Whitehall looks to the future with internship programme for young mandarins-in-waiting

Young Sir Humphrey Applebys they are not. Neither, frankly, do they bare much resemblance to aspiring Malcolm Tuckers. Nonetheless, the 60 teenagers, looking a little intimidated amid the garish turquoise and gold state rooms of the Foreign Office, are what the Civil Service believes are its future.

They were chosen from hundreds of applicants across the country for an internship programme with a difference. While many summer schemes are dominated by children of the wealthy, all those accepted are either on free school meals or in line to be the first generation of their families to go to university.

They had been fixed up with two weeks of placements across government departments – from the Treasury to the Home Office and even David Cameron's office – to get a taste of life in Whitehall and a step up on the ladder to a Civil Service career.

The scheme, now in its second year, has so far had little publicity – but if it works it could fundamentally alter the make-up of the next generation of Whitehall mandarins.

Not that the 17-year-olds initially saw it that way.

"I heard about it from one of my A-Level teachers," said Liam Reynolds, 17, from Birmingham.

"But I didn't really apply until the last day because I didn't think it was a realistic goal. I thought it would all be quite upper-class Oxbridge educated."

To put the teenagers at their ease on their first day, Baroness Warsi, the Cabinet Minister responsible for the programme, told a story of growing up in Dewsbury, the child of immigrant parents, and going to the local comprehensive.

"I went to see the careers service," she tells them, "and the woman said to me 'what is it that you want to do?'. I said I really enjoyed working with people and she said: 'Well there's a McDonalds opening in town."

"I decided that I didn't want to flip burgers for the rest of my life. I wanted to do more than that.

"Sometimes it's very easy to look at other people who are successful and think they must have had it easy all the way. They probably did not have the barriers I did. But I came to realise that the biggest barrier I had was my own aspirations."

So, two weeks on, what do the teenagers make of life in the Civil Service and has it changed their minds?

One girl, Rumanah, has been completely converted: "I didn't think I was desk person. But I've seen the amount of things that can be done behind a desk."

Blake Lawrinson, from Leeds, had done a stint in David Cameron's office – researching about the Paralympics and taking part in field visits.

"The definite highlight had to be when I went on a recce – visiting one of the most sustainable buildings in Europe. That was just a completely new experience and exclusive as well. It was like: wow – I can't believe I'm here. I pinched myself a bit."

All those taking part were given references signed by Nick Clegg, advice on applying to top universities – and the promise that they will get extra support if they do decide to pursue a career as a civil servant.

But amid the enthusiasm was a voice of cynicism that would not appeal to Yes Minister's Sir Humphrey.

"Before I came I had this idea of a lot of bureaucracy," said Liam. "And that hasn't really changed – if anything it's been reinforced quite a lot. Perhaps Civil Service cuts are the way to go."