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.
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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. 

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. 

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.