A link exists between Ofsted's latest report on the pupil premium, the recent Francis inquiry into the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust scandal and the productivity crisis afflicting the UK economy. It concerns some of the least powerful people in our society and our schools.
Graphs can be powerful things. Few speeches about local government finance pass without reference to the Barnet "graph of doom", which demonstrates that on current trends the London borough's entire budget in 2030 will be consumed by social care costs. Leon Feinstein's slide showing high-ability students from disadvantaged backgrounds falling behind their more fortunate but less talented peers has also been influential.
Another compelling image is used as the centrepiece of presentations by Kevan Collins, the head of the Education Endowment Foundation. This shows the cost of interventions in schools on one axis and their proven efficacy in raising attainment among disadvantaged groups on the other. School leaders are fascinated to see those things in the cheap and effective corner: data-driven feedback to students and teachers about the learner's performance is one powerful example. But heads are also chastened by a strategy in the expensive and ineffective corner: the use of teaching assistants (TAs).
This analysis was refined in Ofsted's recent report on the best use of the pupil premium. In essence, where TAs were used indiscriminately the impact was weak and could even be negative, with the students who most needed help being tutored by under-skilled and under-managed TAs rather than teachers. Conversely, those schools that made sure TAs were clear about goals, given the right training and closely performance-managed benefited from their deployment.
And here, with regards to TAs' skills, is the link I mentioned earlier in this piece. When talking about poor growth and low productivity there is a tendency among politicians and commentators to focus on high-skill, high-tech areas such as life sciences and new materials. But even if they were booming, these sectors would only ever account for a very modest proportion of the total workforce. They cannot address what is arguably the biggest problem for our labour market: the low-pay, low-skill, low-productivity service sector.
Over the past 20 years a major trend in the public sector has been the development of a tier of modestly paid assistants, many of whom rely on tax credits to reach a living income. This tier is slotted in under the main service profession, which is now generally graduate only. The compelling theory was that cheap assistants could free expensive professionals from less demanding tasks, allowing them to apply themselves to things that genuinely needed their skills.
Under the Labour government, in a time of steadily rising budgets, this theory led to a revolution in public sector employment patterns. The number of TAs rose from 79,000 in 2000 to more than 220,000 in 2011. The expansion of the early years sector was totally reliant on assistants. Similarly, there has also been a steady rise in the number of health and social care assistants. And the category of police community support officers (PCSOs), which has only existed since 2002, has grown from 6,000 in 2005 to more than 15,000 today.
But the theory underlying this trend was surely naive. Rising demands and multiplying bureaucratic processes on the one hand, and the natural tendency of professionals to want to spend their time on the most rewarding and career-enhancing activities (which rarely include care as an intrinsic virtue) on the other mean that assistants all too often end up performing important tasks with limited skills and inadequate supervision.
A failing system
The findings of access charity the Sutton Trust, the Education Endowment Foundation and Ofsted on the ineffective use of TAs sit beside the evidence of a failure among healthcare assistants to provide basic and decent standards of care in Mid Staffordshire and another recent report from the Care Quality Commission exposing high levels of poor domiciliary care. And any quick search of press stories produces plenty of stories about PCSOs failing to manage difficult situations.
Most public service assistants are hard-working and reasonably effective, but the system is failing and the assumptions and practices underlying it need a radical rethink. Improving the preparation, training, status and performance expectations of public service assistants, while maintaining an entry point for non-graduates, should be a priority for public service reform.
It will require an integrated response, starting with the courses and tuition provided in schools and FE colleges and reaching into the heart of management, work design and professional boundary setting. In schools, for example, the effective management of TAs needs to be seen as a core skill for teachers from the beginning of their careers. Also, we need to make better use of the unique attributes of TAs as bridges between schools in disadvantaged areas and the communities they serve, from where the TAs - unlike the teachers - are often drawn.
If the public sector grasped the low skills challenge it could provide a vital lead to the rest of the service sector, which is characterised by similar problems. While it may not be sexy, or offer politicians the photo opportunities they love in laboratories or science parks, change at the lower end of the labour market is vital to public service improvement, economic dynamism and social justice. And it might just help to close the student attainment gap, too.
Matthew Taylor is chief executive of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) and a former adviser to Tony Blair.