Apprentice 12: Why Stella shone and Chris will be OK and what it tells us about Britain’s talent travesty

And finally... Stella won Apprentice 2010 because she actually exhibited the best marketing, people and influencing skills. She was also the best in terms of her learning journey. She managed the final team task of developing a new brand of alcoholic drink brilliantly. It was her inspiration to come up with the fantastic idea of Urbon, as a female friendly “soft” variant of bourbon. She also pitched very well and kept her team under a firm leash. Though we only see edited highlights she managed to put out a team bickering bushfire with humour and authority. Chris on the other hand was studiously ignored by two key members of his team when he specified that the new drink Prism should be clear. That probably told Lord Sugar something.

Chris was definitely a worthy finalist bright and creative as well as focused if a tad gauche and over confident.  But Stella’s triumph whether she or her new boss know it or not, is significant.

The evidence shows the odds of opportunity are stacked against bright people from manual social classes. It’s ludicrous we should still be having this debate as we approach 2011. But here is why. Just 100 schools, less than 3% per cent of the UK total, account for a third of places at Oxford and Cambridge. These also dominate at least 11 other institutions, including Durham, Edinburgh, and Bristol  the LSE, St Andrews, Warwick and York. Some of these are what I call the “Aga League” dominated by posh students from the Home Counties, many not that bright. The House of Commons report provides the data.

Looking at the other end of the wealth spectrum research from the Sutton Trust shows that those on free school meals are almost invisible at our elite universities. Cambridge for example admits less than one percent (0.6%) of this the poorest cohort. Yet Controlling for family income, ethnicity and class (the random characteristics of birth), state school students actually do better in degree attainment and those from what are known as “low participation neighbourhoods” even better. They even do better as postgraduates.

People who don’t get things easily tend to strive more. That’s my insight on Stella’s success. That’s not to say Chris wasn’t good and should be blamed for coming from a posh background but is not unfair social engineering to say that less of his type should dominate the best education and jobs. Anyone who knows me or my background will know that I am passionate about opportunity and as a learning and talent adviser for CIPD I should be. I also came from a low participation background, started off in manual jobs and got to university.  Favoring a privileged group as thoroughly as we do independent school pupils is thinning our talent pool. Our obsession with class, accent, parental income and family connections is pulling us down.

So many sharp Stella’s get passed over for connected Claudia’s that there is talent waiting to be tapped. Want more proof? 50% of St Pauls and Westminster pupils alone got to Oxbridge. Even in the closest “state” competitors in leafy middle class areas where the state school through location, selection and parental investment almost operates like a free independent, the figure is between 20 and 30%. It’s a privilege passport and a predictor of access to great jobs and a great life. The fact that less than 5% of the least privileged get to these unique opportunities is a national talent travesty.

My view though is the rough edged, carnaptious Lord of the property deal and the advertising space is more socially aware than people give him credit for. It’s also a shrewd call. He knows that the Stella’s of this world are sometimes only allowed to go so far. Now he has put the career of the talented woman from Thamesmead on turbo-boost. I know he won’t be disappointed. In the New Year I will be taking you through the episodes and looking at the learning from this series of the apprentice. Keep your eyes peeled.

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