Job interview

Should potential employers ask what school you attended?

July 7th 2018

Imagine you’re at a job interview. You’re asked a bit about your background – qualifications, work experience, reasons for wanting the position and the slightly awkward question of why you want to leave your current employers. Then you’re asked what school you went to. Does that bother you? And if so, why? It certainly doesn’t bother me.

In a bid to make workplaces more diverse, the government is rolling out new guidelines for the civil service in which potential employees will be asked up to five questions about their background including their schooling and eligibility for free school meals. It is recommended that employers outside of the civil service use these during recruitment, although they’re entirely voluntary.

Some will say this is an invasion of privacy. Why does education matter when you’re in the workplace? Would you ask someone their sexual preference? I say it’s not the same. Someone’s sexual preference doesn’t impact an ability to do the job but knowing where someone went to school says a lot about them. Left a sink estate school with good grades and won a place at a top university? I can tell you’re hardworking and determined. Spent your school days at the best independent schools money can buy? I know you’ve been exposed to a variety of extra-curricular activities and you’ll have confidence.

An interview is all about judgement. It’s to decide whether that person is right for your company. If you’re looking for an accountant and the applicant has a degree in history with no accountancy training, they’re not going to be right for you. If, in an interview, you’re asked why you want the job, you’ll be judged on your answer. You’ll also be judged on your appearance and timekeeping and anything else that will help the interviewer form a picture of you.

To me as an employee, knowing what school a candidate went to adds an extra layer to that person as I’ve got half an hour or so to make a decision that will impact my business. It’s interesting that no one minds being asked about university even though higher education boasts an obvious hierarchy. Graduating with Physics from Cambridge is going to raise more eyebrows than Business Studies at Bolton. But if the latter has gone on to build an impressive career in a relevant field while the former has drifted from job to job, it’s easy to see who would be the favourite for the job. University is just one aspect of their background, experience and career.

I know the government’s intention is to ensure that the public sector positively discriminates and therefore some excellent candidates might lose a job because they went to a fee-paying school. It’s a box ticking exercise, which is something I’m wary of. Most employers are driven by the commercial nature of their company and are focused solely on finding the best person for that job. I know that I don't care about anything else. I wouldn’t turn away an excellent candidate in favour of a less able person because of their schooling. Having quotas for certain demographics – in this case it’s education but it could easily be sexual preference, gender or race ­– results in possibly overlooking the best candidate and that can lead to a second-rate work force.