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. 

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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.