Sunday, 11 January 2009

Another day, another quango

Sometimes you don't know whether to laugh or cry. Today we learn that a new quango is to be created under the chairmanship of former cabinet member Alan Milburn to try to get more people from "disadvantaged" backgrounds into the professions. This is a topic of great interest to me because I am someone from a "disadvantaged" background who made it into a profession and practised there for many years. I wasn't a star, just one of many in the middle of the bunch, earning a crust by giving advice and presenting cases in court to the best of my modest ability. Never likely to become a QC or a judge but, I like to think, a competent practitioner who provided a good service when sober and a decent service at all other times.

There is a presumption lying behind this new quango, namely, that people from "disadvantaged" backgrounds are being excluded from professions they are qualified to join. I find this a curious concept. It only takes a moment's though to realise that exclusion from a profession can only happen once someone has reached a certain age and level of academic achievement. The earliest time you can be excluded from being a doctor is when you have at least three good A-levels and have shown interest and aptitude that might make you a suitable entry to undergraduate studies at a medical college. The earliest time you can be excluded from being a barrister or solicitor is when you have a degree and have shown interest and aptitude that might make you suitable to be a practising lawyer. I don't know whether architecture, accountancy, surveying and the rest are exclusively graduate professions these days, but whether they are or not there is a stage before which no one can be said to be excluded from those professions; it might be graduation, it might be A-levels, it might be something else, but it is something.

In theory every five year-old is a potential professional practitioner. Real life tells us that is not so. Every profession requires a combination of intellectual and practical skills that few people possess. Still fewer people possess both the necessary skills and sufficient interest in the subject to make it a viable career for them. No realistic assessment of the suitability of a young person for a particular professional career can be made until they approach the end of their time at school. Can anyone say that a 16 year-old will make a good doctor or a good surveyor? I doubt it. All that can be said at that age is that they show interest in the subject and appear to have the intellectual capacity to deal with the further studies required. And what of age 18? Much more is known about their analytical skills at that age because they have had to progress from fact-based GCSEs to fact and analysis based A-levels. But even then, the most that can be said is that they appear to have the ability to cope with the necessary undergraduate studies.

Things change enormously when you get to university level education. In the same way that many who were very good at GCSE level floundered when faced with the different challenges of A-Levels, so many with sound grades in A-level exams cannot make the leap and cope with the additional demands of university education. Most degrees take three years and all of us who have been through that process remember people dropping out or switching courses, and we remember someone being a star performer in the first year but struggling to keep up by the third. When you get to the stage of post-graduate professional studies the same is witnessed again. And then you reach the stage of professional apprenticeship. Some who appeared entirely suited to a particular career during their academic studies became fish out of water when trying to put their knowledge into practice.

Opening the professions to more people from "disadvantaged" backgrounds is a meaningless exercise, a pure political fantasy. By the time they are of an age at which they might enter a profession their background is wholly irrelevant. Actually, I have to qualify that in two ways. There are some tiny backwaters in which having been to the right sort of school still carries weight. Equally, there are some tiny backwaters in which having been to the wrong sort of school carries weight. For the vast majority of professional practices the decision whether to take on someone at the junior end has absolutely no regard to their personal background. I cannot say this from empirical evidence, but I can say it from a combination of my own experience in the legal profession and from practical common sense. After all, it does nobody any good to take on a less competent person because of their privileged background and reject the more competent person from the council estate. Of course it will happen in some snobby practices but no quango can correct that sort of stupidity.

So what, I wonder, is the purpose of this new body? All the major professions have looked into ways they can ensure that all those of suitable ability can gain entry. In the rest of this piece I exclude medicine because it is a nationalised profession in which entry is already at the whim of government. Each year many millions of pounds are made available by members of the professions to provide scholarships, grants and additional education to aspiring entrants. Bureaucratic webs of huge complexity have been introduced to ensure that no candidate is excluded without full reasons being given - so that those reasons can be pored over to hunt for evidence of discrimination on the grounds of pigmentation, ethnicity, gender, religion, physical disability, sexual proclivity or anything else other than merit.

At the level of entry to the professions it is hard to see that anything else can be done to get the boys and girls from the council estates involved. The problem is not at the top end, it is at the bottom. No one with the potential to enter a profession will get anywhere near it unless he or she goes through all the hoops from age five to eighteen and then enters university and exits in good shape.

To suggest that a quango can do anything substantive in this field - and anything in proportion to the amount of taxpayers' money thrown at it - is a complete joke. Let's say it loud and clear. The government, beset as it is by infantile notions of class, simply cannot understand that the professions want to attract the best people. Taking on good people at the bottom benefits all the people in the ladder. That is why the professions make so much money available and spend so much time trying to identify and recruit the best candidates. They act out of self-interest, the most powerful force in human nature, and in doing so they achieve far more than the wildest dreams of any quango.


Mark Wadsworth said...

TFB, I can confirm from experience that chartered accountants (by and large) insist on people having a degree (in anything, really) and being 24 or younger before they get taken on, but apart from that there is no snobbery or prejudice involved. Certified Accountants and tax advisors are even more meritocratic than that.

But the judiciary is a fucking joke, that is nepotism through and through.

Word veri: lamed

Pogo said...

But the judiciary is a fucking joke, that is nepotism through and through.

Not completely... There are now judges who've been appointed from the "junior profession", ie solicitors. Not many admittedly, but it's a start.

Lola said...

May I respectfully offer a tiny piece of editing?

"Of course it will happen in some snobby practices but no quango can correct that sort of stupidity"...and it doesn't need to, as such discrimination will be judged by the market and those firms that choose the best candidates - from whatever background - will out compete those that don't.

Lola said...

May I also add that the whole idea of the superior worth of the professions which is implicit in this announcement is deeply offensive. I know plumbers who earn more than the average 'professional' and generally work shorter hours.

The only thing evidenced by this government initiative is that the government is barking.

TheFatBigot said...

On your first comment, Mr Lola, I'm not sure you're right. No one can say for certain because there are too many imponderables.

What I see as likely is that firms will take on a token underqualified person from a "deprived" background. They will then have two choices. Either use that person for tasks they are suited to and, for a while, pay them a bit over the odds before getting them on the appropriate salary. Or take them on, dispense with them after a relatively short time and then take on another. It is wasteful but not necessarily very expensive.

My concern is only partly for the firms involved, I am more worried about the false expectations given to the employee appointed above his or her ability. I wrote a few weeks ago about the cruelty of non-jobs. People take these positions in good faith and make plans based on their employment being secure. The same risk arises with taking on people to undertake tasks they don't have the skills to perform. De facto demotion is inevitable if they are to be retained, otherwise it is redundancy.

And on your second comment, you are absolutely right so far as money goes. But people still attach a high non-monetary value to being a "real" professional, perhaps for reasons of so-called class. That is a subject I hope to address in the not too distant.