Intended for healthcare professionals


Just 4% of UK doctors come from working class backgrounds

BMJ 2016; 355 doi: (Published 23 November 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;355:i6330
  1. Caroline White
  1. BMJ Careers
  1. cwhite{at}

Just 4% of UK doctors come from working class backgrounds, a report by the Social Mobility Commission has found.1

The commission’s fourth annual report found that 4% of doctors were from working class backgrounds, a proportion that was even lower than that of two other enclaves of privilege—law (6%) and journalism (11%).

The report said that an unfair education system was hampering efforts to widen participation from early childhood onwards, a disadvantage that economic and employment factors then compound.

Just 5% of children eligible for free school meals gained five A grades at GCSE. Poor careers advice and work experience opportunities meant that, even with the same GCSE results, one third more of poorer children dropped out of education after the age of 16 than their better off classmates.

They were also 30% less likely to take the A levels needed to study at a top university, and much less likely to specialise in science, engineering, or maths (SEM) subjects, which pave the way for the “highest yield” degrees, such as medicine and economics, the report said.

Geography also played its part. In London, the report said, one in five pupils eligible for free school meals enrolled for at least one SEM A level, but in every other region this stood at fewer than one in 10.

“Britain remains a deeply elitist nation where the chance of getting a well paid job in a top profession is still strongly correlated with social background,” the report said, adding that the prospects of climbing the social ladder had worsened, rather than improved, particularly for the current generation of young people.

Medicine remained “one of the most inaccessible professions,” said the report, with “80 per cent of medical school applicants coming from around only 20 per cent of schools, the majority of which were independent or grammar schools.” The report also pointed out that there wasn’t a single applicant for medical school from half of all the sixth forms in England between 2009 and 2011.

It highlighted research published earlier this year of UK medical schools’ application data from 2009 to 2012.2 This found that just over 3% of medical school places were awarded to applicants from postcodes in areas of greatest deprivation, compared with around one in four (26%) of those from the least deprived.

And more than one in four successful applicants went to an independent school, while the parents of four out of five worked in higher managerial or senior administrative posts, the findings showed.

“If the government is serious about raising its social mobility aspirations, it needs to prioritise the wider experiences and advice that can help to place children from all backgrounds on a level footing,” the report said.

It called for a rethink of the government’s support for academy schools and its more recent proposals for new grammar schools. These were “unlikely to deliver its ambitions and risk damaging the outcomes of the poorest children,” the commission said.

Universities should be at the heart of the social mobility agenda, the report said, and it called on the government to publish an annual league table of the best and worst performers.

Alongside access, this should include data on retention and progression, and the numbers of mature students as well as those from disadvantaged backgrounds, with performance tied to universities’ ability to charge the full annual tuition fee of £9000, the report said.