The Church Army farm colonies and the Second World War

I found this advertisement in a local guidebook, published in early 1946. I find it interesting for a number of reasons,  not least that the Church Army clearly expected to encounter similar conditions after WW2 to those it faced in 1919, with large numbers of bored and rebellious servicemen (and in 1946 women) cooped up in camp under military discipline, while tens of thousands of veterans returned to unemployment, emigration and loneliness.

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In fact, however harsh the conditions experienced in austerity Britain, the economy absorbed most of the returning veterans, and the emerging welfare state replaced many of the functions previously performed by charities. The Church Army, which had staff and volunteers providing services in the armed forces and working in air raid shelters at home, found a new post-War role in youth work. I do wonder, though, whether  it was involved in providing accommodation during the desperate housing shortages of the late 1940s.

In particular, the Church Army lost its role in training emigrants. It had founded its first farm training colony in 1890, less than a decade after its birth. Its leader Wilson Carlile always intended the new colony, at Newdigate in Surrey, to expand its activities to training unemployed Londoners for emigration to the Dominions, but instead it turned its attention to providing a rudimentary farm training for inebriates.

In 1905 the Church Army sold Newdigate after acquiring a second, larger estate at Hempstead Hall in Essex, where it started a farm training colony, preparing unemployed men for emigration. By 1917, it was already focusing its attentions on discharged oldiers and sailors, and was still described as a Church Army training farm in Kelly’s Directory for 1937. I’m  not sure what happened to it during WW2, but by the late 1940s it was a remand home for boys, which in turn closed in 1950. These days it seems to be an upmarket bed and breakfast.

As ever, there’s far more about the labour colony movement in my book. Check it out if you want to know more.

 

Celebrating work camps as national treasures – the case of the Civilian Conservation Corps

Some Australian friends recently sent me some photographs they’d taken while vacationing in the USA. Among other places they visited Colorado, sending me photos of Mesa Verde, where the the Ancestral Pueblo peoples built their cliff dwellings and farms; and the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where you can watch the moon rising over Denver as you listen to your favourite performer.

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Statue at Red Rocks

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Information panel at Mesa Verde

What both sites have in common was that during the 1930s, they housed work camps for unemployed young men. The Civilian Conservation Corps was a product of Roosevelt’s New Deal; it opened in 1933, placing over a quarter of a million single men in 1,300 camps, employing them on public works that were chosen partly for their public value. In contrast to Britain, the programme became so popular that politicians lobbied to have the CCC open camps in their electoral districts. I’ve met elderly American socialists who will brook no contradiction with their view that the CCC was a force for good.

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This enduring popularity might seem inexplicable, particularly as the camps were segregated, women were excluded, and the men wore uniforms and came under military control. But the USA had no welfare system, in contrast to the unemployment benefit available in Britain and elsewhere, and the CCC made it possible for the federal government to pay unemployed single men. It also benefited from its association with the wider New Deal programme.

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And Roosevelt was not shy of mobilising public opinion. On the contrary, he was one of the first major democratic politicians to make use of new mass media (wireless in his case) to publicise his administration’s work, and the CCC was equally adept at promoting a positive image, helped by the nature of the work it undertook. While the British Government reached an agreement with the trade unions limiting the work to be done in its work camps, the CCC proudly presented itself as building the modern facilities needed for a nation of pioneers.

Hence my interest in Tony and Janet Brown’s photos. I find it fascinating to see how the memory of the CCC is kept alive and celebrated today, and while I love Rachel Whiteread’s Nissen Hut sculpture in North Yorkshire, it is understated and rather remote. If not exactly secret, most of the British work camps are largely forgotten, along with the unemployed young men who laid the basis for so many of our great forests.

Check out my book if you want to find out more about the British experience of labour camps..

 

 

Trump’s Workforce Policy Advisory Board could be a model – except that it is advising Trump

Trump’s creation of American Workforce Policy Advisory Board is being presented as a response to the competitive threat posed by what is sometimes called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The rapid adoption of digital technologies is now being followed by AI and robotics, and like governments across the old industrial nations, the Trump administration has noticed that the workforce has different skills from those demanded in the new economy.

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The challenge is, as ever, figuring out how to develop the skills that seem to be needed. I say “seem to be” deliberately, as it isn’t at all clear what those skills might be. But again, that is precisely what the new Board is being asked to do: its remit is to propose “ways to encourage the private sector and educational institutions to combat the skills crisis by investing in and increasing demand-driven education, training, and retraining, including training through apprenticeships and work-based learning opportunities”.

The Board will report directly to the White House, through the President’s National Council for the American Worker. Its membership is impressive: as well as co-chairs Ivanka Trump, who is formally described as an adviser to the President, and Wilbur Ross, the US’ Secretary of Commerce, it includes a number of CEOs , a senior trade unionist, representatives of the community colleges and universities, and the director of the Milken Institute, an influential economic think tank.

Ivanka Trump of course represents a second, and possibly more sure, door to the Oval Office. Her public statement on the Board’s launch was revealing, emphasising as she did the goal of “inclusive growth” in which “all Americans can participate in the opportunities created by the booming economy”.

So in some ways, the Board is well-placed to deliver. Its focus is on the supply of skills rather than raising demand, which might require intervention in the running of those corporations that are so well represented among its members. Instead it is likely that the business-dominated Board will concentrate on changes to provision (including, interestingly, apprenticeships).

A supply side focus is of course hardly unique – it is difficult to think of a single government that makes demand-side inteeventions the core of its skills policy. But the US government appears to assume that increasing levels of employment are themselves a signal that it is the remaining jobless and new young workers who need to be fixed, and not the shape of the economy.

Further, most of the key levers of change – whether in provision or demand – do not lie with the federal government. The states are the key public actors, and many have already shown that they are happy to ignore this federal administration.

The bigger problem, though, is of course the nature of that administration. On past experience, both the Advisory Board and the National Council will witness a slew of resignations once they have started reporting, with neither the reports nor resignations having any visible effect on policy. Notoriously, this President’s attention shifts elsewhere. Investing in infrastructure and rejuvenating the old industrial regions formed an under-reported (on this side of the Atlantic at least) part of Trump’s campaign promise. I’d like to think that he might see the Advisory Board’s work as a way of delivering higher skills across the workforce, but I’m not betting on it.

 

Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture is a great way of marking the Forestry Commission’s centenary – shame about the leaflet

As part of its centenary celebrations this year, the Forestry Commission has unveiled a sculpture by Rachel Whiteread in Dalby Forest. It’s a splendid piece of work, comprising a full-size cast of a Nissen Hut, which represents both a connection with the First World War, when Major Nissen first designed the eponymous hut, and with the work camp that operated on the site from 1933 to 1939.

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Whiteread’s hut sits deep in the Forest, three miles from the visitor centre, and it’s weathering in nicely. When we visited we combined the short pathway to the sculpture with a muddy walk along rutted tracks. It makes a nice addition to the rich walking tapestry of North Yorkshire, and it has rightly been celebrated on the BBC’s Countryfile.

Disappointingly, the accompanying information leaflet doesn’t match the standards of either the sculpture or the Forest, at least when it comes to the work camp, which it describes as offering “much-needed local employment and skills training”. In one short sentence, the leaflet glosses over the following:

  1. It wasn’t employment, and the trainees received unemployment benefit (after deductions to cover board and lodging);
  2. the Ministry of Labour was at pains to stress that its camps offered not skills training but an exposure to heavy manual labour;
  3. the men weren’t even local, but were recruited from high unemployment areas in Cleveland and South Yorkshire.

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Does this matter to anyone but the historian? I think so, because it misrepresents the fundamental purpose of the entire government work camp system. This was stated bluntly by John Passmore, director of training at the Ministry of Labour, to a reporter who was visiting Dalby – or Allerston as it was then known – while it was under construction, using trainees from the Bourne camp in Lincolnshire.

Passmore described the camp’s purpose as ‘reconditioning’ men who had gone soft through prolonged unemployment, so that they were physically capable of doing heavy work: “We understand that men who have had long periods of unemployment will be in poor condition physically, and it is our intention to recondition them. At first they will be placed on lighter types of work, which will be stiffened as the weeks pass. The heavier jobs will consist of road work in the forest” (Yorkshire News, 29 November 1933).

Plenty of people misrepresented the camps at the time. The Yorkshire News reporter sounds a right Pollyanna, writing “That they were happy was not to be doubted for a moment. The carefree singing and whistling of those who had already felt the benefit of this new job in a healthy atmosphere was indicative enough”. From the Marxist Left, Communists denounced the “slave camps” as echoes of Nazism.

Both were wrong, but the myths persist to this day. Still, don’t let it put you off visiting Dalby and hunting for Whiteread’s Nissen Hut. If a beautiful forest and a haunting sculpture aren’t enough for you, there’s also a wooden Gruffalo close by.

 

Funding learning through training accounts: what French workers study

In 2015, the French government introduced an entitlement of up to 150 hours of free tuition with paid leave from work for all those active in the labour market. Workers had to select from a wide range of approved courses, all of which had to lead to the award of  a recognised qualification. The system has been tweaked since then, but the compte personnel de formation (CPF, personal training account) system now seems to have settled down.

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The Ministère du Travail has now released the list of certificates taken most frequently by workers in 2017 using their CPF. The top five are:

  1. Test of English for International Communication
  2. BULATS Business Language Testing Service
  3. Certificat de connaissance et compétences professionelles, which largely assesses existing learning
  4. Passeport de compétences informatique Européen, known elsewhere as the European Computer Driving Licence
  5. TOSA, a test which allows you to assess your computing and digital skills

The first thing to say is that these are mainly tests or examinations. The routes by which people progress towards the certificates will vary enormously, but as the CPF gives you paid leave to learn, presumably they will involve attendance at courses of some kind.

Second, two topics stand out: the importance of language and computing are both very clear. Both can be understood as involving skills and knowledge that workers hope can help protect employment security at a time of globalisation and tech change. Of course, other topics also attract large numbers of participants: specialist driving certificates and a mandatory management qualification make it into the top ten.

So far, the CPF seems to have been free from the misuse that scuppered Individual Learning Accounts in England. Central regulation of approved qualifications clearly has some benefits. Looking at these topics, though, it seems very likely that the CPF is being used to fund training that would have taken place anyway, or is even producing more people with some qualifications than the labour market requires. Finally, I’m not clear how the CPF impacts on equity and inclusion; if it has positive effects in this domain, then that can be set in the balance as well.

A Lifelong Learning and Training Account Act for the USA?

New Picture

Learning and training accounts continue to attract attention from policy makers interested in widening participation in adult learning. A wide variety of voucher and credit schemes have now been trialled, from the UK’s Individual Learning Accounts through France’s Compte personnel de formation to Singapore’s SkillsFuture Credit. All have in common the idea of incentivising learners through financial support rather than funding providers (though obviously the two are not mutually exclusive.

Now comes the USA’s turn. Following the Democrats’ success in the mid-term elections, two members of Congress have announced their intention to introduce a Lifelong Learning and Training Account Act. If passed, the law will enable States and public agencies to create systems of employee-owned accounts to help meet the costs of participation in training.

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Mark Warner (Democrat, VA), one of the two member of Congress who sponsored the Act

Eligibility is restricted: those who are entitled to an account must be workers aged 25 to 60, with incomes of up to $82,000. The accounts themselves are to be paid for by a combination of employers and workers together with matched federal funding of up to $1,000; and the sum is to be exempt from taxation. It can be only spent on training costs, not including food or accommodation.

There are also restrictions on the type of training that is eligible. The training must meet certain criteria; the intended outcome must include a recognised post-secondary credential , and the provider must belong to a number of specified categories (including community colleges, industry associations, and labour organisations).

This is a potentially interesting development, and I look forward to seeing how it develops. I don’t know enough about US politics to guage its chances of success, but it chimes with at least one Trump goal, which is to boost the employability and skills of US workers. It is not, though, confined to funding work-related training, and it is focused on the lowest-paid, so it could be quite significant in widening participation in types of learning that workers can choose for themselves.

If it comes off, the Act will add to our understanding of credit and voucher systems in adult learning. So watch this space.

Training policy – a return to the tripartite system?

Skills featured prominently in the budget debate this year. At least, they did on the Government side of the debate: Philip Hammond, the U.K. Chancellor (or Finance Minister), made skills a central plank in his strategy for improving productivity and growth. The leader and other senior figures in the Labour Party have so far focused on other issues, notably housing, poverty and unemployment, though they may get around to addressing the skills proposals later on. And I will also try to blog on the issues of productivity and skills in the next few days.

Meanwhile I wanted to draw attention to Philip Hammond’s mention of the trade union movement and employers’ representatives. Apparently the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress have formed a partnership with the Government over the design of a National Retraining Scheme. It will start relatively modestly, it seems, with investment in digital and construction skills. And it includes continuing support for UnionLearn, which seems to me a good idea.

To be honest, I found myself rather surprised by this section of Hammond’s speech. Three-way partnerships in training policy between state, employers and unions are well established in many European countries, including Germany and the Scandinavian nations. And they were once normal in the U.K., particularly after the 1964 Industrial Training Act set out a national system of tripartite sector-based Industrial Training Boards. Hilary Pemberton argued that this legislation failed to transform deep rooted cultural attitudes, making it easy for the Thatcher Government to do away with it.

Whether Hammond’s National Retraining Scheme will do any better is a moot point. It clearly represents a much more modest form of tripartism than the ITBs, but perhaps this will prove an asset – particularly if the Retraining Scheme is linked firmly with measures to promote skills utilisation. The history is less than promising, but if the Government is able to persist with the Scheme, it might prove very interesting indeed.