This TES competition is aimed at sixth-formers considering a career right 'at the heart of Government'
When Sir Robin Butler goes into sixth forms nowadays, which he often does to boost interest in the higher ranks of the Civil Service, he tends to find that only half his audience recognises the name of Sir Humphrey Appleby.
This is both bad and good news for the real-life head of the Home Civil Service.
The bad news is that a new generation of potential talent has never seen even a repeat of Yes, Minister, the TV comedy series that provided such a compelling image of life at the heart of Government.
The good news is that today's potential recruits are less likely to connect power and success with that white, male, Oxbridge stereotype which still bedevils efforts to diversify recruitment to the FastStream.
It isn't that there is a shortage of applicants for the Civil Service's fast route to the top; there were over 11,000 of them in 1995-1996 for 280 jobs, and even more at the height of the recession. Nor is the stereotype as strong as it once was. Where 81 per cent of FastStream recruits were from Oxbridge in 1961, the latest figure is only 38 per cent. Currently 41 per cent of recruits are women, though only 2 per cent come from ethnic minorities, so only one in four recruits is now a white, Oxbridge male.
"But we want the best," says Sir Robin, "and we don't want to miss the best.
"The Civil Service has to work hard all the time at its recruiting. We are competing with the City, the media, the law, academia and industry, and we can't just rely on being part of an establishment. We have to both provide a public service and run efficiently. We are out there in the market place. "
Which is why the Civil Service is following up an independent study which identified ignorance about the role and nature of the Civil Service as one of the main barriers to effective marketing of the FastStream, with the competition aimed at sixth-formers launched in this week's Times Educational Supplement. It is the first time that such a recruitment drive has been aimed at sixth-formers rather than undergraduates, from whatever university. "It is a good time to fire the imagination of young people and capture their interest, " says Sir Robin, "as well as to clear away any misconceptions."
Sir Robin believes that young people start thinking about careers much earlier now, and he would like to give them the confidence to apply. But it may be necessary to change teachers' perceptions, as well as the pupils'.
The marketing study had four main recommendations: to break the "vicious circle" of ignorance about the Civil Service; to generate long-term image change; to provide more information about the FastStream; and to persuade potential applicants of the Civil Service's benefits.
One of the key reasons for The TES competition to devise a millennium project is that it provides an answer to the central question: "What do you think a civil servant does?" Civil servants have to present ideas to Ministers for projects contributing to the public good, to work out how to implement them, and to see them through - just as sixth-formers are asked to do in our competition.
From their early days in the service, young recruits to the fast stream will find themselves, as the brochures put it: "At the heart of Government". They will be writing the first drafts of answers to parliamentary questions and letters from MPs, and perhaps amendments for debates.
The next step on the career ladder might be to become a junior private secretary to a Cabinet Minister, a private secretary to a junior Minister, and then to a Minister. Though lines of promotion are now shorter because of down-sizing, it is also true that entry to the fast stream only promises training up to grade seven.
There are good prospects, but no guarantees of promotion after that, and by the time you near the very top there is open competition from the outside world for plum jobs such as Sir Humphrey's Permanent Secretary post.
The TES competition, co-sponsored by the Civil Service, Microsoft and Research Machines, may set a few more sixth-formers on the road to a Cabinet Office visit and the chance to advise Ministers how to deliver at the sharp end.
Meanwhile, although Sir Robin Butler accepts all invitations to talk to sixth-formers, it seems that only independent schools invite him.
There is clearly scope for wider initiative out there.
Further details, see TES2, page18
How to enter
We are inviting teams of four pupils, aged 16-plus, to develop a projectto mark the millennium. The project should be based on your school, college or local community.
Entrants should put forward theirbid in the form of a proposal to a minister outlining aims, background, resources and project details.
The winners will receive a fully specialised multimedia PC from RM, supplied with Microsoft Office 97 Professional, and the latest in educational software, including the multimedia encyclopaedia: Microsoft Encarta, the Microsoft Encarta World Atlas and Microsoft Bookshelf, the first British edition of the best-selling reference library.
Winning team members will each receive a student software licence for Microsoft Office 97 Professional and the Encarta Encyclopaedia. Runners-up will win a modem and a year's subscription to Internet for Learning, the education-specific Internet service from RM. Team members will win a student software licence of their choice from a Microsoft selection.
All winning teams will be invited to a presentation that will take place at the Cabinet Office in London, and will have a tour of the House of Commons.
For an information pack and further entry guidelines, please write to: FastStream Millennium Challenge, Room 1272 Cabinet Office (OPS), Horse Guards Road, London SW1P 3AL, tel: 0171 270 5697, e-mail: fsesd.recruit.co@gt net.gov.uk