Cry professional foul

6th February 2015 at 00:00

The word "professional" has undergone a transformation. Today it means "unequivocally good". Top-of-the-range products and tools are "professional quality", and in all things we aspire to perform "like a pro". Governors are expected to work "professionally" to encourage school improvement.

How different, then, to the use of the word little more than a century ago, when a professionally done job was redolent of mercantile cheese-paring. Somerset Maugham, in a 1930s novel, describes a woman disinherited by her family because she "married a solicitor". In sport, unpaid "gentlemen" embodied loftier ideals than wage-dependent players. And the professional classes were, at best, somewhere in the middle of the social strata. Today, all that endures of this old sense is "professional foul", a term suggesting a cynical act.

It might not be playground argot, but the inversion of "professional" is every bit as complete as that of "sick", "bad" and "wicked". The causes are complex and by no means all bad. In public life, however, there is good reason for resisting the elision of "professionalism".

Most school governors undertake their work unpaid. The same is true of parish councillors, scout leaders, sports coaches and club administrators - the 12 million of us who volunteer in Britain monthly or more often. This freely given labour is an enabling force, the contribution of which to the tapestry of national life is immense.

All volunteers should aspire to do what we do to the highest standards and seek out ways to improve. But let us resist having our professionalism praised.

The transformation of the meaning of professional has come during a period when financial value and intrinsic worth have become synonymous. Good ideas alone are insufficient; they must be monetised. A footballer's value is better known by their price in the transfer market. And artistic records are set in auction rooms, not painters' studios.

Unless we rebuild the notion that community service creates value far greater than that measurable by accountants, we risk raising a generation who won't roll up their sleeves unless the meter is running.

But how to make this change? First, let's stop apologising for not being professionals - something I have heard governors doing thousands of times. Exacting standards are not dependent on remuneration. Second, let's celebrate what we do. Enthusiasm for young people's education and welfare motivates us to spend time in schools - if we can't feel good about that, we can't expect others to pat us on the back. Third, we should insist that schools celebrate voluntary, as much as salaried, leadership: inspirational speakers addressing pupils because they care, not just because they are paid.

One final thought. Why don't English teachers incorporate the inversion of "professional" into explorations of the endless elasticity of our language? It might encourage young people to consider both the value of community service and the complex journeys undertaken by some of their own favourite exclamations.

Tim Dawson is a journalist and chair of governors at Castle Hill Junior School in Ipswich

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