Post-truth. Alternative facts. Brexit is Brexit, and statutory regulation is statutory regulation.
You have to wonder whether those interpreters and agency owners enthusing about the Uber/Airbnb/Etsy model of commerce – “disrupting the market” with a “digital revolution” – have actually ever experienced life as an Uber driver themselves.
The virtual offer
Another academic year has begun, and we’ve finally reached the start of the legal requirement to give deaf and disabled students in Further Education an EHC (Education, Health & Care) Plan rather than the former Statement of Special Educational Need. “Statements” might still be used with existing primary and secondary school students until 2018. It is probably my imagination but things seem even more frantic than usual for this time of year. The service I work for is seeing deaf student enrolment way down at some colleges and surprisingly high at others; some of the colleges themselves still feel a bit like the Marie Celeste for anyone that was working in them five years ago, while others appear to be thriving. “Austerity” continues to nobble course subsidies, all the way down to Level 1.
Regarding the Local Offer (see Day 0 & Day 1), I’ve still seen nothing to indicate that the predicted explosion of choice and personalised services has kicked in for deaf students or their parents and guardians. It was insisted all through the planning and “Pathfinder” stages that the Offer would not just be a “directory”. But in my home borough and its neighbours, in my field, that is precisely what it is: almost completely a list of national charities and local voluntary groups, barely different from typing “deaf [my council]” into Google. The public sector service I work for is listed in its own borough’s Offer, but as far as I’m aware its clients remain only the FE colleges themselves, still the brokers of the funding.
It has been about a year since my decision to voluntarily leave the NRCPD register and I’ve done no freelance work during that time. All of the BSL/English interpreting work I’ve done since then has been through a public sector employer (this actually provides “consumers” with a higher level of scrutiny, support and accountability than any voluntary regulator can muster). Now that I’ve completed another degree and have more time to work again, it recently crossed my mind that I could re-register. And then today, NRCPD did three things:
- Announced a formal statement of regulatory intent, in which they set out their long-term but short-on-details plan to criminalise unregistered community interpreters
- Published a new Code of Conduct and complaints process
- Revamped their website slightly (I’d feel bad if I didn’t point out that they’ve stealthily removed all previously published correspondence between registrants and the Board) (Further note, 20/11/2015: the missing correspondence has now reappeared elsewhere on the site, prompting us all to remember the importance of Hanlon’s Razor.)
What do I make of all this? More below the break.
Let’s be done with euphemism for five minutes. When we talk about statutory regulation for sign language interpreters, we are really talking about deliberately creating a new breed of criminal: we need and want more criminals. We are so desperate to be preferred that we are preparing to use the bluntest of instruments to cleave the world of community interpreting into two halves: interpreters over here, and criminals over there. With us, or against us, in the name of public protection. Because historically, black and white solutions have worked out so well.
I was a bit blown away by the interest in my Great Flounce – in just five days, it had double the total traffic of the last ten months – a little nerve-wracking. Some very fair criticisms were made: I agree completely with those who pointed out that it isn’t especially helpful to dismantle things without offering any kind of solution. This post is an attempt to redress that, pulling together bits and pieces I’ve rambled about here over the last year.
Here’s what would bring me back into the loving arms of my comrades, if a register (or equivalent) could manage it. It’s not a shopping list: they are my terms, which sounds super-butch but has that faint implication of compromise. Most of them (except possibly the first) have been talked through by others for decades, and they all overlap to some extent. If you don’t like longform (essay-length) blogs, here’s a quick list with soundbites.
- A twenty-first century register: the register as a “really useful” public-facing database interface, emphasising specific competencies
- Certification to work in critical domains: the death of the “pancake profession”, the birth of structure and progression
- Pupillage/internships: mandatory hours of supervised work experience for full registration status, post-qualification
- An end to deontology: no more stone tablets which contradict contemporary research and cripple us with dissonance
- Evidence-based decisions and practice: a permanent ban on blind faith and “off-the-shelf professionalism”
T9000 interrupts its scheduled broadcasts on the topic of nonsense to bring you this breaking news. A glacial process of reform at Signature/NRCPD, which began a year and a half ago, would finally appear to be bearing some fruit. (I mention merely in passing that Signature has taken in an estimated £300,000 in registrant fees during that time.) Two new things are happening, either or both of which might be cause for concern if you still believe that NRCPD have any relevance to your work.
The first issue is that the governance of NRCPD, the board of trustees, is finally being refreshed: this was announced to registrants by e-mail last week. BD Consulting UK, a private firm, has been appointed to manage the recruitment process of four permanent “registrant trustees”, in the model of several other registers which have four professional members, four lay members and a Chair. This is good news, and what we all wanted. Isn’t it?
The second is that following a good deal of pressure (not to mention about 30 years of academic literature about interpreter “role” and deontological ethics) a revised Code of Conduct has been published in draft form, together with a draft revision of the complaints process. “Consultation” on the drafts has been requested, in the form of two more Surveys Monkey which ask the questions NRCPD wants answered. But this “consultation” fails to meet one of the most fundamental requirements of a consultation: hardly anyone knows it is happening. It has not been announced to registrants by e-mail; it has not been published on any form of social media that I can locate; it was not highlighted in an NRCPD newsletter because NRCPD does not produce a newsletter; it was simply dumped on their website without fanfare, a website which incidentally has no means of keeping in touch with its audience such as an e-mail subscription list or an RSS feed to name just two popular internet technologies which have existed for over 15 years.
Let’s take a closer look at both of these developments. [Read more…]
(A transcript of this video is here)
For a long time, I’ve been bothered by questions about what to do, as a working interpreter, when you are presented with a long barrage of unexpected nonsense. Most of the time, I’m fairly sure I’m working with real human beings, so it’s a regular occurrence.
I think my anxiety about it stems from a brain-curdling experience in a Higher Education art lecture that’s been nagging at me for over three years now. I wrote about it during my interpreter training in my critical reflection logs: I knew I was flailing around for excuses because I flippantly listed “jumping through a plate glass window and falling two stories in order to escape” as a potential but grudgingly unprofessional “coping strategy”. Those logs and the critically reflective essay they produced got me the highest mark I have ever received in all of my academic endeavours, which says to me that (a) my supervisor had a sense of humour and (b) I was asking all the right questions, but didn’t necessarily have any decent answers.
Sometimes, when an answer seems very elusive, it may be because we don’t understand the question. So I’ve done a little thinking and reading about nonsense, gibberish and gobbledegook. If the following doesn’t make any sense, I’m sorry for being insufferably meta. Nonsense is not all the same, so in time-honoured interpreting tradition, our responses to it are going to depend – but on what?
discrimination (mass n)
Pronounciation: / dɪˌskrɪmɪˈneɪʃ(ə)n /
1. The unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex
2. Recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another
– Oxford English Dictionary, August 2014
The older you get and the more you learn, the less anything seems to make any sense at all. “Wisest is he who knows he does not know”, indeed, but it can be a proper headache.
There is a yawning divide in the UK between those who provide signed and spoken language interpreting services. We have separate qualifications, separate voluntary registers, different letters after our names and (with one recent exception) different national bodies. Yet the jobs we do are the same jobs, more or less, even if it’s one of the most varied jobs in the world.
We rarely co-operate, although when we do it’s impressive, such as the campaign against the Ministry of Justice’s decision to farm out court interpreting to Capita/ALS. But winter is coming: there are augurs that a National Framework contract for public service interpreting is in the works, in the exact model of the MoJ disaster. If so, interpreters need to brush up on their solidarity more than ever before.
So which of the above senses of the term “discrimination” is the most faithful? Are sign language interpreters really being asked to sit in a different part of the bus, or is there a genuine and well-understood difference in their work that necessitates the silos? Perhaps it isn’t actually about the “professionals” at all, but all about their clients?
Here are some viewpoints – some of them are more opinion than fact, and I don’t necessarily buy them all in their entirety. Do you?
Unfortunately, rose-tinted faith in a leisurely future was misplaced: the light at the end of the professional tunnel turned out to be fire on the tracks. Leading up to and past the turn of the millennium (in the First World at least) the same social mobility and technological progress that enabled professionalisation to sprout also resulted in higher education (and information in general) becoming more and more accessible, more democratised, which in turn made expertise gradually less rare and thus less socially and economically valuable. A few ivory towers crumbled: nowadays, even commoners are allowed to be critical thinkers. In terms of “knowledge capital”, both old and new professions increasingly began to lose their monopolies, and their reflex response was more professionalisation. An arms race ensued, a vicious circle that demanded ever more education, regulation and organisation, spreading even as far down as the skilled trades – today most people would not notice anything strange about the term “professional plumber” but Jane Austen would have slapped you in the face in shock.
Generally armed with more knowledge and generally possessed of less natural deference to elders or betters, people felt increasingly confident in challenging a professional opinion. The social capital of professionals also took a series of sharp knocks at the marketplace due to some very public scandals (local examples at random: Harold Shipman, Lehman Brothers, Baby P, and most recently the crisis and dismemberment of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, which is inexplicably making waves for sign language interpreters despite their absolute lack of involvement in it). Those events were undoubtedly appalling, and the media (whose own processes of professionalisation and rabid competition had honed their ambulance-chasing skills to a fine art) expertly stoked wave after wave of distrust for professionals.
Their response: even more professionalisation, but also a tendency and occasional mandate to include more “lay persons” in the governance of professions. The safeguards of professionalism were no longer seen as sufficient and its core value of autonomy was increasingly seen as mere self-interest: society wanted to be closer to the alarm button and, in a rather unfortunate metaphor originating from the land-grabbing of the American gold rush, to have more of a stake; the stakeholder was born, not to the sound of trumpets but the deafening wheeze of a billion snores. In a “risk society”, autonomy must be replaced by accountability; the original values of professionalism get buried another layer of dust and professionals gradually cede control of their work to non-practitioners in the name of public protection.
As well as elevating existing occupations to professions, many new occupations were created by the professionalisation movement (perhaps we should talk more about “occupationalisation”) which went on to spawn yet more occupations themselves. For example, the UK’s sign language interpreters of 1982 dragged themselves, panting, out of the primordial muck of social work and were suddenly standing on hind legs with a real job that commanded a wage and a title and qualifications and everything. The process had demonstrable benefits to the Deaf community despite a couple of robot-related accidents along the way, and everything seemed to be going very well until a cad and bounder at Jobcentre Plus had the gall to turn some filthy dole-scroungers into Communication Support Workers, and the grubby cycle of life began anew. (This account of the rise of the CSW is brought to you via ASLI.)
Capitalist industry didn’t miss the opportunity here (it never does). With the sheer proliferation of professions and occupations, the economic response was to use and even accelerate the process by encouraging the demarcation of labour into ever smaller fractions: knowledge capital was spread ever thinner. Demarcation saves money, increases profits: it can be far cheaper to employ (and replace) ten drones to do one simple task each than to recruit and train a super-drone who can do all ten. This tendency, mainly found in the manufacturing and energy industries but also in softer “semi-professional” settings such as education (“teaching assistants”) and social work (“care managers”) started to be referred to as “deprofessionalisation”. And as the stock of knowledge capital went into free-fall, so too did the social value of professional status. This was obviously a blow upside the head for professionals, because the whole point of social status is to have more of it than someone else. What is the point in being elevated if there is no-one to look down on? Professionalism is essentially a matter of class.
But working conditions and “class struggle” were already tied fast to our collective notions of “a profession”. A profession’s status is supposed to be proportional to society’s level of need for the functions it performs. If the need is great enough, stable working conditions are likely to be created: salaries, contracts, tenure, working rights, piffling benefits such as sick pay, maternity leave, holidays, healthcare … A small occupation that is composed almost entirely of disposable freelancers and zero-hour contract staff is clearly not that highly valued and can’t really consider itself to be a “profession”. Are anyone’s working conditions really guaranteed in the 21st century?
Returning to the spiral of professionalisation, an arms race by definition requires bigger and bigger guns, and the nuclear deterrent here is statutory regulation. This measure was originally reserved only for the “old professions” and later for those few whose potential for abuse or exploitation was above a fairly high threshold, but in theory, if distrust and suspicion of a large and important enough profession begins to run so high that no measures of increased accountability and decreased autonomy can allay society’s concerns – or, alternatively, when the professionals’ anxiety about their status becomes debilitating enough and their wish that it be protected in law becomes unbearably shrill (“but anyone can call themselves a sanitary engineer!”) – it can, very rarely, be deemed no longer sufficient that professionals organise themselves voluntarily: the state will intervene and mandate some form of “protected status”.
Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether a government can really control the use of an agent noun formed from a very flexible verb in common everyday use (to pick an example at random, “to interpret”), it’s unfortunate for statutory regulation campaigners that successive governments blow very hot and cold on the issue; we’re currently in an ice age. The problem here is that society, not being the monolith we all pretend it to be, is fickle and has many voices, no matter how much a regulator wishes it would speak in perfect unison. The state, meanwhile, is torn between its desire to control and its newly-found antipathy to bureaucracy or, indeed, spending any money on anything at all. The perfect example of the unreliability of government support for statutory regulation in recent years is the current situation for Further Education teachers, who went through the following blink-and-you’ll-miss-it professionalisation and deprofessionalisation process accompanied by the birth, swelling and punctured collapse of the Institute for Learning, like a supernova with elbow-patches:
- Teaching in FE is an unqualified occupation;
- becomes a voluntarily regulated and mandatorily qualified profession with 266 initial registrants;
- becomes a statutorily regulated profession with 200,000+ members, some with new letters after their names;
- goes back to being a voluntary one with 33,000 members following the Lingfield report;
- gives up and becomes an occupation again, with no compulsory qualifications and no professional body.
All in the space of just twelve years; the time lasted under statutory regulation was a mere five years. So are those 200,000 teachers “unprofessional” now? Were they ever professionals? Clearly no-one else cares. Perhaps they shouldn’t either: they have much more important things to worry about.
Teachers know better than anyone else that if you hand over control of your job to non-practitioners, you open the door to performativity and the death of the soul of your work, which we have already covered. However it is also just about possible, if you work really hard, that you might just nudge the definition of professionalism onto a slightly new course, perhaps sneak in another “trait” or two. In many of the social professions, you will now find some new bullet points on the list of “professional standards”, most commonly a requirement to undertake Continuous Professional Development (CPD, or Continuing Education Units in other English-speaking countries) and a directive to engage in reflective practice. There is nothing wrong with these aspirations. No-one sane could argue that there is no value in learning new things and refreshing what you think you know, and in actually examining your reactions to your work and being just the tiniest bit thoughtful. The real issue is having adequate time and provision of resources to do those things, and the question of how those activities are going to be measured and accounted for does not have a particularly happy answer. Performativity will infect and corrupt even the best of intentions. The observer’s paradox is a real problem: measuring something changes it, usually into something drab and fake.
And you have to be careful with creating new weapons: your arsenal can be taken and turned against you. Part of the Lingfield review’s justification for the deprofessionalisation of Further Education was that there is no evidence that fashionable “best practice” in the form of make-work, tick-off-the-bare-minimum CPD has had any effect on improving the standard of teaching. What other ideas about “enforced professionalism” are a matter of blind faith?
All of these forces inevitably result in the planks of specialist knowledge and “professional practice”, for which the requirements for most of the rest of the traits of professionalism are supposed to logically follow, being more and more frequently kicked out from below until there is no status left for the professional to stand on. By the 1990s, sociologists (who arguably got us into this mess in the first place) had, for the most part, long since abandoned the term “professional” as not especially precise or useful, and – apologies for using the W-word – began talking instead in terms of “knowledge workers”. Professionals have become that which they most wanted to escape, just another worker: today there is no practical difference between the organisation and attributes of most “professions” and most “occupations”.
But many aspiring “professionals” didn’t get the e-mail and have carried on regardless, still gate-keeping, still trying to stay on top by putting others down, still robotically trying to forge a status for themselves that no longer really exists except as a medieval figment, a bedtime story, a lullaby.
The question of whether we are in a profession or not is not so much a red herring as a massive crimson whale. In a wide variety of fields, even trainees’ textbooks and their tutors openly discuss the arbitrary smoke-and-mirrors nature of much of the trait-based “professional standards” criteria. Most “professions”, such as mine, can only consistently tick the first one of them off, anyway: we are not necessarily educated to a high level; we are not “certified to practice” the way other “professions” understand the term; we are certainly not autonomous and self-regulated (although we have bags and bags of formal organisation – there seems to be no limit on the number of factions our professional bodies can split themselves into); research repeatedly shows that we only opportunistically adhere to prescriptive, deontological codes of ethics (and our working conditions often force us to ignore them); and we’re somewhat hit-and-miss on the altruism too. There are many other things we also do not have that people expect from a profession, but this is all well known and again, we have been here before.
So we have essentially failed to achieve something which was completely made up in the first place. That is even harder to do than it sounds. Well done us.
And I still don’t have a jetpack.
I’ll leave you with this:
No code can replace the need for psychologists to use their professional and ethical judgement. … Thinking is not optional. The code has been written primarily to guide, not to punish.
– British Psychological Society’s Code of Ethics and Conduct, 2009
A rulebook which has a rule which says that rules are only rules. That is better than “professional”: it is true. And truth is beautiful.
Let’s try for a bit more beauty in our lives, while we still have a shred of collective soul.
Ball, Stephen (2003): “The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity”, Journal of Education Policy, 18:2, 215-228
British Psychological Society (2009): Code of Ethics and Conduct, accessed online on 22/7/2014 at http://www.bps.org.uk/system/files/documents/code_of_ethics_and_conduct.pdf
Lingfield et al. (2012): “Professionalism in Further Education: Interim Report of the Independent Review Panel”, Department of Business, Innovation & Skills, accessed online on 22/7/2014 at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/32351/12-670-professionalism-in-further-education-interim.pdf
IfL (2014): “The proposed future of IfL: FAQs”, accessed on 4/7/2014 at https://www.ifl.ac.uk/our-work/what-were-working-on/the-proposed-future-of-ifl-faqs/
Lunt, Ingrid (2008): “Ethical Issues in Professional Life”, in Cunningham, B. (ed.) Exploring Professionalism, pp. 73-97, Bedford Way Papers
Runté, Robert (1995): “Is Teaching a Profession?”, in Taylor, G. & Runté, R. (eds.) Thinking about Teaching: An Introduction, Harcourt Brace
TES Connect (2014): “Institute for Learning to close over fears it will run out of money”, accessed on 4/7/2014 at http://news.tes.co.uk/further-education/b/news/2014/07/01/institute-for-learning-set-to-close-over-cash-fears.aspx