Workfare and the Fabians

Britain’s Fabian socialists are famed for their contribution to modern welfare policy. They are particularly well known as architects – or at least popularisers – of ideas about the public provision of labour exchanges, health care, pensions and a range of other foundation stones of the welfare state. A reasonable assessment must acknowledge their central role in developing important institutions and measures that were taken for granted until the end of the twentieth century.

We know less about their part in promoting paths that in the end were not taken, perhaps the chief of which was a new design for incarcerating the poor. At the time, they were responding to the failure of the 1834 Poor Law to deal with unemployment, as well as the inability of the workhouse to cope with groups such as vagrants and the sick. But if we look back from the present, we can see the Fabians as the Edwardian designers of what we now call Workfare.

The Webbs made no bones about it: for those who were unemployed for more than a few months, their favoured solution was compulsion. Maintenance, they wrote in 1911, should be conditional on such training – physical and mental, general and technological – as may be found appropriate. They developed a proposal for training centres, run in conjunction with the labour exchanges and offering a combination of physical exercise and basic adult education alongside skills training. Some would be residential and based in the countryside,  while day centres ran in the towns.

Like many Edwardian reformers, the Webbs worried about those who refused to train. For those who insisted on sponging on the public, the Webbs proposed compulsory segregation’in what they called reformatory detention colonies. This idea – which Sidney described as following strict eugenic lines – had a history among the Fabians. In 1890, Sidney Webb reassured readers that they need not worry that socialist would deal tenderly with chronic cases of sturdy vagrancy, idle mendacity and incorrigible laziness’ – under socialism, they would go straight into a labour colony.

Nor were the Webbs alone. In a collection of essays edited in 1908 by George Bernard Shaw, Annie Besant laid out a plan for County Farms in each region, run by trained and experienced agriculturalists, housing the unemployed in the towns, the agricultural laborers who have wandered townwards in search of work, and many of the unskilled laborers.

H. G. Wells was a maverick (and philander) among the socialist planners, but he was also interested in work camps. Writing in 1903, Wells advocated a general conscription and a period of public service for everyone, mainly as a means of promoting a sense of civic obligation, with every class in the community having a practical knowledge of what labour means.

Wells’ ideas had wider support among the Fabians. Writing shortly before the 1929 election, Sydney and Beatrice Webb called for a national Government Labour Corps, a suggestion that Sidney riginally made in 1886.Young unemployed men who refused to serve, they recommended, should be committed to a penal detention colony. G.D.H. Cole also spoke publicly in support of a National Labour Corps in The Next Ten Years, which the prolific left-wing economist, historian and policy thinker published in the hope of influencing the 1929 Labour Government.

Beatrice Webb returned to the topic in her evidence before the Royal Commission on Unemployment Insurance in 1931, calling for a National Labour Corps, recruited from the unemployed, who would be sent about in detachments, equipped with tents, lorries and tools . . . to execute works of coast protection, embanking and draining land, and other improvements. She also thought government should have powers to order the unemployed to undertake Swedish drill.

It is important to understand these ideas in their historical context. Many people favoured labour colonies for the poor – especially for what they called the ‘won’t works. Relatively few, though, favoured compulsion, and a bare handful pursued the idea as consistently as the Webbs. Interestingly, Margaret Bondfield, Labour’s first cabinet minister, introduced compulsory service in work camps for unemployed young men in 1929.

Like the Fabians, Bondfield believed that she was doing it for their own good. It seems, then, that for all its admirable concern for equity and social justice, when it comes to work and unemployment, the socialist tradition includes a rather persistent streak of authoritarianism.

The dark side of the training industry: tackling quality failures

We have known for some time that failures in the quality of Britain’s training system are long term and pervasive. We should be clear: much training is excellent and worthwhile, for participants and funders alike. But there is also a shady segment in the industry, and at its darkest fringes, some so-called providers have bent the rules so far that they have claimed public funds for training that has not even happened. More routinely, some courses are inappropriate for the learners and industries they are supposed to serve.

Of course, the UK is not alone in this. Among others who have looked at quality failings in training, Leesa Wheelahan and Gavin Moodie in Australia have explored failings in public training that were associated with user choice and other competitive tendering of State Government vocational education contracts, as well as many serious failures of quality and standards of vocational and language training for international students.

Similar patterns can be traced here in the UK. On the one hand we have a government seeking to move away from public not-for-profit providers, and towards contracts with a range of commercial providers. On the other hand we have a fragmented supply side that has characterised by a few big private trainers (usually providing training alongside other business services) and a very large number of small providers, many of whom are many single operators, often women or retired professionals working from their own homes, as well as a large number of small companies, again often home-based, developing distance learning through the new technologies.

Many of us assume that private sector training is a lucrative business. But it is important not to be misled by – say – the eye-watering cost of a management development residential. One study in 2007 found that many private providers, particularly smaller firms and sole operators, were trading below the margins of viability. They are only able to survive because they cut costs so radically – for example, by using their living room as an office. In some cases, they also cut quality, or miss-sell their products.

Improving quality will largely depend on government. If the government continues with its policy of seeking to contract with the private sector, it needs to insist on clear quality standards. A number are now available that allow purchasers to compare basic standards, not just in the UK but internationally. An obvious example is ISO 29990, introduced in 2010 to specify basic benchmark requirements for those who provide learning services for non-formal education and training.

ISO 29990 was based on German standards, and has been widely welcomed in Germany and Austria. The European Association for Distance Learning has published a best practice guide to the implementation of ISO 29990. A new ISO 29991, for language education, is in development.

Has this development been much adopted or discussed in the UK? And am I right in supposing that something based on German standards is rather more likely to be worthwhile than something developed by consultants hired by our own Department of Business, Innovation and Skills – or one of BIS’s many quangos?

The ISO system has its faults, but it can be influenced and changed. It is also well-established and it is transparent. So why not start by insisting that all public funding for training should only go to those who clearly meet ISO standards? It could also serve as a guide to quality for the rest of us – including the Learning Professor, as he tries to improve his Portuguese. And yes, I’d include colleges and other public and not-for-profit providers, one or two of whom have cheerfully taken every opportunity to show that they cannot be trusted.

Of course, a set of standards doesn’t solve everything at a stroke.  Some providers will busily tick all the boxes but fail to comply in practice. Others will already be performing well beyond the minimal standards, and the last thing they need is a new and intrusive regime of inspection. But I do think that a basic minimum set of standards should be a threshold requirement for public training contracts.

Beyond that, the challenge is to develop a high quality industry in a sector that is at present fragmented, unregulated and largely taken for granted. Any ideas?

Wheelahan, L & Moodie, G (2010) The quality of teaching in VET: Final Report and Recommendations, Australian College of Educators, available at

On work and well-being: in memory of Marie Jahoda

Whatever you may think, work is terrifically good for you. Conversely, unemployment is toxic. Contemporary social policy, however we judge particular programmes and interventions, is still based around these simple insights. And we owe a huge debt to the Austrian sociologist Marie Jahoda for her pioneering work on unemployment and its damaging effects on well-being.

Jahoda is best known today for her work on Marienthal, a small Austrian town devastated by the closure of its textile factory. Only in her mid-20s, Jahoda led a small team who interviewed the inhabitants, and recorded what they ate and read, and observed the speed with which they walked the streets. This study remains a milestone in mixed methods research, blending analyses of overall trends with small everyday details of people’s lives. It examined the entire community, not isolated individuals. And their major finding was and is devastating: long term unemployment produces not rebellion but resignation.

A recent tribute in the staid German newspaper Die Zeit last year pointed out that, growing up in the aftermath of the Great War, Marie Jahoda experienced hunger. She saw English Quakers serving porridge to starving schoolchildren in Vienna, and witnessed enormous social and political upheaval as Austria unsteadily made its way towards parliamentary democracy. Her mother, disapproving of the scouts’ separation of boys and girls, had Marie enrolled in a Socialist schoolchildren’s association, and she attended their camps.

Jahoda began her work on Marienthal in 1932, after completing her doctorate as the youngest female student in Austria to earn a PhD. She was imprisoned in 1936 for her political beliefs, and emigrated to England, then worked with Max Horkheimer in New York before finding an academic home at the University of Sussex. Her work, I believe, is still well worth reading today.

She wrote widely on mental health, and developed an original approach to the causes of well-being, a topic that she continued to study at Sussex. Her analysis emphasised five factors that she believed were fundamental to how we feel about ourselves: time structure, social contact, collective effort or purpose, social identity or status, and regular activity. During the 1980s, Tony Watt and Max Krafchik argued that the absence of these was critical to understanding the experience of unemployment – an analysis that in England and Wales, helped persuade the then Conservative government to fund a broad adult education programme, known as REPLAN, for unemployed adults.

The English language version of Marienthal: The Sociography of an unemployed community is still in print. I’ve been re-reading it as I finalise the manuscript of a book on British work camp systems, many of which were inspired by the belief that camp life might help overcome the fatalism of mass long term unemployment. My analysis shows that in fact the camps made little difference, and after some months of heavy labour on the land, most people were sent back to life on the dole. REPLAN, on the other hand, was rather effective in counteracting resignation and promoting confidence. An obvious message there, then.


Marie Jahoda, Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Hans Zeisel, Marienthal: The Sociography of an Unemployed Community, Transaction Publishers, 2002

For the article in Die Zeit, see

Mature students in UK universities: what future?

The number of people applying for university places in the UK is declining. According to the latest figures from UCAS, the number of UK domiciled applicants by May has fallen by 8.6% compared with the same time last year. Most attention so far has focused on the English applications, which are down by nearly 10%, while in Scotland and Wales the fall is aroound 2%.

These figures tell us something about the impact of the rapid rise in tuition fees in English universities. But I am surprised that no one has looked behind the headline figures, because the detail tells us a lot about who is being hit most – namely, mature students.

For the UK as a whole, the fall among 18-year-old applicants is only 2.6%, which pretty much mirrors the fall in the number of 18-year-olds in the population. In England, the number of 18-year-old applicants fell by 4%, which is a bit higher than then fall in the wider population. We still don’t know whether fees are deterring youngsters, as there are other factors at work, but if they are, then they aren’t deterring very many.

Mature applicants, on the other hand, are in freefall. The number of applicants aged 21 or over fell by over 10% compared with last year. Definitely not good news for those who wish to see higher education play its part in a wider system for lifelong learning.

This is not the full picture, as people looking for a part-time degree rarely apply through UCAS. Many people who want to take a shorter course in higher education, such as an HND or a Foundation Degree, will also apply directly. So we need to look at what happens to demand from adults for these courses before we reach a firm conclusion.

Incidentally, the figures also tell a few other stories. They show a huge drop in demand for modern languages, especially non-European languages, so you can confidently expect that a future government will berate the universities for failing to produce enough language graduates.

They also show that the trend for people to apply to universities inside their home nation is now entrenched, while only Scotland remains an attractive destination for students from the rest of the EU. This will have longer term consequences for the informal learning that goes on informally within higher education.