When professional experts take all the blame;FE Focus;Comment;Opinion

15th January 1999 at 00:00
THIS end of the century seems to be characterised by a lack of trust in "professionals" or "experts" - both of these used as terms of opprobrium rather than of pride or envy - and an emphasis on style rather than content, on process rather than outcome.

There was room for change. In the middle of the century, professionals operated in the expectation that their word would be taken without question in everything pertaining to their craft. Nor was it thought necessary or even proper to ask them for their reasons. This approach was based on the assumption that the world is made up of superiors and inferiors, and that the inferiors are incapable of understanding explanations if they are given to them.

It is right that we have moved on. A more egalitarian view of society leads to a sense of equal value, and to a feeling that all must be accountable in their public lives, and especially as far as these affect other people.

Scandals such as the carrying out of operations on patients without their consent, or the forced emigration of orphans, should never happen again.

Schools and colleges should have complaints procedures to examine whether they keep their own claims and promises, and if not why not. But I am concerned that having trained and worked in a particular area of expertise, professional people should be open to public criticism by those who have no knowledge of that area and who feel no need for that knowledge; and that they should be held responsible for things which are unreasonably expected to be within their powers - because a characteristic of our age, which is allied to the power of the lay critic, is the belief that nothing is a pure accident.

We live in a blame culture. Whenever an accident occurs, however bizarre, however unlikely ever to happen again, commentators demand to be told how the public can be assured that such an accident can never recur. "Experts" are expected to ensure a perfectly safe world for the public. If anything does go wrong, it must be someone's fault. And we shouldn't imagine that those whom we are blaming might be just as unhappy about what has gone wrong as everyone else.

The other deplorable characteristic of this time is the emphasis on the how, not the what. The introduction of the spin doctor - the DJ of politics - marks an interest in style and a lack of faith in the public's judgment of what one has actually done which is at odds with the emphasis placed on the lay members of inspection teams and governing bodies. This tension is clearly to be seen in America, where what Bill Clinton has achieved as President seems to conflict with the slightly grubby way in which he has conducted himself. Many ordinary Americans deplore the latter but still think that their judgment of the President should be based on the former.

There was a need for change here, too. If the outcome is the only performance indicator, the auto da fe or burning of the heretics may be justified by souls saved (outcome), and locking up the mentally ill forever may be justified by the fact that everyone else feels safer.

But now we often forget that there is an outcome, so keen are we to catch people out. If one of the virtues of inspection is that it motivates the inspected to get their act together, does it make sense to plan inspections so that they don't have time to do so? Do we want to prove that those who have received professional education and training are not perfect or to help them to be as good as it is reasonable to expect them to be? If it's the former, how attractive is lifelong learning going to be? Better to remain unlettered, so that no one expects too much of you.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon 34 FE Focus TESJjanuary 15 1999 comment Life assurance: Jacqui Henderson 'combines authority with the beguiling innocence of a northerner adrift in the big city' 'She is walking, talking and persuasiveproof of FE's effectiveness in helping late developers' 'She hasmastered her brief and the message comes across with clarity and conviction' neil turner

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