From free school meals to the foreign office: the next generation of mandarins?

Whitehall is on a quest to prove it is not elitist. But would these children be convinced?

Young Sir Humphrey Applebys they are not. Neither, frankly, do they bear much resemblance to aspiring Malcolm Tuckers – probably for the best.

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 is 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 family 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, 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 be be for the upper class."

Rumanah Patel from Bolton agreed. She has experience of the public school types that she thinks populate Whitehall – and at the start of her placement, still had plans to become a cosmetic dentist.

"I was at a politics conference with school recently and we were the only normal school there. Everyone else was from a private school. The guy sat next to me was like someone who had walked out of an olden-time movie. He was saying, 'It's so good to step out of the bubble and meet new people'. I thought, 'Are you trying to say I'm something from outside the bubble?' There is a divide. When they come into something like this, they are prepared for it. We're not."

To put them 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 school.

"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 is a McDonalds opening in town. Have you ever thought of applying there and doing that?'"

"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 were probably born into a more successful family; they probably didn't have the challenges at home that I did; they probably did not have the barriers I did. But I came to realise that the biggest barriers I had were my own aspirations."

So two weeks on, what do the teenagers make of life in the civil service and has it changed their minds? Rumanah has been completely converted: "I went in to this talking about dentistry and I didn't think I was desk person. But now I've seen the amount of things that can be done from behind a desk.

"We went to an asylum screening centre. There was this [Chinese] lady and she didn't speak a word of English, but her husband was English, and he didn't speak a word of Chinese – and they'd been married for six months."

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

"The definite highlight had to be when I went on a recce – visisting 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. I'd love to pursue a career in the civil service – I've found that it's something I really liked doing."

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 all the positives, there was at least some cynicism that would not appeal to Sir Humphrey.

"Before I came I had this idea that there would be a lot of bureaucracy," said Liam. "And that's not really changed – if anything, it's been reinforced quite a lot. Perhaps civil service cuts are the way to go."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
News
Danczuk has claimed he is a 'man of the world'
news
Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins wins the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Finance Manager - Central London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Business Development Manager

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: IT Buyer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This award winning IT company are currently re...

Recruitment Genius: IT Account Manager

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor