Sunday thoughts: Does the Jubilee show that we were wrong about the Big Society?
I’ve been thinking about the Jubilee this week, obviously. But also West Wing (an occupational hazard), about schools, and about whether we were wrong about the Big Society.
One of the privileges of my job is to meet with a lot of schools. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve spoken to a couple of private schools educating some of the richest people in the country. I’ve also been to a couple of schools educating some of the poorest children in the country (where the background details on parental poverty, domestic violence, food shortages and the like are, I’m sorry to say, absolutely heartbreaking).
But what both sets of schools had in common were two things. Firstly, phenomenally talented and caring teachers. I really do find this in almost every school I meet with. That’s why, for all the grief that the Honours system gets, I fervently support it, because it highlights just a small fraction of the good work that goes on in schools day in and day out.
But the second thing that struck me was the emphasis on service. I think this is more than just Jubilee celebrations, though of course there’s some of that, and more than the Ofsted driven nod towards British values that you see on display boards in every school. In all four of the schools, I picked up a real sense of students, from across the geographical and wealth spectrum of this country, wanting to do good in their communities.
You see this a lot in universities as well. Many of the universities I work with have levels of student (and staff) volunteering far in excess of what was true even a decade ago. Just one example — at LSE, around 30% of all undergraduates consistently undertake volunteering, with the most important reasons being to “improve things” and “to give back to society”. We found in our UPPF Student Futures Commission that students feel a sense of wanting to contribute, through volunteering, sandwich placements, and other forms of organised activity, that goes way beyond wanting things to put on their CV.
The Jubilee, of course, reminds us of the importance of community. People refer to the Queen’s work using a variety of terms but the one I like is service. The monarch has served the country without grumble or hesitation for 70 years. And the celebrations this weekend show that. We’re a Royalist country, say the polls, but we know which Royals we like and don’t. And the ones at the top are those who embody that sense of selfless service. You don’t have to be a monarchist to recognise that the Queen’s conception of her duty — that sense that she has been born to serve and will do so until the very day she dies — runs through her like a stick of rock and is so formative, alongside the democratic leadership of a country, to shaping our national character.
And so to Donna in the West Wing, who wouldn’t fire an intern because she was worried that the most prestigious graduates from Harvard were not entering public service. We certainly can and should do more to try and open up the civil service to talent at all stages — whether that be through greater use of secondments, making a reality of the commitment that all Senior Civil Service jobs are indeed advertised externally, and not cutting off the Civil Service Fast Stream, which maintains its position as one of the country’s most prestigous graduate destinations despite paying less than almost all its competitors. We should also encourage more informal collaboration and contribution to public service, including pushing all civil servants in central and local government to talk freely and openly to experts. It shouldn’t be possible to go to conferences and seminars without there being public servants there, listening as well as talking.
But service encompasses more than working in government, as important as that is. At a dinner the other night with schools and universities discussing young people and careers, I was struck by the importance that is now placed by young people on doing good, as well as earning a living. This is most visibly seen in the green agenda. While broad concepts of “social good” and “purpose driven” employment appeal to some but not to others, jobs that offer opportunities for contributing to the green agenda are popular across the board. One guest gave an example of an investment bank, and another of a Big 4 consultancy. Even within these hotbeds of capitalism with staggeringly high starting salaries, it is roles that allow the chance to work on green finance, or environmental projects, that are the most sought after.
Maybe this, then, is the much mocked Big Society. Paradoxically, in the more optimistic days of 2010 (notwithstanding the beginning of austerity), there was cynicism around this project. Who, it was claimed, would actually go and sweep their own streets, run their own local library, form a community group to save their local swimming pool, or set up their own school?
But while there were clearly issues with some of the elements and programmes proposed by the Coalition — and, when accompanied by significant cuts to local government services in particular, a sense that action was always going to be plugging holes in statutory services rather than breaking new ground — I do see a sense of the concept that Cameron, Clegg, Steve Hilton et al were trying to reach for.
This is a tired country. It’s a country that is facing a financial squeeze. God knows, it’s a poorly led country. But look beneath the surface, especially among young people, and it is a country that has hope. It is a country where there is still an inchoate sense of service, whether measured in street parties, or green finance, or in animated conversations about hopes and dreams in classrooms both rich and poor. And if nothing else, that is worth raising a glass to, on this Jubilee weekend.