Best and brightest
When the first Teach for America (TFA) corps were introduced in 1990, few would have predicted that 30 years later, the founding principles of the organisation would come to fundamentally transform and shape the debates around social work education in England. TFA was aimed at reducing teacher shortages in the USA through recruiting the “best and the brightest” from “top universities” into teaching. In order to attract these individuals, large financial incentives, a leadership focus and fast-track teacher training were seen to be essential requirements.
Since its inception, serious concerns have been raised about TFA, including a lack of student diversity, the influence of private financial interests, the role the organisation plays in pitting teachers against each other, and the perpetuation of a white saviour mentality. TFA also shifted the focus of teaching reform from difficult to address systemic issues like poverty, to blaming teachers. Furthermore, rather than solving the teacher shortage as was promised, research has shown that TFA graduates have shorter teaching careers than other teachers. These points are all addressed in detail in Jordan Flaherty’s excellent book, No More Heroes.
Despite these serious concerns, the “success” of TFA was used as justification to create a similar scheme in England, dubbed Teach First, launched in 2002. Unsurprisingly, similar problems have been raised about Teach First, but this did not stop the “success” of Teach First from being marketed to get funding for similar fast-track programmes in English social work, most notably Frontline and Think Ahead. These programmes were both proposed based on the need to bring the “best and the brightest” and “talented individuals” into social work and received substantial government funding and support. Predictably, similar concerns to TFA and Teach First were quickly, and have consistently been, raised about fast-track social work training (for a recent example, see Tunstill, 2019).
When Frontline and Think Ahead were being proposed, in 2012 and 2014 respectively, many in the social work profession challenged and rejected them and the oppressive and elitist values on which they are based. However, dissenting voices were highly muted at a political and leadership level, and the Chief Social Workers have enthusiastically and consistently declared their support for the fast-track programmes, including the two interim Chief Social Workers for Adults in their 2020 annual report. The language and philosophy of attracting the “best and brightest” has therefore become integral to the recruitment and education of social workers.
Fast forward to February 2020, and the Home Secretary Priti Patel has declared that a new points-based immigration system, placing a premium on speaking English, and emphasising “taking back control of our borders”, is designed to attract the “brightest and the best from around the globe”. From a social work perspective, some immediate concerns about these new proposals include the devastating impact that they could have on the social care workforce, the prejudicial undertones, and the fact that they are predicated on getting the 8 million “economically inactive” citizens back to work – including students, retired people and those on long term sick.
On April 8th, 2 weeks after the UK lockdown started and almost a month after Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, the Home Office took the decision to update the guidance around the points-based immigration system. The specific section they updated related to so called “low skilled workers”. Considering many individuals who would be considered “low skilled” under this system have been on the frontline working to reduce the worst impacts of the pandemic, and dying in disproportionate numbers because of this, you would be forgiven for thinking that the update was to include a recognition of the value these individuals have in our most important systems and services.
However, the changes instead just reiterated the previous position more firmly: “There will not be an immigration route specifically for those who do not meet the skills or salary threshold for the skilled worker route”. As an EU citizen whose first two post-qualified social work jobs in the UK would now be considered “low-skilled”, it is hard not to feel these developments as an attack on my professional past, and it saddens me to think of those who will not be given the same opportunities I was.
The same week of February as the immigration proposals were announced, Andrew Sabisky, a government advisor who has previously expressed support for eugenics, was forced to resign following intense media and public pressure. Sociologist David Gillbourn, of the University of Birmingham, has suggested that this scandal is reflective of the racist and regressive views held by some prominent members of the current government around IQ, race and the need to support “brightest and best” at all costs.
Gilbourn continues by forecasting a future where these views become integral to education system:
One way would be for education reforms to claim to apply “scientific” methods to identify the “brightest and best” and single them out for special attention. This would be presented as a meritocratic exercise, intended to fast-track clever children regardless of their social background… No one in authority would worry about the fact that such assessments seem to always place a disproportionate number of black kids in the less-able bracket (Gilbourn, 2020).
Additional concerns have been raised in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic (including in this magazine), that some of the language being perpetuated, including around patient triaging and herd immunity, has ‘barely concealed underpinning eugenic ideas’ (Hoskin and Finch, 2020). The greater impact that the pandemic has had on disadvantaged communities, ethnic minority populations, people in care homes and people with learning disabilities lends further credence to the idea that, increasingly, some people are just seen to be more valuable and important than others. This is the same logic that would lead Dominic Cummings to be dismissive of calls for his resignation when the rest of us know he clearly broke the lockdown rules. Why should he have to listen to us, for he is the best of the brightest!
Social work response
Social workers should play a central role in identifying and challenging this type of injustice, and indeed many do. However, when the social work profession willingly accepts substantial government funding to graduate hundreds of social work students every year through disproportionately well-funded and exclusive routes, based on the justification that these students are the “best and brightest”, we become complicit in perpetuating this language, and the discriminatory and oppressive values that lay behind it. This becomes particularly problematic when it is acknowledged that the dystopian education system that David Gilbourn theorises about above is already very much in place in social work qualifying, as fast-track programmes have been consistently shown to admit a disproportionately large number of white and middle class students, and are publically funded to provide these students with benefits that are withheld from other students, including large bursaries, a shorter qualifying period, paid fees, access to exclusive networking opportunities, and ongoing leadership development.
In supporting these programmes, and celebrating their “success”, the social work profession substantially weakens its ability to challenge developments like those described above, because they are justified by their proponents based on the same basic logic and language as our own profession’s direction of travel. While the definitions used by fast track providers to determine who is “talented” or “bright” may be different from those proposed by Priti Patel or Andrew Sabisky, there is seemingly no disagreement that there is an underlying objective and scientific measure by which these individuals can be identified, and subsequently rewarded using public money. The rewards may be discriminatory in nature, but that is seen to be an acceptable trade-off for the unquestioned value these individuals are supposed to bring to society and social work.
The apparent failure of social work to reject the fast-track model has paved the way for similar programmes to be introduced into other areas, including the police, the prison service, and most recently proposals for a fast-track youth worker programme designed to address gang violence. Instead of acting as a bulwark through rejecting fast-track education, social work has instead become a most effective poster child, demonstrating how the principles of fast-track education can be applied to professions outside of teaching in a way that makes them highly palatable to the political establishment.
It is important to acknowledge that there is a strong legacy of reasoned resistance from many within the social work profession. Notable examples include a letter by six prominent and well-respected academics in The Guardian in 2013; the joint submission by Association of Professors of Social Work (APSW) and the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (JUCSWEC) to the Education Select Committee in 2016; and the open letter from the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), APSW, JUCSWEC and the Social Work Action Network (SWAN) to the Children’s Minister on the proposed extension of children’s social work fast track training in 2018. This resistance provides a bases from which to continue to mount reasoned challenge to the expansion of fast-track training, and these efforts should be held up as important displays of critical resistance and social justice. However, as a result of the seemingly enthusiastic adoption and expansion of fast-track training within social work, the profession has substantially weakened its ability to now call out the more extreme manifestations of the “best and brightest” logic and language we see today.
For the sake of staving off potential protests and objections, I want to explicitly state at this stage that fast-track education is not equated to eugenics or xenophobia, and I hope it is clear that this is not the point being made in this piece. Instead, the point is about whether we are creating a profession that can mount a collective and effective challenge when presented with issues like eugenics and xenophobia. Social work should be a profession based fundamentally on social justice, and if we compromise on our principles, we lose legitimacy to call out injustice when we see it. Like any tale of selling your soul, the bill always comes due.
Joe Hanley, Lecturer Social Work, Open University