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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.