Winner takes all

Social work is awash with brave new talk of renewed optimism,
rising status, and floods of younger applicants into the
profession. Changes in training, mooted as long ago as 1987, and
rejected by Margaret Thatcher, were finally realised with the
introduction of a new social work degree last autumn. New emphasis
is now to be placed on “analytic thinking” and practice- based
research skills; it is hoped that this intellectual stringency will
combat distorted public images of “barely literate” social workers,
and give the profession a much-needed boost.

So far, so good, if the result is not only a more skilled
workforce, but a more respected one. But has the rot of public
cynicism gone too deep? Will the new course load unbearable
pressures onto struggling students, with few tangible rewards? Will
the effect of the new degree be positive, or could it prove to be
another example of the dangerous modern consensus that education
and re-skilling is the cure-all for more deeply rooted

Certainly, this is the current rhetoric in mainstream education,
from nursery through to university level. Everybody is urged to
meet a set of standards – be they set by individual teachers,
Ofsted, Excel or the university admissions boards – only to find
themselves chastised not only for failing, but, as in the case of
the continuing rumble about the high number of As at A level, for

The new obsession with standards, tests, targets, (as opposed to
true education, the encouragement of genuinely open and independent
minds) reflects the growing competitive nature of the global
economy. In the US, target-obsessed schools and colleges groom
young people to take their place in a frenetic economy that
considers three weeks’ annual paid holiday a luxury. In China,
young children are expected to study up to 14 hours a day. British
students are among the most tested in the world.

But the obsession with standards often masks the true understanding
of structures. Politicians, employers and commentators are often
disingenuous about the relationship between individual competence
and eventual success. Despite all the smokescreen talk about
equality of opportunity and a level playing field, a host of
factors, beyond any individual’s achievement, will determine their
eventual position, status, earnings and the degree to which they,
or indeed their profession, command respect from others.

Modern education largely benefits the rich and mostly penalises the
less well off. Too many state secondary schools are continuously
berated for their lack of academic success, without any reference
to the fact that, in many areas, particularly in the big cities,
the middle class have left the comprehensive state sector in
droves, in favour of private education or de facto grammars.
Religious faith has become a fig leaf for social selection at
secondary level. The new academies are more accountable to their
wealthy sponsors than to local communities.

And the universities, most of whom are expected to charge the full
£3,000 in top-up fees when they announce the first round of
new charges in December, are as hierarchical as ever, with
increasing divisions between the so-called top universities and the

My fear then for many students, including those embarking on the
new social work degree, slogging away in their new “skills
laboratories”, is that it will take a lot more than their strenuous
efforts to improve workplace conditions, the regard in which the
profession is held, or the lives of their clients for that

Social workers pay the price for the nation’s collective fear of
failure, a masked revulsion towards the poor or those foolish
enough to find themselves in need of state support.

Unlike teachers or nurses, who have become romantically identified
with the state’s ideology of benign self-improvement, social
workers are simultaneously tarred with the brush of laxity and
excessive interventionism.

The real challenge is to think more broadly; to understand the
economy and its imperatives, to dissect the assumptions underlying
the idea of incessant self-improvement, and to grasp the
implications of its inevitable failure. According to a recent BBC
Panorama programme, Britain has now become a “winner takes all
society”, with damaging and widespread consequences not just for
those who aspire to a better lifestyle – so-called “luxury fever” –
but a punitive attitude to those who will never win anything at
all. And for once, education, education, education is not the

Melissa Benn is co-editor of a book of essays on
education and democracy published by Continuum press last

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