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How to get the best and the brightest working in our public services

Contrary to popular opinion, top graduates do not all want to work in the city. 

Contrary to popular opinion, top graduates do not all want to work in the city.
Volunteers read poems and recite songs to residents of a retirement home in Stratford upon Avon who have been diagnosed with dementia. Photograph: Getty Images.

Care Minister Norman Lamb has today given his support to a new programme – Think Ahead - to recruit the best and brightest into mental health services. Appetite is growing for programmes that aim to recruit top graduates into tough public service professions.

It is a truism that public services require highly-skilled, highly-trained professionals in order to deliver an effective service to some of society’s most vulnerable people. But it is one that can often be neglected as policy-makers and professional bodies struggle against budget constraints and other pressures. The nature of the public sector can often mean that immediate challenges take priority, stifling opportunities for long-term workforce planning.

There has, however, been a growing emphasis on getting the best and the brightest in to some of the most important public sector roles in recent years, in the hope of addressing ongoing recruitment challenges. In teaching, the Teach First programme has been a remarkable success. Established in 2002, it aimed to attract graduates of top universities in to working in some of England’s most disadvantaged schools.

The model is one of targeted recruitment, intensive, on-the-job learning, and high levels of support and guidance along the way – all within a shortened space of time. It has helped to raise the status of the teaching profession as well as the quality of teaching in classrooms. Cohort sizes have increased from under 200 in the programme’s first year to around one thousand, with one in ten Oxbridge graduates now applying to take part. It has expanded from working in 45 schools in London to hundreds in regions across the country.

This model is now beginning to be applied in other areas of public services also. The state of the social work profession has been a particular cause for concern over recent years. It is one of England’s toughest jobs, working with some of the most vulnerable members of our society, but it has consistently failed to be seen as an attractive career option to many. Last year only 10 Oxbridge graduates applied to train to be social workers, and some courses had to lower their entry grades in order to fill places. Ninety per cent of directors of adult social services recently agreed that more needs to be done to reverse this trend.

But there are signs that this is beginning to change. Last year, the Department for Education provided funding to a new organisation – Frontline – to recruit and train social workers working with children and families. While the programme is still in its infancy, it has already shown that social work can be viewed as providing a competitive and attractive career – with 16 people applying for every place.

Today’s announcement promises a similar development in mental health services, following a new report by IPPR. A third of all families now include someone who suffers from a mental health problem, and one in four people will experience mental ill-health at some point in their life. Demand for services is increasing, while the local authorities and NHS Trusts who deliver them battle against shrinking budgets. Failing to invest in the quality and quantity of the workforce will ultimately mean that more and more people are let down by services, at the very time when they need help the most.

The time is therefore ripe for bringing a new recruitment and training programme – Think Ahead - to mental health services, following a similar model to that of Teach First. Care Minister Norman Lamb agrees, and has given his enthusiastic support to the proposal. This new programme will run alongside existing training routes, and will compliment important reforms already underway.

Contrary to popular opinion, top graduates do not all want to work in the city. Many leave university with an underlying desire to turn their talents towards careers that allow them to help others, while also developing professionally. It is just that the private sector has become far more adept at tapping in to this rich well of potential. Programmes that are designed to rebuild the prestige of social work, and other public service professions, will be able to boost the quality of the workforce and directly benefit service users. To be able to deal with the big public service challenges of the future, having the best and the brightest working on the front line will be vital.

Craig Thorley (@craigjthorley) is a researcher at IPPR.