In recent months, my blog has been read more in the USA, Russia and France than it has been in Britain. I’m very pleased to have a thriving international audience, but having lots of non-British readers is challenging. In particular, it behoves me to explain some of the quaint and idiocyncratic, not to say bizarre, things we get up to in the place some people still like to call the United Kingdom.
That brings me to The Knowledge.
If you want to drive a black taxi cab in London you have to take a test. It’s called The Knowledge. The Knowledge is one of the most difficult tests in the world. You have to study for years to memorise the city’s 25,000 streets and the shortest routes between them.
It may sound like a good idea to require every taxi driver in London to have intricate knowledge of the city’s labyrinthine streets. But a little black box that costs less than £100 and which you stick to the windscreen of your taxi makes The Knowledge just a little bit unnecessary. It’s called a Satnav or a GPS.
It’s all too easy for tests designed to ensure professional standards to become unnecessary or irrelevant. Sometimes the people who think up the tests have the best motives. They want a better service, more knowledgeable personnel, more satisfied ‘customers’. But the content of the test must be justified by being strictly related to the knowledge and skills which are required to achieve clearly defined tasks competently. The test mustn’t become just a hurdle that people have to jump in order to get into the profession. It mustn’t become just a way of keeping people out. And it mustn’t become a con trick to mislead members of the public that something is being done to improve professional standards when it isn’t.
That brings me to the government’s ill-fated Assessment and Accreditation scheme, which is currently being rolled-out for children’s social workers in England. As I’ve said before the Government provides no detail about where its so-called knowledge and skills statements, on which the accreditation scheme is based, come from and no justification for them. And it provides no proposals for how these knowledge and skills statements can be reviewed, improved and kept up to date in future. So, its tests are really pretty arbitrary. Rather than being a basis for improving the safety and quality of practice it is beginning to look rather like The Knowledge – a difficult test to pass but not really necessary.
Heather Wakefield, head of local government at Unison, has recently described the Assessment and Accreditation scheme as “ill-thought out” saying that “… it threatens to make things worse, not better. It doesn’t accurately assess the work staff do, and could prove the final straw for many experienced employees, who may well vote with their feet and leave.
“Ministers,” she says, “should think again, and instead of making dedicated employees take this ill-conceived test, provide more resources to enable them to do their jobs properly.”