Shakespeare, the scouts and the work camp

Janet Suzman, the distinguished actor, recently poured scorn over claims that Shakespeare’s output was in fact the work of the 17th Earl of Oxford. Good on her: Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance are only the latest in a long line of thespians who cannot believe that great art could be created by a middle class midlander. In a remarkable twist on a drab old conspiracy theory, Jacobi even compared the Earl to the victims of the Stasi in Communist East Germany, achieving two pieces of historical idiocy in one go.

This is, of course, all nonsense, however entertaining. But what does it have to go with work camps? Well, Castle Hedingham, the family seat of the Earls of Oxford, hosted one of the more unusual work camp schemes of the 1930s. In 1929, working with the Scouts, the Castle housed what its owner called a ‘Reconditioning Employment Camp’, training unemployed scouts as chauffeurs, gardeners, grooms, cooks and butlers.

Further camps followed in future years, at Hedingham, Quendon, Cirencester and Christchurch, training about 300 men a year. Members of the Rover Scouts were recruited to lead the camps. The camps themselves were run on scouting principles, with financial support from the Ministry of Labour and a number of charities, with the aim of turning the unemployed – who subsequently included a range of young jobless men as well as scouts – into active citizens as well as workers.

The camps were the brainchild of Hedingham’s owner, Miss Musette Majendie, who was keen to help unemployed scouts find work. An energetic philanthropist and scoutmaster, she and her close friend, Doris Mason of Eynsham Hall, launched a movement in 1929 to provide training camps for unemployed scouts from the distressed areas who wished to emigrate. Within months, though, the global economic crisis brought an end to male emigration, and the two women turned their minds to domestic servant training.

Musette Majendie inherited the Castle from her ancestors, the De Veres. As the name suggests, they had been granted the land after the Norman Conquest, acquiring the earldom of Oxford a century later. For three months, the men lived in an old army hut on the estate, undertaking a work placement with the neighbouring gentry combined with physical training sessions and lessons in scouting.

The camps ran well into 1939, closing only when war became inevitable. Majendie became a Dame of the British Empire in 1935, in recognition for her work with unemployed scouts. She died in 1981, but the Castle stayed in the family, who now run it as a tourist attraction.

Unemployed scouts training as chefs in Hedingham Castle

Raising demand for skills: the role of public procurement policies

Governments have limited policy instruments at their disposal in promoting lifelong learning. Of course, they can intervene on the supply side, through funding decisions and through attempts to steer provider behaviour by setting targets and so on. But their ability to raise demand for skills and training is more constrained. Attempts to incentivise demand, by subsidising individuals or firms, usually combine high levels of bureaucracy with the risk of fraud. Legislation and regulation are politically unpopular, allegedly undermining competitiveness through a tangle of ‘red tape’.

But does that mean governments can do little to raise skills demand? Hardly. Public authorities employ a lot of people, and governments – local as well as national – can try to set an example. And public agencies spend an awful lot of money as purchasers of goods and services. We are already familiar with government using public contracts as a way of promoting equality of opportunity and fair trade principles among firms that supply goods and services. Now, in its consultation on public procurement, the Scottish Government is proposing that it should use major public contracts as a way of promoting skills and training.

The consultation proposes that agencies responsible for public procurement should:

  • Ask every company undertaking a major public contract to produce a training and apprenticeship plan; and
  • Encourage sustainability, for example by inserting community benefit clauses to provide training and jobs for local people.

It also proposes that the company should publish its training and apprenticeship plans for those contracts. It has less to say about enforcing any such clauses, though the consultation asks respondents for their ideas: What sanctions might be appropriate for failure to comply?

This is, I believe, a welcome attempt to raise demand for training and skills. In the forty years since Prime Minister Callaghan’s speech at Ruskin College on Britain’s skills deficit, UK governments have proven remarkably unwilling to tamper with the demand side. The few exceptions, such as the empowerment of trade union learning representatives, have been tentative and rare.

There has been no such coyness on the supply side. On the contrary, one administration after another has tampered with funding, structures and systems in an attempt to make providers ‘more employer-led’. The underlying assumption is that employers are doing fine – they know what skills are needed, they know how to use them, and they know how to develop them – and all that is needed is for colleges and other providers to listen more closely to what employers have to say.

This is reasonable, if limited and unimaginative, if the employer has a long term view of skill and innovation. We might point to the German example, where training and apprenticeships are largely employer-led, albeit in a context which reserves a major partnership role for trade unions. But what if the employer is driven by short term margins, or sees training simply as a cost, or is clueless as to the skills they need?  

In this context, the Scottish Government’s proposals deserve support. Of course, they are not perfect. On their own, they will resolve neither the unemployment crisis nor the problems of skills demand. There is a notable gap when it comes to enforcement. Any skills clauses will need to be backed by monitoring and, if need be, penalties for non-compliance. Nor is the principle new new. Others have gone down this path already, including some pioneering local authorities.

Still, a coherent and consistent strategy at national level, affecting all major public contracts, could help to leverage a significant change in the culture and behaviour of employers. And in the UK, this will make a refreshing change.

The Scottish Government consultation on its Procurement Reform Bill is available at:

Privilege and the Olympic elite: does it matter?

The British media are taking a remarkable interested in the proportion of Olympic athletes who went to private schools. Chris Moynihan, chair of the British Olympic Association and a former Conservative minister, ignited the debate when he described the proportion of privately-educated athletes in Team GB as unacceptable. But is it unexpected? And does it matter?

A quick look at the data confirms that Britain’s Olympians are indeed disproportionately drawn from those who were educated at private schools. Thirty percent of Scottish medal-winners, for example, were privately educated, compared with just over 5% of secondary pupils. At first glance, then, this looks pretty disproportionate.

But should we be surprised by this process? If we see it as part of a wider pattern of educational, economic and cultural selection, then it becomes clear that social selection is a deep-rooted feature of sporting success.  

First, the association between socio-economic status and overall health is well-known. Put bluntly, middle class kids tend to live healthier life styles than working class kids. It is completely unsurprising if, all other things being equal, their chances of sporting success are greater.

Second, selectivity is central to education. Let’s take Scotland, as it is often presented as an example of educational openness. While 5% of secondary pupils are privately educated in Scotland, almost 12% of university entrants were privately educated. That figure rises to 15% at Glasgow and 20% at Aberdeen, and reaches 25% at Edinburgh – very close to the 30% of privately educated Scottish medallists. And of course it is much easier for a young person to combine elite sports training with study than to combine it with a full time job.

Third, some sports are closely associated with middle and upper class styles of life. Shooting, rowing, yachting, tennis, equestrianism – these sports are by no means exclusively posh, but they draw their followers disproportionately from the higher social strata, and the relevant clubs are more likely to be found at Glasgow University than at the University of the West of Scotland. Eighteen of Team GB’s 48 medals came in these five sports. Another seven came from cycling, which cuts across the classes at popular level, but is pretty expensive when it comes to competitive sport. By contrast, our performance in such ‘people’s games’ as soccer was notably mediocre.

All in all, the link between socio-economic privilege and Olympic success is much as I’d expect. It’s interesting that much of the controversy is being stoked by Conservatives, who of course have an agenda of talking up the private education sector.  One of the most vocal critics, Toby Young, is actively involved in the Government’s ‘free school’ initiative. But actually there are no surprises in finding out that social selectivity operates all along the pathway leading into Team GB.

Finally, does this matter? I’m inclined to the view that Chris Hoy’s time at George Watson’s College, and Jessica Ennis’s time at King Ecgbert Comprehensive, are hardly the most interesting or important things about these fabulous athletes. Barely any of us would envy the training regime of an elite athlete – and with a very few exceptions, it is hardly a gateway to a prosperous career or even a happy adult life.

What really worries me is that the UK is characterised by relatively high (by European standards) levels of socio-economic and educational inequality. Compared with the Nordic nations, our best educated kids are more likely to come from the middle classes, and they tend to achieve at a higher level; our educational failures are much more likely to come from the working classes, and achieve at a much lower level than the worst-achievers in Finland or Denmark. Little wonder that we also have a tendency towards sporting inequalities on top of that.

Sorting out our profound social divisions will take more than a few golden pillar boxes and the promise of an extra hour of sports in the school curriculum.