Britain is experiencing the Age of the Amateur. Qualified experts, specialists, practitioners operating within established, well-regulated trades; these professionals have had their day. True integrity and nous belong to the volunteer, the have-a-go hero. At least, this seems to be the accepted wisdom of the Cameroons. And the result is a crisis of professionalism that threatens to undermine Britain's public and private sectors.
First, a bit of history. In the years following world war two, politicians of left and right were united on the need to convert the technical expertise and rationalism of the war machine into a motor for peacetime living standards. In Britain and on continental Europe, vocational education, cutting-edge manufacturing and guild capitalism were the flavour of the day. Over here, the movement peaked with the white heat of Tony Benn's Mintech (Ministry of Technology), staffed by the cream of the civil service and, as Benn put it in a speech in 1969, "scientists and engineers of exceptional ability". It was the golden age of the professional.
But over the 30 years from 1979, things changed. Britain's economy became a world-leader in services. Internal and external market pressures ended the 'job for life', necessitated a mobile, flexible workforce, and shifted production away from entrenched, specialist skill-sets and towards fluid, generalist ones. In finance, IT and the creative industries, the country found comparative advantages that would reward versatile risk-takers, a contrast to the rigidly associational professions of continental economies such as Germany.
The coalition government is surely the high watermark of the trend. In the rhetoric and policies of the Big Society, the prime minister has built an audacious ideological challenge to the notion of the professional in a number of fields. Elaborated with messianic zeal, it reconciles a populist communitarian agenda with the traditional libertarian desire to cut government down to size. In this scheme the professional (or at least, the public-sector variant) becomes an extension of the nanny state; just one more meddling enemy of the liberated, self-creating individual or neighbourhood. The Big Society is the bastard lovechild of the post-Thatcher service economy and that older English tradition of Burkean generalism, of the self-taught, vocationally itinerant Everyman.
In practice, therefore, professional social workers, professional carers, professional teachers, professional nurses and others are finding themselves belittled and undermined by a government convinced that volunteers can do their jobs as well or better. And in the private sector, established paid roles are being converted into work experience placements earmarked for low-skill benefit recipients under the workfare programme.
Take the Working Families Everywhere initiative as an example. Launched by Emma Harrison, the boss of the controversial workfare firm A4e, this sends volunteers into troubled families to supplement or substitute the activities of social service agencies. Due for national roll-out in 2014, the scheme has received criticism from charities such as Family Action, which point out that volunteers, however well-intentioned, are not always qualified to deal with the complex mental health and child development issues at stake.
The same dynamic is in play elsewhere; professional expertise, authority and judgement, it seems, count for little. Large parts of Britain's standing army - the epitome of professional values - are being wound up and replaced by part-time reservists, a move that according to Dan Jarvis MP will create "self-made capability shortfalls". In health, the government is pushing through massive reforms despite substantive concerns raised by nurses, doctors and midwives about the impact on patient care. It is burdening professional medics - GPs - with unwanted commissioning functions previously conducted by dedicated staff at the soon-to-be-abolished PCTs and SHAs. Much responsibility for obesity policy has passed from the nutritionists at the Food Standards Agency to the food companies. Regional Development Agencies large enough to support in-house economists and researchers have been replaced by puny Local Enterprise Partnerships that lack the scale needed to employ relevant experts. And in home affairs, police numbers are being cut and volunteers urged to take over the running of stations.
Education, too, has been subjected to the counter-professional revolution. All the indications are that Michael Gove's Free Schools will diminish the standing of the career educator. His flagship case study, Sweden's for-profit Kunskapsskolan, has cut costs by employing inexperienced or unqualified teachers. The result, says the Swedish Education Minister, is that "We have actually seen a fall in the quality of Swedish schools since the Free Schools were introduced".
Contrast this with the reform programme that has made the Canadian province of Ontario a world-leader in education standards. In 2003 a new government came to power and put an end to its predecessor's campaign of antagonism towards teachers. The legacy of low morale, strikes and underachievement was an unforgiving context. But by treating teachers as professionals and focusing predominantly on their development rather than on the structures of the system, ministers transformed the province into a beacon of good practice.
Similarly successful education models (Finland, Singapore and the Netherlands, to cite high performers in the famous Pisa Study) likewise put the emphasis on teacher quality. Consider this description of the top-ranked system: "In Finland teaching is a prestigious career. Children aspire to be doctors, lawyers, scientists and in the same breath teachers. They are respected and appreciated; they are highly qualified (requiring a Masters degree for full time employment) and job selection is a tough process with only best candidates gaining the posts."
So in a global context where such specialisation and professionalisation are key to a country's ability to thrive (in education, medicine, industry and elsewhere), significant elements of the Big Society go against the tide. It seems that in Cameron's Britain, the sporting dilettante is inherently preferable to the specialist professional. Perhaps this approach reflects careers spent within the British political system, where generalists, uncommonly, can be the best suited to the multifarious job of MP. What better reflection of this than the waves of PPEists-turned-Special-Advisers occupying the top jobs? Indeed, it is tempting to find a corollary in Anthony King's withering observation that: "Mr Cameron increasingly gives the impression of being an amateur doing a professional's job".
Some will ask: is there necessarily a choice between amateurism and professionalism? Is scepticism towards the Big Society not insufferably paternalist? But by equating professionals with fetid bureaucracy and hailing the near-unbounded merits of volunteerism (a social panacea fostering nothing less than a national moral Risorgimento, it is suggested), politicians are diminishing the value of expertise, of belonging to a particular group of practitioners, of the integrity and responsibility that comes with this.
Consider Working Families Everywhere. Harrison's language credits volunteers with nigh-on superpower abilities: "Family champions are going to stalk the streets, they are going to find the jobs", she claims, contrasting this with social workers that ineffectually "poke" at troubled families. Small wonder, then, that WFE local pilots are having difficulty finding 'Emmas' (as Harrison self-effacingly titles her amateur caseworkers) capable of rising to expectations.
When all is said and done, what does 'professionalism' mean? The Hippocratic Oath seems a suitable point of reference; doctors pledge to "prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgement and never do harm to anyone." Note that the term thus comprises two elements. Firstly, the professional belongs to a trade whose members are expected to adhere to certain standards (beneficence, in this case). Secondly, this adherence is defined by a corpus of specialist qualifications common to members of that trade. In the Age of the Amateur, both these elements are under attack.
This is a revised version of a two-part essay first published on Shifting Grounds.
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