What happened to the caring professions?

The Tory drive to make teachers and carers chase after statistics has hindered rather than helped

Share
Related Topics

At a recent conference on health care an articulate professional researcher lamented that despite all the effort and money going into “researching best practices and technical innovation” healthcare workers remain beset by “frontline sclerosis” – an inability to care brought on by overexposure. 

At a secondary school I recently taught at, emblazoned on the staff room wall was a poster with small photos of about 50 pupils and the heading “These are the pupils who will give us our 50% A* to C grades”. 

The two snapshots got me thinking – they seemed to epitomize something so very wrong with what were once the liberal professions; work closely associated with humane learning and knowledge.  Since when did it become acceptable to speak of frontline medical staff in terms of “sclerosis”?

And since when did we decide that pupils exist to justify the existence of league tables and a school’s position in them?

In a way the headline-grabbing horror stories of misdeeds in care homes, hospitals and schools are not the most helpful in trying to understand the nature of the problem. 

It is more the everyday callousness implied in the above examples.  What is going on?  Can it really be the case that nursing and teaching professions are being staffed by more individuals of a dastardly nature?  I doubt that.

I suspect the restructuring of professional institutions and concomitant relationships in the 1980s may have something to do with it. 

When the Conservative government instituted new bodies of regulation, all manner of internal working of the profession were affected.  Crucially existing principles and relationships were disrupted – in the name of greater technical efficiency and minimizing the risk of things going wrong.

In imposing their new regimes both political parties had to overstate the need for change and devalue past knowledge and experience – it was a necessary corollary to establish new centres of authority.  

Chasing data

And with each fresh horror story, government and policy makers drew the conclusion that more of the same was needed.  So today, teachers need to be told how to arrange desks and carers are banned from hugging their clients for fear of seeming patronizing.

Any personal commitment to a more traditional humanist idea of professionalism is unlikely to survive such an onslaught. 

Responses of individual professionals tend to fall into three categories: conversion, burn out or amotivation.  It is the last of these that I think is most prevalent.  It is not the same as being de-motivated or openly hostile.  Rather it is when an individual no longer feels any connection between their inner self and their actions. 

For when every minute task is represented to us as compulsory obligations to be imposed and assessed by new forms and bodies of monitoring, important organic links between inner direction and behaviour are weakened.

One effect of the new, technocratic managerialism is to restrict the scope of professional work in two ways.  Firstly, if every task is broken down into a discrete isolated act, then eventually we tend to feel responsible for only that act – and ignore or forget its existence as part of an extended ongoing professional practice with intrinsic values. 

So if a checklist is complete and targets reached, then the substantive work, which is often longer-term, more difficult and less empirically visible, disappears.

Speaking at the Battle of Ideas on this topic at the weekend, my fellow panellist Raymond Tallis said, “Each datum entered may be a kindness lost”.  It is this shrinking of our moral imaginations that is harder to see but arguably, the most important thing to try and understand. American philosopher Martha Nussbaum refers to a diminished “circle of imagined interests” – which is our capacity to extend care and compassion to strangers.  We do not have to personally love each patient or pupil as long as what we do is underpinned by our commitment to our profession.  And this is just what is being eroded.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform