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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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.