NRCPD have this week announced that they have become a “separate and independent” company and registered charity which is also a “subsidiary of Signature”. We are told that this paradox is a step along a “transition” towards “full independence”; nonetheless, the adjective “independent” appears five times. The entity was born on 1 January 2017; NRCPD’s director attended a local workshop on 2 February and updated them on this new status, a full week before registrants themselves or the outside world were informed, nearly six weeks after the fact. The Strategic Plan was also revealed, in all its vague and unsubstantiated glory. Elsewhere, in an advert for an Honorary Treasurer, we can confirm that the new NRCPD is a “wholly owned subsidiary” of Signature (the trading name for CACDP, the actual legal entity: as we’re discussing legal entities, I’ll only use CACDP hereon). So what does “separate and independent” mean, exactly?
Post-truth. Alternative facts. Brexit is Brexit, and statutory regulation is statutory regulation.
I was unable to attend Signature’s statutory regulation meeting in January due to being unexpectedly hospitalised (I’m fine now). While waiting for my belly-button to resume normal service, I did a little bit of reading and uncovered a range of interesting and depressing responses to the statutory regulation struggle in the annals of several other professions. Many of these are the kind of practitioner-focused issues that have so far (to my knowledge) been absent from dialogue. This is a long post so let’s start with the main shakedown and then move on to the sources.
Key issues raised
- Statutory regulation encourages “medical model” approaches to practice which even healthcare professionals may find oppressive, let alone those in occupations which are patently not healthcare.
- Excessive regulation – increased inspection regimes, measurements and managerialism – can lead to increased “reactivity”, a term which describes practitioners feeling a pressure to select “easy wins”, reject more difficult work, abandon more difficult clients and “cover their backs” instead of acting from best professional judgement.
- Campaigns to promote statutory regulation above self-regulation have historically resulted in schisms and increased disunity within various professions. Almost all the campaigns resulted in failure and wasted resources, even for professions between thirty and two hundred times the size of BSL/English interpreting.
- A political will is required to take up the cause of state regulation, which brings with it political scrutiny, which entails unpredictable effects such as sudden reversals of support or unexpected spotlights on bad training/practice. Statutory regulation can stop being statutory at any time should political will or public support be withdrawn: the fight to keep your status may be even more effort than that expended to attain it. The current political will is opposed to statutory regulation even for highly specialist and expert clinical professions taught over and above postgraduate level, let alone social/linguist ones with a mixed bag of vocational qualifications that verify skills instead of teaching them.
- Meta-regulators such as the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) and its predecessor the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence (CHRE) have long asserted that regulation must be based on empirical assessment of “actual harm” and not “possible risk”, i.e. regulation must be proportionate to the problem it is trying to solve. A regulator that creates sledgehammer/nut issues is incompetent.
- Given that absolutely none of above is even acknowledged, let alone addressed, by Signature’s meandering rationale for pursuing statutory regulation, it becomes necessary to ask whether the current governance of their “NRCPD service” is fit for purpose and their personnel are qualified to decide our profession’s future. Who watches the watchers?
- Finally, the concept of principled non-compliance may offer some solutions, or at least traction, to those with doubts and fears about the path ahead, while those who favour statutory regulation have a paradox to resolve.
Recently there’s been a digital fuss about Mark Cave, an Auslan interpreter, uncomfortably dubbed #signguy by people with smartphones. He is the latest in a line of interpreters in recent years who have lingered for their fifteen minutes of limelight, following Lydia Callis, Jonathan Lamberton and (in a very different category) diagnosed schizophrenic and alleged murderer Thamsanqa Jantjie. Depressingly, the story is rarely about what is really happening, but about people’s reaction to it. Tweets used to react to news media stories, but now they are the stories. (Updated 17/3/2015: a mere three weeks later, we can now add Tommy Krångh to the list, a Swedish interpreter whose TV performance triggered a social media reaction which virtually eclipsed the original artists.)
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”
This wasn’t an easy decision. You could choose to look at it as though I were leaving a profession. If you really want to think that, I can’t stop you. But to me, it feels like I’ve decided to join one.
Graduating as a qualified interpreter was one of the proudest days of my life. I got to surround myself with the most important people to me, the ones to whom I owe everything and who have put up with all manner of crap over the years, while shuffling around in a Harry Potter costume. I was called up onto a stage, saluted by men carrying giant sceptres, and shook hands with a very important personage in gold-threaded robes (I don’t even remember who she was, just that she was venerable and illustrious and vaguely beneficent). We were flanked by my academic superiors, arranged in tiers of increasing breadth and floppiness of hat, looking on with weary approval. Hundreds of strangers applauded, there were drinks and flashing cameras and a thousand permutations of mutual congratulation. We were the very last BSL/English interpreters to graduate from the University of Leeds MA programme, a course that was axed without even a whimper from sign language interpreting professional membership bodies.
The same month, my yellow NRCPD badge arrived in the post, and everything went downhill rapidly from there.
I returned last night from the annual conference of the European Forum of Sign Language Interpreters in Antwerp, Belgium, which was simply amazing. It was fascinating to be surrounded by so many spoken and signed languages (with participants from 25 countries, some of which represent more than one language in each modality) and hugely satisfying to meet interpreters from hundreds and thousands of miles away and immediately recognise their experiences. It was a total pleasure to leave “local concerns” behind and talk about what interpreting is for once. I’m already looking at how to get to Warsaw for the 2015 conference.
The theme of the conference was the underlying cognitive processes (“mind tricks”) that make interpretation possible – totally my cup of tea. If I were going to be constructively critical, I’d say that the only flaw in the extremely well-organised proceedings was the total onslaught of information – my brain currently resembles an over-boiled primary school dinner cauliflower, and physically I feel like I’ve spent the weekend mountain climbing. The main day was a long series of (fascinating) presentations with no “break out” exercises or workshops – although the standard was extremely high and all of the topics useful, I’d have enjoyed the opportunity to pause from passively receiving information and engage in more structured dialogue with colleagues from abroad.
Because of this, there is absolutely no way I can describe here everything I took away, and most of it hasn’t settled down yet – I expect things will continue to poke me for months to come. So the following is an almost random selection of just a few of the bitesize “messages” I found easier to process as they’ve fit with my reading and thinking so far – I should say that they do not necessarily represent the views of the presenters, and there was a metric shedload of other interesting stuff.
Can we take a break from “professionalisation”?
Peter Llewellyn-Jones, president of efsli (and my former supervisor) began and ended the conference by reminding us that while the early years of interpreting research had a notable focus on cognition, perhaps that fell by the wayside: we have collectively spent much of the last 15 years talking instead about what it means to be a “professional”. That dialogue is sometimes useful but arguably there is little point in endlessly elaborating on our status as interpreters if we do not understand how interpreting works.
A trivial bit of new knowledge on my part was finding out how interpreters are named in other languages – for example, I met Swedish, Dutch, Danish and Flemish interpreters who use some linguistic variant of the word tolker, which is best translated as “interpreter” but more literally means “talker” or “explainer” or “spokesperson”. Good luck to any statutory regulation afficionados with trademarking that title. On a related note, efsli’s long term aim (perhaps by 2020) is to create a Europe-wide register of interpreters – many countries such as Croatia and, surprisingly, Sweden do not have a national register – and I’m excited by the idea of an international register of public service interpreters set up by interpreters.
Why do we default to simultaneous interpreting?
Debra Russell gave the keynote presentation, which was a goldmine in itself and had my brain whirling before we’d even reached the first morning’s halfway mark. Evidence was highlighted which demonstrated what spoken language interpreters take for granted but sign language interpreters often completely ignore: simultaneous interpreting is worse than consecutive in terms of faithfulness, quality and, often, believability (a vital and sometimes overlooked requirement for settings such as court interpreting, business and education). In one measure of quality on the work of experienced interpreters in court settings, error percentages were worse for simultaneous interpreting by more than a decile compared to consecutive; accounts from Deaf users were highlighted, which clearly expressed that they disliked interpreting errors more than they disliked consecutive interpreting.
I’ve said this myself in my own workshops for CSWs – we “grow up” as interpreters emulating what we have seen others doing, and we think that it must be right just because that is the status quo. But the main utility of authority is that it is there to be questioned. We have successfully persuaded large sections of the community that just because bimodal interpreting can be done simultaneously without racks of specialist technology, it should be done that way, even though research shows time and again that it creates more errors and less “natural” target language renditions. Perhaps consec should be the default stance whenever possible – yes, it does have some disadvantages (lawyers don’t like it, for example, perhaps because it takes up more of their precious time), but in which situations are those disadvantages outweighed?
Discourse and what we are doing
A recurring theme in several of the presentations was that interpreters seem to struggle with maintaining the discourse functions of language, what language is doing above the word and sentence levels. Debra Russell talked about interpreters working in education, who tend to get sucked into processing language on just a lexical level but are not mindful of the discourse, where the language is headed, what the point is, even when they have actually been prepared and included in those aims as a proper colleague of the teacher (which never happens enough). Terry Janzen discussed “intersubjectivity” (a term which is ironically very hard to translate and which called to mind Robert Lee’s writing about the identity and personal history of interpreters) and communication as “construal”: the problem here is a possible tendency in interpreters for “over-contextualisation”, which I regrettably recognise in myself as an someone who started off working in the education field.
Yes, interpreters are “explainers”, but perhaps it is more common than we realise for a speaker to need to leave things unexplained, to be obscure on purpose, at least for the time being. Discourse is co-constructed: we all unconsciously probe each other’s understanding all the time, and maybe an interpreter who is driven to make everything crystal clear, to the lowest common denominator of meaning, is completely screwing up that everyday process. In education, it is common and important for a teacher to “test” learners by saying things s/he expects to not be understood. So how can you interpret something “faithfully” if you don’t know why it was said? When interlocutors complain that they didn’t understand the interpreter, do we have the courage to tell them, when it’s true, that they weren’t supposed to? These themes kept bothering me all the way through my training – all these wonderful models and diagrams about interpreter-mediated communication seem to assume that people make sense all the time. They don’t. They frequently talk a load of crap. We should recognise and indeed celebrate that.
What I found fascinating is that as frequent as these ideas about discourse, goals, construal etc. were across the presentations, there seemed to be many colleagues present (both from abroad and home) who seemed to find it all quite new, and there were even suggestions that it needed more of a focus in interpreter training. I was a bit surprised and disappointed to find out that people aren’t really being taught this stuff. Pragmatics, discourse and illocution – functional/purposeful approaches – were introduced on day one of my own interpreter education, but (for example) I don’t see them prominently listed in Signature’s NVQ curriculum.
There was so much more – you’d need a short-ish book to properly cover everything that came up – but I’ll stop there for a lie down: the over-boiled cauliflower needs time to cool off. Thanks to all the organisers and participants for an amazing experience.
The most important reforms to deaf education since 1996 came into force today, completely unremarked upon by interpreting associations and the voluntary regulator, even though the changes won’t stop there.
Earlier in the year, I wrote about interpreters in the Local Offer and gave a very rough and ready background to the incoming Special Educational Needs (SEN) reforms – the headline was that SEN Statements are being replaced with something called an Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plan, but there’s a lot more to it than that (NDCS have good summaries and FAQs available). Months have passed, and it’s now the notional start of the new academic year. Like a lot of much younger people, I’m excited and a bit nervous about going back to school.
Today is also the date that local authorities were obliged to have published their Local Offer by. However, of the six London Boroughs that I work in with my education hat on, so far only three have done so. The other three may now be in breach of statutory duty. They are far from alone, according to a list compiled by grassroots organisation Bringing Us Together – at the time of writing, 91 out of 152 local authorities (almost 60%) present every appearance of failing to meet the deadline.
There is much to celebrate about the reforms and they present new opportunities, which Steve Broach at Rightsinreality and Martin McLean at Limping Chicken explain better than I can. But inevitably, there are flaws. The Local Offer was originally intended to be a formal statement from councils that indicated exactly what services will available to young people with special educational needs within the council’s catchment area, so that they, their families and carers would be more able to make informed decisions about their support. That’s vital, as some families will now have the choice of being directly involved in planning the use of a “personal budget” under the more unified “single assessment” approach to support in education, health and care (despite some serious legal loopholes which might allow authorities to wriggle out of it). From now on, it’s possible that parents and young people could be directly involved in recruiting, managing and financing the communication support for deaf school and college kids and teenagers, either by accessing local service providers or, in theory, bypassing them completely. It’s going to be a new market – the question is, who or what is going to control that market? Freelance interpreters? The “regulator”? Public sector services? Or, as usual, the private Deaf Industry?
Despite much insistence that the Local Offer is “not just a directory”, that appears in most cases to be exactly what it is. Somewhere along the line, the senses of obligation, duty, and social justice have ebbed: the rhetoric is peppered with qualifiers such as “hoped that”, “intended to” and the brassily optimistic “expected that”. Councils can list resources, services and “outcomes” which voluntary sector organisations provide with no funding or other input from the local authority and whose prospects for continued existence are entirely unmonitored and not guaranteed, and then count that as a service that “is provided”. There is also nothing to stop a Local Offer describing something which should or could exist but, in reality, doesn’t. It doesn’t matter if it’s impossible for families to access a non-existent professional or service because they have no automatic right to access any specific service anyway: welcome to the psychotic logic of the Big Society.
The empty category
Top of the list of things that don’t really exist are qualified interpreters in deaf education. Here is a comprehensive list of links to what the voluntary register, professional associations and union branch for sign language interpreters have to offer, outside of any paywalls, on the incoming changes in working conditions for professional interpreters in person-centred education, and general information or campaigns about interpreting in education:
|Organisation||Resources on SEN reform/
educational interpreting in general
|The National Register of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People (NRCPD)||Nothing|
|The Association of Sign Language Interpreters (ASLI)||Nothing|
|Visual Language Professionals (VLP)||Nothing|
|The National Union of British Sign Language Interpreters (NUBSLI)||Nothing|
Barring a muffled squeak or two about “standards”, all of the organisations listed above are completely uninvolved. Their collective influence in the education field is utterly marginal, their “standards” are completely unrecognised, and it would make no difference to deaf education services if they all disappeared off the face of the earth tomorrow (something which more than one of them appears hell-bent on achieving).
How many interpreters are regularly at work in the education field? We know from CRIDE‘s work that the total number of “full time equivalent posts” in communication support for compulsory education is reported by local authorities to be in the low hundreds, against a sign language using student population of roughly 3,300 – but we don’t know how many of those students are currently going without any human communication support at all. CRIDE uses an extremely broad category for “communication support”, but we can legitimately extrapolate from the BATOD Deaf Education Support Forum’s research in 2010 that less than 1% of the staff working with students at that time were fully qualified interpreters (and that was back when the term “austerity” was more closely associated with interior design than anything else). We also know from CRIDE and NRCPD’s statistics that deaf sign language users in compulsory education currently outnumber registered interpreters by about three to one, and that’s not counting anyone in Further and Higher Education (literally: no-one counts them).
So in the mid twenty-teens, the real graft is being thanklessly done with scant resources, as it ever was, by Teachers of the Deaf, note-takers and the black sheep of the interpreting family, Communication Support Workers.
Tic-tac-toe with WOPR on the Kobayashi Maru
CSWs can essentially do nothing right: the interpreting elite have had them running back and forth for about 20 years, like runty kittens trying to catch a sadist’s laser pointer. CSWs approached professional associations for support, and were told to go away and come back when they’d trained as interpreters, which is essentially what they were asking for support with. After having the door shut in their faces, they were then smeared for not having professional representation or national support networks, so they set those up and were then slated for that. They endured constant criticism for not having any “standards” or regulation, but when they tried to work with awarding bodies and regulators towards achieving it, it was suddenly the wrong thing to do. They are completely misrepresented as not undertaking any CPD, supervision or reflective practice, despite the fact that CSWs are public sector workers in education, the field which practically invented those things (in all their performative glory); furthermore CSWs are far more likely to have been undertaking them as a compulsory condition of their employment (and since well before the current voluntary regulator was a gleam in anyone’s eye) than many contract-shunning freelance interpreters.
There are a handful of axe-grinding interpreters, and even the occasional Deaf politician, who would like nothing better than to exterminate CSWs, but strangely these people have absolutely nothing to say on the practical issue of where we might find the approximately £15-20 million in start-up costs it would cost to issue every Deaf student in compulsory education with their own brand new qualified interpreter (at current industry rates, and assuming that there are 3,300 people with a Level 3 BSL certificate just hanging around waiting to begin two or more years of training – I suppose you might get it down into the single digit millions if you cut a lot of corners).
For a long time, all this institutionalised bullying seemed unfair to me and it was the source of a lot of anger and self-esteem issues, and I know I’m far from alone in experiencing that. Those feelings actually got worse when I became a qualified interpreter. Today my reaction to it is much simpler: I feel relief. It’s because the deck is stacked against CSWs, because the double standards are so blatantly obvious, that I am morally free to simply disengage from the neurotic world of hyperprofessionalised interpreters and leave them to turn on each other. In some games, the only winning move is not to play by other people’s rules.
Like it or not, CSWs are the future. Fortunately there are some interpreters who are ready to knuckle down with joining them and supporting them. I expect that the Local Offer will be even slower to depart than it was to arrive: thanks to the current and previous governments, the marketisation of the public sector is clearly here to stay, and in education it will be the experts – experienced CSWs – who will be smugly picked off the shelf while interpreters are still running around splitting themselves into ever-smaller factions.
And even if you couldn’t give two hoots about education, just remember that the SEN reforms, with their Education, Health and Care Plans, are a unified approach to social services, and now apply up to age 25. It’s not the speediest of reforms – all students currently in receipt of support need to be on an EHC Plan by April 2018, except for those currently in Further Education, where government wants it done by September 2016 (source: DfE guidance).
We need to wake up. This isn’t going to be just about education for much longer.
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
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It is surprisingly difficult to pin down what a profession is, or was – if you don’t believe me, try reading around for yourself. It is an immensely depressing voyage of discovery, as though Magellan set off to find the route to Asia but found himself sailing down Bromley High Street instead.
Skipping a millennium of boring stuff about divinity and guilds and semi-secret all-male professional societies with a trowel and apron fetish, I’m given to understand that in the early twentieth century, the West’s budding sociologists made an early stab at these questions and produced “trait-based models” of professionalism: this largely consisted of using a remarkably blunt instrument to nail down a few jobs everyone pretty much agreed were probably professions, and then listing the elements they all had in common. To this day, you will still see the same general kind of list in textbooks or on the pamphlets and websites of regulators under the heading of something like “professional standards”:
A member of a profession:
- has a specialist set of skills informed by abstract knowledge
- has been educated to a high level, usually at university
- is certified to practice
- is part of a formally organised, self-regulated and autonomous body
- adheres to a Code of Ethics or Conduct or Practice
- provides services out of altruism
The lists do vary – there might be five, seven, nine items – but these six are representative. There are many problems with them but the glaring one is the horrible circular logic that informed their selection. Listing the features of something you found lying around is not explaining it or understanding it (sadly, Bloom’s taxonomy was yet to be invented), so this is really just a hall of mirrors. If a profession has these qualities because doctors, lawyers and surveyors are professionals and they have them, why then are doctors, lawyers and surveyors professionals? Because … they also have those qualities. The ones they … already had … because they are … professionals. The list, standing alone, does nothing to explain why any of these things are necessary in order to constitute a profession, or why some different attributes would not do just as well instead (or be even better). As an explanation of why a “profession” has these things, it’s about as mature as stamping your foot and saying “Because”.
You’ll also notice that payment is not listed. Many people’s (and some dictionaries’) first definition of a professional would be “someone who is good enough at what they do to get paid”, the antonym of “amateur” (from French via Italian via Latin, “someone who does it only for the love of it”). So why do wages (or love) not appear in the trait list? We are concerned here with the differences between a profession and an occupation, what is special and better about a professional. Bin men, abattoir workers and even the untouchable scum that work in advertising also get paid but they are not “professionals” in these terms, notwithstanding jokes with a particle of truth about the elevation of bin men to “sanitary engineers”.
A more thoughtful version of the trait model was the “functional-structural model” of professionalism, developed mid-20th century. Attempts were made to logically link certain of the traits together in order provide an interdependent web of justifications for their a priori existence. For example, if a professional requires expertise in the form of abstract knowledge (1), that knowledge must come from somewhere reputable and its attainment should be independently verifiable, which connects logically to the requirements of higher education (2) and certification (3). Likesay, traits 4 to 6 can be explained as mutually necessary due to the understandable public concern that an expert in a position of power requires some form of oversight and restraint, due to mankind’s more regrettable instincts: to protect the hapless public, and since a professional’s competence can only really be verified by another professional, we require peer scrutiny, which requires autonomous self-organisation and a prescriptive framework; a general sense of do-goodery and selflessness won’t hurt either in putting a limit (or at least a spotlight) on exploitative or harmful and therefore “unprofessional” behaviours. But despite these improvements, the model was still a lot more descriptive than explanatory: the specifics and first causes of professionalism are still pretty much bootstrapping themselves out of vacuum and do not explore alternatives or improvements.
At very roughly the same time, artisans and other skilled and semi-skilled workers (who unlike medics and lawmen rarely held actual powers of life and liberty over others but were still very able to influence and be valued by the community) realised that if all it takes to become a “professional” is that you follow this recipe, we could all become professionals. Remember that the 1950s was a time when the spectre of world war was seemingly forever exorcised and a dog had died in orbit: it was being confidently predicted that any day now, obsequious robots would be doing all our housework (and definitely not becoming self-aware and exterminating us), and we would all be flying around in atomic jetpacks on our six out of seven days off, or eating space food in space hotels in space, served to us by someone with an amazing beehive hair-do. “Progress” and “social mobility” must have seemed to have no horizon, not merely in terms of automation and the re-division of labour across class/race/gender/robot boundaries, but with the tantalising promise of ever-rising standards for all human endeavours. “Professionalisation”, the process of becoming more like a profession, became a real word and a trend, and over the next few decades, the “old professions” rapidly lost their exclusivity.