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."

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