https://ipa.blog.gov.uk/2019/09/16/my-social-mobility-story/

My Social Mobility Story

To celebrate National Inclusion Week, we want to champion the diversity in our project delivery profession. Our very own Suzanne Newton, Head of Profession in the Home Office, talks about her background and all she has learnt along the way.

Three people with civil service award
Suzanne receiving the Dame Lesley Strathie Award for Operational Excellence at the Civil Service Awards from Lin Homer

Moving up – my journey

When I was a child I never would have imagined that I’d be working in the Civil Service as the Head of Profession for the Home Office. However, during my childhood and career I’ve been extremely lucky to meet people who’ve seen my potential and encouraged my ambition.

This incredible support and my own determination meant I was able to buck social mobility trends identified by the Social Mobility Commission’s State of the Nation report  and Office for National Statistics (ONS) data.

My teachers, my inspiration

What is it they say about great teachers? I was lucky enough to have two really inspiring teachers who gave me the confidence and support to be more than I ever thought I could be.

Northern lass made good

Born in the Nottinghamshire coal mining community my Dad worked for the Coal Board and my Mum gave up her job when I arrived.. Virtually all of my male relatives worked for the Coal Board (most down the mines) and the female relatives who worked were largely employed in the Nottingham lace industry sewing knickers!

Around the age of 8 we moved to Lincolnshire and I joined a small village primary school.. There I was lucky enough to be taken under the wing of Mrs B, the headmistress. She stretched me, gave me more challenging things to do, and most importantly gave me the confidence that I could pass my 11 plus to attend the state run local Grammar school. I still vividly remember the day that the brown envelop arrived with the results in it and being too afraid to hope and dream that I might have passed. Thanks to Mrs B (and quite a bit of hard work) I did and that took me to a whole new world of a large selective grammar school where I came across my next inspirational teacher.

Mr Wilkinson was my Chemistry teacher. He was quite a character with his twirly moustache, a large pole for opening the windows and the neatest writing I have ever seen on a blackboard – it was perfection. He must have spotted something in me, because from the very first parent evening he was onto my Mum and Dad about sending me to University. No one in my family had ever finished their A levels, let alone gone off to University, so there’s no wonder Mum and Dad came home looking both proud and very confused.

Over the 7 years I was at grammar school Mr Wilkinson kept plugging away – sending me off on a two day university experience and asking me if I’d completed my UCAS forms. He ground me down and I thought I’d give it a shot. I wasn’t brave enough to apply to go too far so all my applications were within about 60 miles of home. I ended up at Nottingham University to study Chemistry and Management studies.

From school to university

University was a scary thought – away from home in a girls only halls of residence with many girls who’d spent their life in private school dorms. I felt like I never really fitted in with many other students who were much more confident and outgoing. Perhaps in some ways that helped as I knuckled down to the work, determined to do my best in my course.

Graduating with a first class honours degree and the best joint honours science student in the university was probably one of the proudest moments of my life. I couldn’t stop beaming all day. Mum spent months wondering what she should wear, whether it would be appropriate and what she would say if someone spoke to her, but on the day she was as proud as all the other mums there.

Education to the world of work

Post Uni, not wanting to go too far from home I applied for jobs in the Nottingham area including one with the then Inland Revenue. Little did I know having got through the Fast Stream recruitment process I would be posted to Harrow. Upping sticks and moving to London was a big thing for me – I worried whether I would be able to afford the rent on my little one bed flat and what I would do if I didn’t get through my probationary period. Virtually all of my salary went on rent and utilities and Mum and Dad helped out with the cost of food for the first year or so.

In many ways I found work socially less scary than University. In a busy tax office with people from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives it was easier to find people who I could relate to (including my husband to be!).

Again my work ethic came to the fore as I battled through tax inspector training and learning tax cases before being moved to Head Office and a policy support role. One of my first jobs there was to support Lord Howe, Chair of the Tax Law Rewrite Project. Now I really was challenging all my assumptions about myself – a girl from a mining community who was supposed to grow up to sew knickers was writing letters for a Lord!

More jobs and more challenges came my way and saw me facing more of my fears and doing it anyway! People encouraged me to progress and I’m now heading up one of Europe’s biggest transformation portfolios. I’ve appeared before select committees on TV, won a civil service award and been inside both No 10 and No 11 Downing Street. It still scares my Mum stiff when I tell her the things I do and she thinks I sounded ‘dead posh; not like our Suze’ when I was on TV.

So what have I learnt?

While I use my inner voice (and my Mum’s fear!) to stay grounded, I’ve learnt to listen to those who have encouraged supported and challenged me to go further along the way. My work ethic and attention to detail has been the driving force behind my career which I’ve used to attack the feelings of fear, worry and the sense of not really feeling I fit in.

I now like to give back by spotting future talent, providing encouragement and support like others gave me. Often it’s the really simple things that help – sharing a story, helping someone make new links, simple praise for a job well done or trying something new. As project delivery professionals we have an impact on the lives of citizens everyday. We must be informed by these diverse voices and I am proud to be part of a profession which celebrates such diversity.

When I was 8 did I expect to be where I am today – never! Would I do it again – definitely!

Do you want to make a difference?

If you want to get more involved, ask about your department’s networks, or connect with the brilliant Cross-Government Social Mobility Network. Gerri Clement  and Nic Hanns – co-founders of the network – are the current chairs.

If you have any tips on improving social mobility within the Civil Service, please contact Gerri or Nic (geraldine.clement@justice.gov.uk and nicola.hanns1@dwp.gsi.gov.uk; or on Twitter @CGSMNet). You can also email the Diversity and Inclusion Strategy Unit: inclusion@cabinetoffice.gov.uk.

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  1. Comment by Kirsten Stewart posted on

    Brilliant insight to your education and career Suzanne. Many thanks for sharing.