The man filling the City with working-class stars – FFA

A radical recruitment firm is transforming the intake of Britain’s most prestigious employers, using an algorithm that weeds out privileged but mediocre people and identifies talent from disadvantaged backgrounds

The Bank of England. Freshfields. Linklaters. May and Slaughter. Allen & Overy. Clifford Chance. Deloitte. Morgan Stanley. I could go on: a list of more than 150 elite employers across law, finance and management consulting that make up Britain’s most prestigious and well-paying employers.

They also share one thing in common: They have quietly begun using a radical new recruiting algorithm that leaves out mediocre but posh candidates to make way for the stars of working class.

‘Contextual admissions’ has been on the go in British universities since the turn of the century. They don’t like to talk about it, but Oxbridge and other redbrick institutions lower the A-level grades required of teenagers from the worst schools, acknowledging research that shows that an A from Eton is easy-peasy to achieve compared with one from the shoddiest comp.

But companies? Companies using a tech solution to right the wrongs of society, to see past the coddling or hardships in a job applicant’s life, as a kind of meritocratic sorting hat? And not just as a fringe experiment in class war, but right at the heart of the decision process for the City’s most blue-chip, traditional and high-stakes training contracts, making masters of the universe out of the losers in life’s lottery. And at the same touch of a computer button, striking terror into the heart of the middle-class parents of complacently and lavishly educated kids, the death knell for characters like Harry Enfield’s Tim Nice-But-Dim. That’s new. It is all the work and genius of Raphael Mokades.

We spend an hour talking about how his algorithm – known as the Contextual Recruitment System and provided by his company, Rare – is the new rocket fuel for social mobility, processing to date nearly two million graduate applications. I then ask Mokades to explain what he does at a deeper level. “We are making British society fair and more equal,” he replies. “I think that’s really clear.”

Mokades confuses people. He was born near Kensal Rise, north-west London. He can be identified as either black, Muslim or Indian. He received a scholarship to a private secondary education. He was the only white boy on Kensal Rise’s basketball team. When he arrived at Oxford University to join the basketball team, he was treated as the sole black boy. 

London is not known for its social mobility. An algorithm is changing all that. Image by Ed Robertson

Actually, Mokades is Jewish; his father is Israeli, his father’s parents Iranian and Uzbekistani, and his mother’s family fled Nazi Germany. This allows him to speak in a time of identity politics. “I don’t get people saying: ‘You can’t talk about this.’ Because people don’t know who I am. I’ve been able to swerve.”

He wanted to do good after he left Oxford. His father, who established a basketball center in Kensal Rise, inspired him. It followed the East End model of boxing and helped young men to become coaches and players. “Kensal Rise in the 1980s was a high-unemployment, high-deprivation area. He had tremendous impact.”

While working as the head of diversity for Pearson, Mokades became deeply affected by research that showed that, as he summarises, “elite professions are more or less closed to people from particular backgrounds”.

We are helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds to get into the top echelons in British society. I’m really proud of that

“The evidence is overwhelming that a refugee kid on free school meals who manages to get an A and two Bs from a school where everyone else is getting Ds is very high potential. That kid doesn’t even get looked at. And if they did look at them, they’d still think: ‘Oh, no work experience, worked in Primark, looks rubbish.’”

Mokades founded Rare, and got to work on the most sophisticated model of ‘contextualisation’ he believes has yet been devised. It captures 13 indicators of disadvantage for any candidate. These include the performance of your school at GCSE or A-level; if you were a refugee, in care, or a young caregiver; whether your parents went off to university; if you had a job during school or university and the socioeconomic detail of your postcode as well as the specific streets where your home is located.

Any of these measures alone don’t count for much. Instead the algorithm gives each indicator a different weight that works cumulatively with the others. “If David and Victoria Beckham’s child goes to university, he’ll be the first in his family to go, but he is not disadvantaged.”

‘We are making British society fair and more equal,’ says Mokades. Image: Michael Leckie/The Times

Rare is then able give employers a calculation of the candidate’s school average and their background. Using contextual recruitment instantly changes the applicants’ rankings wildly, with some of those formerly at the bottom revealed as extreme outperformers. They have seen a 61% increase in the number of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds since 2015, when the algorithm was first introduced.

It has also launched educational programmes that don’t just identify talent, but develop it by partnering with schools and universities to offer disadvantaged young people support with university applications, CVs and interviews. Its multi-award-winning ‘Articles’ development programme for BAME students applying for legal training contracts has been so successful that today, roughly one in five ‘magic circle’ trainees is a Rare candidate.

These companies are driven by a relentless pursuit of talent and the ability to work hard. “They are sensitive to bad trainees as they cost them so much. If I can help them find the kid who may have an A and two Bs, but is a brilliant outperformer and has overcome extraordinary adversity, those people perform better on average as lawyers six years into their career.”

A kid who gets off the boat from Syria gets three Bs if he/she goes to care and goes to a sink school. These three Bs are more impressive

I begin to play the small violin that nestles between the sharp elbows and middle classes.

“That’s the thing that pisses upper middle class parents off, the idea that their kids can work as hard as possible and be punished. That’s not fair. We strongly oppose that.

“Now here’s a different argument. You send your child to private school. Your kid gets three Bs because they’re smoking weed. Another kid arrives on the boat from Syria unaccompanied as a minor child, is taken into care, goes to school in a sink, and receives three Bs. Those three Bs, however, are even more impressive. I’ll have that argument with anyone.

The algorithm contextualizes young people’s achievements and takes into account their disadvantages. Image: Taylor Wilcox

“Let’s be clear: companies are never going to discriminate against spectacular people from privileged backgrounds, but slightly less spectacular people from privileged backgrounds? Yeah. There’s more competition now. More people are being considered who might be different. I think that’s fair enough.”

Mokades refers me to the details of a young man from Essex with parents who left school at 16, went to a disintegrating sixth form where the teachers often stopped turning up, while working at Next every weekend, and felt “anchored down” by mediocre A-levels. Contextual recruitment helped him get a job at a big City law office. He did exceptionally in the final round and finally fulfilled his childhood dream to become a lawyer.

“It’s a big change. I think about what my dad was trying to achieve in the 80s, getting people off the streets. Now what we are doing is helping get them into the top echelons of British society. I’m really proud of that.”

Case study: Leonie King (banking and finance lawyer)

“I went to my local comprehensive and was raised by my mum, a nurse, on her own. I have a photo of me at 12 years old with eight of my school friends. Two of our friends had been in prison by the time we were 18, and five had had children. I’m a person with a very different history than most of my coworkers.

My life has taken a completely different path to those of my parents. I think that’s in part because I managed to get the grades I needed to study law at UCL where I met Rare, and went on their Articles programme.

‘Without it, I wouldn’t be where I am today,’ says Campbell-King. Image: Bill Night

Articles allows you to visit several City law firms. Although they are less alien, you still feel like a sore thumb. We also had one-on-one sessions with a qualified lawyer – mock interviews and debates. It helped me level the playing field with my competitors. People who went to boarding school had private tutors whose parents were lawyers. People who weren’t intimidated talking about current affairs in interviews with an old, generally white lawyer because that was their dad or their uncle or godfather.

It made a huge difference in my life. Without that programme I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Main image: Michael Leckie/The Times/News Licensing
Article: The Times/News Licensing