You’re hired: white van man and the real apprentices
Ian Jack, The Guardian
The Big Society is a place of many mansions and lord knows how many shacks, crescents, terraces, alleys and cul-de-sacs: a cluttered landscape of all kinds of charities and volunteer groups that we’ve learned to call "social enterprises". According to figures kept by the Social Enterprise Coalition, the United Kingdom has about 62,000 of them – more than any other country – and the government is presently trying to decide which of them is best suited to inherit the work of the public sector when the big cuts finally come. One that has already attracted prominent Tory commendation is an Edinburgh-based group called Working Rite and this week I went to see its co-founder, Sandy Campbell, who was down in London to talk to the civil servants whose job is to spread Working Rite’s methodology much further than the few places, mainly in Scotland, that it has already reached.
Working Rite’s purpose looks simple enough: to introduce school-leavers to the world of work. Scores of other schemes and projects aim to do the same thing. What distinguishes Campbell’s enterprise is its determination to separate teenage boys (there are few girls involved) from their peers and place them alone in an adult environment, with a boss. Mostly, it happens in the building trades with what Campbell calls "white-van men". Campbell will spot a white-van man, an independent contractor, say, refurbishing a housing estate, and ask him if he’d like to hire a helper for a £1 a hour. White-van man, if agreeable, then takes on a school-leaver for the next six months as a labourer and gofer. He pays him £35 a week, to which the state (in Scotland, the Skills Development agency) adds another £55 so that the boy’s weekly wage is close to the £100 that a first-year apprentice would earn. In return, the boy does as he’s told. He learns to make tea, to carry wood, to do some elementary painting, hammering and sawing, and he does all these things as best as he can because they aren’t part of a classroom exercise. His boss has his eye on him. A botched job, after all, will cost the firm money.
These are the basic mechanics, but underpinning them is a philosophy that sets Working Rite against one of the most dominant social trends of the western world: youth culture and the way it confines "youngsters" – Campbell isn’t a fan of the word adolescent – to their peer group. Campbell blames it for "the deadness at the heart of so many young men" and wants to reinsert a clear transition – a rite of passage – to more responsible adulthood. His founding principle, therefore, is to separate teenagers from people of the same age – no others will work at the same site – so they spend their days trying to meet the challenges set by their elders. "We’re trying to spark a relationship with somebody outside their generation and their family who’ll give them some idea of what it’s like to be a man," Campbell said. "We’re saying to them, ‘This will take time and respect for the older man, but you’ll learn things. Your days as a child are over.’ "
Campbell has drawn his ideas from many sources, including contentious students of the broken male state such as Robert Bly, while words such as "respect" and "elders" suggest an older moral framework that once held Campbell’s Scotland (and mine) in a stiffer order. Like any good missionary, he can point to lessons learned in his own life as a tradesman’s son (his father was a decorator and signwriter) who left school 40 years ago for a series of manual jobs that showed him the camaraderie and loyalty of men at work. Later he became a trade union activist and now, as a member of the thickening layer of social entrepreneurs, he carries a laptop. You could see him as the latest example of a British tradition that stretches back to the founders of the Scouts and the Boys’ Brigade, anxious to re-moralise and re-dignify the working class; Campbell scolds teenage addictions to, among other things, X Factor celebrity and online pornography. But if any of these attitudes count as objections to Working Rite, there is also the more practical one that a boy might find himself under the thumb of a bully or a conman, that so much depends on a relationship going right and not wrong.
In fact, the scheme has had remarkable results. About 800 teenagers have taken part over the past six years and, before the recession set in, three-quarters of those who completed the course went on to a fulltime job or apprenticeship (the figure now is between 50% and 60%). Campbell puts this down to the human skills of the tradesmen: "It’s been a huge, life-affirming lesson – how rarely I’ve come across a bad one." Friendships have been formed across generations, tradesmen have even taught one or two boys how to read. The project encourages them with its slogan, "Everyone remembers their first boss."
It wouldn’t be true to say I remember too much about my own – a woman who showed me how to tidy the fiction shelves in the local library (spines to line up with shelf edge, books all erect and in alphabetical order by author’s surname) – but my father, a tradesman who served his apprenticeship in a linen mill during the first world war, was still remembering his first foreman with vivid affection 60 years later: "Good old Tam Davie – I took his collection when he retired and we went to the Co-op and bought him an easy chair in uncut moquette."
In that sense, Working Rite seems out of a different time and this, as Campbell says, may have been the reason the Tory party latched on to it. How couldn’t they like a scheme that preaches respect for one’s elders, is aimed at small businesses, and divides keen-to-learn sheep from feckless goats? Iain Duncan Smith praised it as an excellent example of how the third sector could provide "innovative solutions to problems that have long defeated the state" and at last year’s conference the party promised that the model would be extended to 100,000 young people – a pledge repeated in government. The obstacles, however, are formidable and to be counted in more ways than binge-drinking, online porn and cheap cocaine. Working Rite runs counter to a still-popular ideology of full-time education continuing for more people, longer. In three or four years’ time, unless the plans of the Labour government are undone, the school leaving age, or rather the age of mandatory educational participation, will rise to 18. Campbell calls this "the time bomb left by Ed Balls".
Whatever one thinks of the big society, it’s hard not to wish Campbell’s organisation success. "If we don’t have a system that can transmit knowledge and skills from the past, from our elders, then our civilisation will die," he said. The idea that this is always better achieved by classroom study rather than by working with active practitioners – "learning on the job" – is one of the great mysteries of modern times.