Too few, too many: The retreat from vocation and calling

Photo by Steinar Engeland on UnsplashPhoto by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash

Tony Jeffs examines some of the uncomfortable questions raised by Victoria Climbie’s murder and subsequent policy responses around the training, recruitment and management of welfare professionals including informal educators such as youth workers and community educators. In particular he argues that face-to-face work has been devalued and constrained; policymakers have opted for quantity over quality in terms of workers; and the need for vocation and calling sidelined.

contents: introduction · counter culture · tumbledown · calling · conclusion · references · how to cite this article

Victoria Climbie’s murder led to a public enquiry (resulting in the ‘Laming Report‘ – TSO, 2003) and eventually the 2004 Children Act. Unambiguously, the Laming Report exposed the performance of most of the professionals involved as beingdetail from the memorial window for josephine macalister brew well below the Plimsoll line that clients of any welfare service should expect of public servants. Yet of the 108 recommendations Laming makes only two, numbers 14 and 37, concern the education of social workers, the main, but not sole, profession whose practice was dissected. The first recommends courses that teach ‘inter-professional working’; the second they furnish social workers with the confidence to question the opinions of other professionals. The crassness of the assumptions underpinning these recommendations beggars belief. Is it really possible that a few lectures, for example, could ‘teach’ inter-professional collaboration and the courage to hold fast to one’s opinions? The facility to do both flows not from instruction and skilling but rather from something more fundamental – a form of self-belief. The particular quality involved is what Aristotle described as ‘practical wisdom‘, an attribute of the phronetistes or deep thinker. Practical wisdom entails a  commitment to not merely follow procedures but promote the ‘good’.

The model employed by Lamming (and mirrored elsewhere by many commentators and policy makers) is that of the welfare worker or educator as a technician who follows the plans and procedures set out by those higher up the command chain. It is a model that stands in stark contrast with the stress laid upon local decision and informed action that characterized the orientation of many key pioneers in welfare (as we will see later). The self-belief I am concerned with here is acquired from learning, reflection, practice and assurance regarding the correctness of one’s performance. Faith in the rightness of one’s actions and value base springs from an extensive knowledge base, comprehensive understanding of one’s role and professional identity set alongside the intellectual ability to coherently sustain and articulate a position however severe the buffeting. Predictably virtually all the remaining 106 recommendations in the Lamming Report focus on management systems and how bureaucracies can expand their inventory of control and monitoring over the practice of welfare professionals. Betwixt publication of Laming and implementation the Children Act the government announced plans to recruit and train 5,000 new social workers in England and 4,000 additional youth workers. The desirability of doing so was universally welcomed as an unquestioned good – just like the need to inflate management systems, inspection and training. Both it was assumed would go a long way towards averting similar tragedies in the future. Much as better ‘leadership’ and more teachers will improve educational standards, increased management and more police will reduce crime, and so on. But is this formula correct? And regarding our own niche – might we not ask also – do we, as things stand, really need more community education and youth workers?

Counter culture

Community is one of a handful of what Nisbet (1966) calls unit-ideas around which cluster satellites. Understanding what ‘community’ means has always been something sociologists sought to fathom. Likewise unravelling how political and economic change impacts on our sense of community and the wellbeing of ‘communities’ has perennially exercised the minds of political scientists and some economists. For two centuries, since the emergence of industrialisation, political and social commentators have kept a weather eye upon ‘community’. Incessantly enquiring if communities, rural and urban, large and small were in robust health or relative, perhaps, terminal decline. The consensus was not sanguine. Most pundits, radical and reactionary alike, held that our emotional and practical commitment to each other and to the collective good of our neighbours was waning. Eroded by industrialisation and the values of the free market. The deep affection many ordinary people feel for the value of the bonds of community combined with the desire of national states to protect themselves against the encroachment of rivals seeking to secure their markets and resources by fuelling the fires of nationalism undoubtedly slowed the decay. Consequently the former are perpetually locked in rear-guard actions, fighting to save local jobs, local shops, local autonomy, and so on. Tussles made progressively more difficult to win because the state is no longer a reliable ally. Indeed the gradual shift amongst states from a focus on national interest to a desire to oblige global, multi-national capital means they are willing, even at times anxious, to weaken individual and collective identification with the nation state itself. Globalisation heedlessly mutilates both the ethnos (cultural community) and the demos (political community) of the nation state.

It appears the predictions of writers like De Tocqueville (1966) and Bellah et al (1985) were not mistaken merely hasty. Community retreats not like an army but a glacier – slowly, intermittently often imperceptibly. Seasons change and ground is recovered but rarely as much as was lost last time around. Consequently recent work by writers such as Sennett (1998) and Putman (2000) on the waning of community should not be dismissed as the ‘same old story’ but rather confirmation the menace is authentic – a warning that decomposition is accelerating. That the growing supremacy of individualism and the evils it heralds have not been avoided just postponed. Certainly Layard (2005) concludes on the basis of extensive scrutiny of the evidence that we now find ourselves in an age of unprecedented individualism; adrift with less and less concept of common good or collective meaning. If the consensus is correct the prognosis for collective welfare and the professions sustaining it are dispiriting.

The founders of modern social work, adult education, community and youth work and other welfare professions overwhelmingly visualised themselves as operating in hostile terrain. It mattered little whether they were Christian or Socialist, radical or reactionary, or any hybrid of these they assumed they must survive within the context of a society discarding communitarian values. One migrating towards dominance by  the morality of the free market that rewards greed, avarice and selfishness whilst disadvantaging the decent, caring and ethically responsible. Unless, that is it is, vigorously challenged by a coherent Socialist or Christian alternative. As a consequence although we might find their language quaint these pioneers saw ‘welfare’ work as something discrete from the mainstream. First, because it required the individual to make a monetary sacrifice. To recognise they were obliged to live by rules that disadvantaged them in the market. Second, it assumed they had to adopt values and ways of living that would differentiate them from many, perhaps the majority, of their neighbours. Put simply they would have to set aside self-interest and replace it with service – as an early community worker, Arthur Bullard, put it become ‘ethical Bohemians’ (Edwards 1912). In one of the most famous orations of the nineteenth century a physically ravaged Arnold Toynbee, whose work inspired the establishment of the first settlement, speaking to an East End crowd, many of which were hostile to his stance, captured this ethos:

Now I turn to the workmen. Some of you have been impatient here this evening; you have shouted for revolution, but I do not think that that is the feeling of the great mass of the people. What I do feel is, that they are justified, in a way, in looking with dislike and suspicion on those who are better to do. We – the middle classes, I mean, not merely the very rich – we have neglected you; instead of justice we have offered you charity, instead of sympathy, we have offered you hard and unreal advice; but I think we are changing. If you would only believe it and trust us, I think that many of us would spend our lives in your service. (Toynbee 1883: 53-54)

Third, it was expected they would grow to be dedicated to their craft, an embodiment of its essential characteristics. In the case of a schoolteacher or youth worker it meant becoming scholarly and wise. Conveying like Goldsmith’s schoolmaster to the community wherein he resided ‘the love he bore to learning’. Similarly ‘defining’ personal characteristics were identified in relation to all welfare professions. Common to all was an expectation they would be duty bound to lead by example and in key aspects of their behaviour be ‘beyond reproach’. This was necessary if welfare workers were to advocate with integrity on behalf of the less privileged, to expose via research and reportage injustice and inequality and, above all, think for themselves rather than simply parrot other’s scripts. They were obligated them to be better educated than most.

The notion that becoming a social worker, teacher, community or youth worker axiomatically entails financial sacrifice, a selfless willingness to serve others, a lifetime commitment to demanding values and possess a high measure of education and ‘intellect’ is no longer taken as a given. Certainly neither managers nor academics teaching on courses predicating entry into such professions today even hint that this might be the case. Yet once they did. Similar examples can be produced for every welfare occupation, for now this one relating to social work will suffice. In it Towle (1945: 119) unambiguously informed potential recruits they must be the sort of person with

the capacity to live beyond absorption in self and who are inclined towards creative activity …. Workers choose this field of activity because of their readiness to live beyond themselves, their liking and concern for people as individuals, and their impulse to participate in and to contribute to the life of the community.

Rather now colleges and employers accentuate the benefits accruing to the individual from joining the ‘profession’ and the ease of entry. Why such pre-requisites regarding character and commitment have largely been set side and the consequences are now addressed.


There have been many ‘Lamings’ since 1945. Inevitably more will transpire. Similarly we can expect endless accounts of failing schools, mental hospitals and prisons; and an unbroken litany of complaints, voiced privately (almost never publicly) by professionals regarding the abysmal quality of many of their colleagues. Myriad tales of incompetent and indifferent practice are recounted. But are things getting worse? Who knows? But they certainly are not improving.

Metaphorically we seem predestined to arrive at the same fork in the road – and instinctively to pick the wrong one. An obvious solution for Laming, and the rest of us, might be to elect to drastically raise the quality of staff; to create a body of autonomous, creative, questioning, assertive, intellectually dynamic practitioners able to make clear judgements regarding when and how to intervene. Confident in their ability to challenge bad practice and poor policy and advocate persuasively on behalf of others. However, such a resolution is excluded from the agenda. Instead the government has opted to increase the size of the workforce and expand the minutiae of management and inspection; a solution almost pre-ordained to make matters worse. Why?

First, because it naively assumes the supply of suitable practitioners is elastic and inexhaustible. This is unlikely to be the case. Many of the personal attributes required of a say a community or social worker stand in stark contrast to those sought by free market employers. As schools and colleges have been obliged to cater for the ‘needs of industry’ to become evermore dominated by a productivist enterprise agenda so inevitably fewer young people are either attracted to or fitted for welfare work (see globalization and education). When the aggressively competitive focus of the education system is placed alongside the gradual erosion of community, one is driven to conclude that without far-reaching social reforms within the education and political systems the stock of suitable candidates will decline. Welfare slithering towards becoming the employment of last resort for many. That apart from the uniquely independent the brightest and the best will eschew public service. Enticed away by the rich pickings of business. This is not an unfortunate mishap – like a shower at a cricket match. It is the sought-after outcome of a quarter of a century of public policy.

Second, the de-intellectualisation of most of the educational routes into welfare work signal both the declining intellectual quality of entrants and the craving of employers for a biddable workforce. The focus on skills and the eviction of theory within programmes flows from both phenomena. The marginalisation, even expulsion, of the critical social sciences from under-graduate and post-graduate ‘training’ programmes for teachers, youth workers, probation officers, social workers and others has progressed hand-in-hand with the growth of on-the-job, part-time and distance learning routes. Routes that curb, often eradicate, opportunities for reflective learning and critical dialogue amongst students, and between student and teacher abound. These are frequently justified on the grounds they democratise the professions and Higher Education. This is an erroneous view. For the ‘new routes, like the degraded old ones, offer the naïve entrant a Faustian bargain. For in manufacturing ‘graduates’ deprived of an opportunity to secure the theoretical grounding that enables them to read and shape practice, to face-down the intellectual hegemony of management the neophyte trades their ‘birthright’ to an education for a ticket to practice. A ticket bestowing an impoverished ‘professional’ status in return for a willingness to abandon the autonomy that historically has been the touchstone of every profession. A ticket that increasingly binds entrants to a restricted sphere or setting, that possesses little negotiable value beyond.

Third, and flowing from the above, welfare work has become ever more micro-managed. Supervision, monitoring, inspection and managerial interference grow apace. This further alienates those professionals most desperately required. Gresham’s Law bites – bad workers driving out good. The best either depart degraded by micro-management, or hop aboard the management ‘gravy train’ – an ever easier option as the numbers inflate to monitor and supervise the deficient workforce. Erosion of the freedom and autonomy to practice and teach in creative ways that validate the beliefs of the practitioner invariably fosters dissatisfaction, driving out the most talented and inspirational. Indeed all the investment in ‘leadership’, ‘human resources’ ‘creative management’, ‘supervision’ and ‘staff development’ seems to have scant positive impact or proved counter-productive. As recent research found only 2 per cent of social workers and 8 per cent of school teachers reported that they ‘enjoyed their work’ (Smith 2005). Comparative data for community and youth workers is not available. As a consequence of the outflow and failure to recruit the more talented the balance tilts. Managers acquire escalating authority, status and distance; face-to-face practice is cheapened until it becomes something the ‘able’ do as a precursor to climbing the management ladder. Leaving ‘failures’ in their wake. Doing face-to-face work for more than a brief sojourn serving as confirmation of incompetence or absence of rational ambition. Such is the distance between management and practice in almost every sphere of welfare that studying one’s craft is disadvantageous in terms of ‘advancement’. You study youth, community or social work merely to secure entry; to progress you take an MBA or Diploma in Management.

We now effectively bribe people to take professional qualifications in teaching, social work and probation. If similar incentives are not soon proffered with regards youth and community work we will find even more unfilled posts and unoccupied places on training courses. Low take-up when set alongside the funding mechanisms imposed on HE and FE ensures anyone with police clearance who is relatively mobile can secure a place on a community or youth work course, somewhere. Some programmes no longer interview applicants; elsewhere these are often perfunctory at best, especially during the period when students apply during ‘clearing’ when programmes desperate to fill empty places. Funding mechanisms reward quantity not quality, financially punishing courses who have the temerity to fail students. This imperative, along with institutional cowardice that virtually guarantees any appealing against failure will be passed for fear of litigation. This ensured entry seamlessly leads to graduation for those who stick it out. An outcome that tarnishes the achievements of the dedicated able student whilst chipping away at their professional standing as a practitioner.

We long ago abandoned the notion that entry, for example, onto a community and youth work or social work course required applicants to demonstrate they possess personal qualities once deemed essential. Consequently, programmes seek to ‘teach’ certain personal characteristics, much as they endeavour to impart skills. Questions have to be raised concerning whether any course can teach such desirable attributes as empathy, selflessness and integrity. Let alone the ‘burning love of humanity’ Josephine Macalister Brew (1957: 112) believed was required of all youth workers. Or the courage to challenge the authority of others Laming wishes for. Once you articulate this expectation you realise its futility.


Vocation and calling have as Doyle (1999: 65) notes long been under attack within education. And I would add elsewhere within welfare. Both characteristics have been pushed aside by the dominance of market values, assisted by a misplaced belief that requiring applicants and practitioners to exhibit both is in someway elitist. The latter is of course an example of the worst sort of class arrogance. Implying those under-represented within Higher Education and the professions are deficient in both. Much as erosion of the academic rigour required to qualify reflects an assumption ‘those people’ lack the capacity to achieve at the highest levels. Once you opt to set aside the need for vocation and calling it inevitably follows the least attractive, most demanding, most deprived sections of the community generally receive the worst levels of provision. Unchecked the resources at the command of the ‘better-off’ will always tip the balance in ways that ensure they attract the ‘best’ practitioners. Calling and vocation are in the final analysis crucial. Counter-points to the cash nexus. Guaranteeing the most demanding, most challenging welfare work is not left to the least qualified or committed workers. Those too incompetent, unskilled or indolent to gain access to more remunerative posts. It is not for elitist reasons that calling and vocation should be mandatory. Or that ‘certain qualities of temperament, personality and maturity’ along with ‘intelligence’ (Younghusband 1947: 27) are made essential. Rather it flows from a belief that no one should be allowed to receive a quality of service we would judge as unacceptable for ourselves or those dear to us. We need to acknowledge that like the priesthood (see Riddell 1998) welfare work is counter-cultural. Therefore the challenge is to nurture those who are drawn towards such activities much as Myles Horton did at Highlander, in educational ‘islands of decency, where people can learn in such a way that they continue to grow’ (1990: 133).


This is not a counsel of despair, rather a recognition of the magnitude of the task. A plea we become honest with those contemplating entry into the welfare professions and acquaint them with the reality that they live in world that holds neither their values nor expertise in high regard. That views contemptuously many of those they serve. Therefore to effectively undertake such work and to change the culture and social values that bring this about requires them to possess special characteristics. Not least:

…a disinterested love of her fellows and an understanding of the aims she is pursuing and the methods of so doing – in other words, a mature person with knowledge, judgement, objectivity, and a sense of values in social affairs. (Younghusband 1947: 27).

For those who acknowledge this it means they must seriously address the question of how to manage, in the short term at least, with far fewer youth workers, teachers, community educators, social workers and so on. How we might distribute equitably a scarce human resource, namely highly quality welfare professionals. Alternatively we can continue to feebly stand aside, even collaborated, with wholesale dilution. Such an option always remains open to us. However if that choice is made we might at least admit to ourselves that it fosters escalating inequality. For poor professionals are guaranteed to encourage the better-off use their cash to purchase, by various means, superior provision. The quantum leap in the quality of hospital care and standards in some sectors of state education at the onset of the last century encouraged the better-off to opt in. Allowing standards to drop is reversing that trend. Further weakening social cohesion and community values. Vocation and calling have to be affirmed. Far higher standards of education and rectitude demanded as a condition of entry to the welfare professionals. Even though doing so will reduce the number of entrants. For far too long too many of us have been content to make peace with mediocrity. We have allowed ourselves to do so, in most cases, because it has not been our misfortune to bear the cost of that choice. The poor and inadequate youth worker, community educator, schoolteacher and social worker do not damage our life-chances or well-being. We are cocooned against the effects of their actions, or inaction. Rather it is the Victoria Climbie’s of this world who suffer the consequences of our retreat from vocation and calling. Who are the victims of a reluctance to set demanding entry criteria and address the issue of how to distribute equitably scarce resources.


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Tony Jeffs teaches in the Department of Applied Social Sciences Durham University.

How to cite this article: Jeffs, T. (2006) ‘Too few, too many: the retreat from vocation and calling‘, the informal education homepage, Last update: July 08, 2014.

A shortened version of this article first appeared in Concepts (2006)

© Tony Jeffs 2006