like me here, with ordinary backgrounds." She says that she herself should serve as an example to anyone who may be too intimidated to consider a career in the FCO. She started her working life as a stewardess on a cross-channel ferry.