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The answer to uemployment - not just jobs but skills
2/2/2017 11:03:55 PM
April 12 2016

“Traumatised Afghan refugees fear deportation from EU: Casualties on the rise in Afghan conflict, but EU plans to deport 80,000 refugees back to the war-torn country” – so ran the headlines in a recent Al-Jazeera website article. It quoted the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, stating that, in 2015, casualties in Afghanistan were as follows:

3,545 civilians dead and 7,457 injured
37 percent increase in women casualties
14 percent increase in child casualties
1 in 4 victims was a child

This is deeply disturbing. We don’t see much in the British news about Afghanistan nowadays, but the country continues to experience major problems with the Taliban, ISIS, endemic violence, poverty and unemployment.

There are signs of real hope, though. About 8.4 million students (39 percent of them girls) are in primary and secondary schools, 8 times more than in 2001. However, around 3.3 million children remain out of school, most of them girls. And the vast majority of adults did not completed their schooling.

For some years, the charity I have been involved with, Afghan Action, has been advocating an expansion of vocational skills education and training for school-age children. Ironically, the British House of Lords Social Mobility Select Committee is arguing for exactly the same in the UK.

“The current system for helping people move from school to work is failing most young people” writes the Committee Chair, Baroness Corston. “They are simply not being adequately prepared for the world of work. This significantly disadvantages a huge number of young people and limits their opportunity for social mobility. Recent governments have focused on higher education and apprenticeships as the way to help young people to be successful in later life. Both routes can work well – but it is absolutely not the case that they are suitable for everyone... We have found that without being taught life skills, given the right support, access to work experience and robust, independent careers advice, we are in danger of trapping these young people in low-skilled, low-paid work, with little chance of a rewarding career.” (Overlooked and Left Behind: improving the transition from school to work for the majority of young people. April 2016).

I believe the answer to unemployment is not just jobs, but skills. Without the skills the Economy needs, we will always depend on skilled labour from overseas. Without the opportunity to acquire these very skills – and the sound education which should accompany them – our schools will continue to churn out over 4 in 10 young people as “failures” in terms of their poor exam results (below grade C in GCSEs), but – worse still – these young people will have been equipped with none of the technical skills they need to survive and prosper in an increasingly tough world.

Let’s have a look at the Department for Education’s GCSE statistics for schools in England, showing the percentage of pupils achieving 5+ A*-C GCSEs (or equivalent) including English and Maths:

2012 2013 2014 2015
England – all schools 59.4% 59.2% 53.4% 53.8%
England – state funded schools 58.8% 60.6% 56.6% 57.1%

Now tell me this. What kind of education system deliberately chooses to designate 4 in 10 of our young people as failures? These young people are hardly likely to be the best advocates for their own children’s education if their experience of school has been so negative.

And so the downward spiral sets in. Youngsters don’t acquire the skills they need to get a decent job. Teachers – under more pressure than ever before – leave to teach abroad or do something quite different. And we carry on having to import the skilled labour we are so bad at producing ourselves.

Last July, a Times Educational Supplement report stated that “a third of all teachers plan to leave the profession in the next five years.. Most have been driven out by excessive workloads and unreasonable managers..”

And the solution to this crisis? Disrupt the entire system even more by forcing all State schools to become academies. In the recent Budget (16 March 2016), the Chancellor announced that he wanted to remove schools from council control to “drive up standards” and make all schools become academies by 2022. Now even more teachers are talking of quitting.

We have huge pressures in our own country on young people. Even our graduates are struggling to find good jobs - more than half are in jobs not needing a degree. And they have their student loans to repay.

But if we think we have problems, just look at Afghanistan. 15 years on from the Allied invasion to drive out the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, the country has an estimated unemployment rate of 40% - and yet almost all the skilled jobs have to be done by foreigners. Afghan refugees, by the way, account for 24 percent of those refugees and migrants who have braved the dangerous Mediterranean waters and made it to Europe so far this year. Things are so tough in that sad, dangerous, war-torn country.

When you think about it, perhaps Afghanistan and the UK are not so different. Young people with limited prospects. Endemic skills shortages. Stress and pressure. Poverty and hardship. Governments unable to meet the needs of their people, channel their talents and use their energies.

At the heart of the Christian Gospel is the conviction that we all matter, that God’s love embraces us all, that every human being is special, created in the image of God. But can such sentiments be meaningful? That’s the challenge. In his life, Jesus showed such love and respect for all people, especially the sick and suffering, the despised and rejected, that even his closest friends and followers could not understand him, let alone the religious leaders or the politicians. It cost him his life. But it is that life, that love, that respect for even the least among us that fires and inspires us to challenge broken systems and seek to build new ones. It applies to education, training, skills and society. And it involves us all.

Positive Psychology
2/2/2017 11:01:51 PM

August 2016

I’ve recently received the final draft – now properly edited and set out – of a chapter I was asked to write for a Reader in Positive Psychology, to be published in 2017 (Routledge International Handbook of Critical Positive Psychology—a Synthesis for Social Change). Positive Psychology is a relatively new discipline and seeks to understand what gives people the determination and inner strength to go on in the face of the overwhelmingly negative evidence which is daily presented to us. I am by nature an optimist. I tend to think positively, looking to find solutions to problems rather than allowing those problems to burden and overwhelm me. But I also recognise the fact that, in many aspects of my life, there are always loose ends which I never quite manage to get hold of or tie up. Living with uncertainties and with unresolved issues is part of our human existence.

To put it bluntly, despite our dreams of and hopes for a just and loving world where people of different nations, faiths, ethnicities and cultures can live together peaceably, the evidence suggests that this is always just round the next corner. And the brutality of reality, the sheer overwhelmingness of negative evidence, should be enough to convince us that our deepest longings are unachievable. Add to this the environmental catastrophe awaiting us in the coming century, caused both by human activity and the forces of nature - and the prospects for any positive vision of the future wear rather thin. And yet, we press on, in the hope that a better future can and will be created.

The title of my chapter, by the way, is The Brutality of Reality. In it, I try to address the subject of work. The mundane level of the workplace is, in most people’s experience, anything but mundane. It shapes how and where they live, their values and attitudes, their standard of living and their hopes for the future. In times of economic uncertainty, conformity to the prevalent culture of the employer or sponsor may seem the wisest course of action. Questioning, challenging or whistleblowing may turn out to be personally counter-productive in the longer term.

My chapter looks at work in the broader context of how we cope with the pressures of everyday living. And one of the people I cite is Hannah Arendt, a Jewish German-born political theorist who escaped the Nazi Germany and settled in the USA. She was present at the trial and conviction in 1961 of Adolf Eichmann, one of Hitler’s closest henchmen and the architect of the Holocaust. She coined a poignant phrase: “the banality of evil.” The way people were imprisoned, abused and slaughtered in the death camps of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald and elsewhere had become, for Eichmann and so many others, routine, normal, commonplace - banal.

We are rightly quick to condemn such appalling behaviour, and yet we are daily presented with human suffering broadcast into our living rooms, making us almost banal about the suffering we see on our TVs. We watch as children starve in Somalia, refugees flounder in the seas off Greece and Italy, families clamber through the rubble of their homes in Syria – and yet we deplore the sheer cheek of people thinking they can just turn up here in our country to live or work.

The great British EU membership debate has done the world a massive disservice. Too many of our politicians – on both sides and within each of the main parties - have shown themselves, again, as people we just cannot trust. But some vital issues have been raised, not least to do with immigration and how we respond to the global refugee crisis.

Maybe a dose of Positive Psychology can help – but not without recognising the brutality of reality. We just don’t have a fairytale existence where everyone is nice to each other – much as we may wish for it! In the final section of my chapter, I write about a small piece of research among Afghan managers and professionals working in Kabul, Afghanistan. In the face of the reality of brutality – the ever-present danger of suicide bombers and violent criminals in an atmosphere of corruption and lawlessness – I found incredible resilience and a widespread determination to rebuild their shattered country.

My faith is what inspires me, but it also gives me a strong dose of realism and helps keep my feet on the ground. The Jesus I follow chose not to impose his rule by force or certainly didn’t try to deceive his hearers with false promises of prosperity and success. He specifically reminded them, repeatedly, of the cost of discipleship, the brutality of reality!

Because living in a small nation under the oppressive rule of Rome was tough. And in that context, Jesus urged people to live by faith, in hope and – most of all – through love, whatever their situation. And finally, he did what no other religion has ever dreamed of happening to its founder and focus – he accepted death, the ultimate proof not of divinity but defeat.

But that was not the last word. The brutality of reality, of defeat and despair, has been transformed into new life, resurrection – with the conviction that justice will out, love will triumph, the poor, the weak, the helpless and hopeless will be raised up.

The best example of Positive Psychology is Jesus’ Resurrection. It gives us real hope that, despite the brutality of reality, things can be different and better, our lives can be meaningful and our world can indeed move towards its true vocation and fulfilment.

Humanising Work - some great examples
4/23/2015 11:02:57 AM
Humanising Work - some great examples of what can be done


 For the last 10 years I’ve been involved with a social enterprise called Afghan Action, working in Kabul in Afghanistan. Talk to any Afghan child about their aspirations and they’ll say – “I want to run a business” or be ”a doctor”, or “a lawyer”, or “a teacher”. In a film made about our work, one of our trainees, a young woman called Zakia, speaks beautifully about the education and training she’s receiving and what she’s learning. The interviewer asks: “what do you want for the future?” And she replies “I want to further my education and become a General”.

 Ask British children what they want to do when they grow up and the chances are they’ll say “I want to be on X Factor” or “I want to be a millionaire”. One of the great ironies of our present situation is how people moan about “all these immigrants coming in to take our jobs” - but too few of our young people have the skills needed for the thousands of vacancies, especially in things like construction and engineering… or even aspire to such work - though maybe the tide is just starting to turn a bit.


 Our schools and universities desperately seek to outperform each other in the league tables while producing well educated young people who can’t get a decent job – 40% of all the 2013 arts graduates are working in jobs which don’t actually need a degree…  And far too many others are still unemployed.

 Talking of unemployment, nearly 20% of young people under 24 are unemployed, and it’s 1 in 3 from black and Asian and minority ethnic groups.

 So – should young people just take any old job that comes along? And does it actually matter whether you enjoy your job, whether you’re well motivated or feel fulfilled? Or is it just a necessary evil, a means to an end, the best way to have money in your pocket for the weekend or help you pay for what you really feel fired up about?

 Many of us spend an awful lot of our time at work.. 40 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, 40 years of our lives.. Our work determines how and where we live, what we are able to do, it affects our aspirations, our dreams, our hopes for our families and children.. So it’s a pity if it has no meaning, no sense of vocation and purpose.

 Ironically, a major bit of research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation looking at trends over the past 10 years found that there are more working families living in poverty than families who have no one employed. So does this mean work doesn’t even pay?  

Let’s ask a ridiculous question. Is it possible to humanise work? Or is that just an idealistic pipedream, a ridiculous aspiration for most of us? Here and there, there are companies and organisations which have managed to buck the trend and make work meaningful, fulfilling, good...


 I’ve written a short book called Humanising Work and start off by describing a Brazilian company called Semco . At Semco, there are no job titles, no written policies, no HR department, staff set their own salaries and working hours and everybody shares in the profits. Managers are elected by their colleagues and their performance is evaluated publicly. And these are the rules:

 •             Forget about the top line

•             Never stop being a start-up

•             Don't be a nanny

•             Let talent find its place

•             Make decisions quickly and openly

•             Partner promiscuously 

 Semco, by the way, isn’ some little tin pot organisation. Its turnover last year was $240 million and it has 3000 employees.


 Or take a Dutch company called Buurtzorg, which means “neighbourhood care”. It provides nursing for elderly and sick people in their homes.   The system goes right back to the 19th century, when local neighbourhood nurses worked with family doctors and hospitals. 

In the 1990s, the Dutch health insurance system came up with a sensible, logical idea. Let’s group the nurses into organisations so we benefit from economies of scale and can ensure cover when a nurse is sick or on holiday. And let’s develop nursing specialisms and improve the daily schedule and plan the travel routes between patients. Oh, and let’s set up a central call centre, and improve our planning and budgeting, and study how long it takes to make a cup of tea or change a bandage. And of course the system needs to be properly managed. So we need managers who can organise – because nurses can’t do that. 

In 2006, one nurse, Jos de Blok, decided he couldn’t change the system from within. So he set up Buurtzorg. Its nurses work in teams of 10 – 12, serving about 50 patients in a small, well defined area. They’re a self organising team, they don’t have managers and call centres, they choose who to work with – doctors, hospitals, health providers – and, most significantly, each patient sees the same one or two nurses and relationships are built up. 

What a sweet, old fashioned system! A study by the accountants Ernst & Young in 2009 found that Buurtzorg requires, on average, 40% fewer hours of care per client than other nursing organisations. That’s ironic. Buurtzorg nurses spend time with their patients, get to know their families and neighbours - and patients stay in care only half as long. 

Buurtzorg now employs two thirds of all neighbourhood nurses in the Netherlands -  that’s 7000 nurses.


 In 1943, a young Catholic priest, Fr José María Arizmendiarrieta, set up a technical school in Mondragon in the Basque region of northern Spain. To generate the investment he needed, he left collection boxes at street corners. When the technical school opened, the students themselves had to raise funds to make sure the school survived.

 For Fr Arizmendi, the key concept was the humanisation of work – humanity at work has become the Mondragon brand. In 1956, after a long period of training and formation, he helped five young apprentice engineers to start the process of forming a co-operative business called ULGOR, making paraffin heaters. It quickly grew. The model was simple: those who work in the enterprise should own it. Capital should be subservient to labour.

 I was working in Hartlepool, in NE England, in 1980 and discovered Mondragon through a BBC2 documentary shown that November. By then there were 18,000 members of the Mondragon co-ops covering manufacturing and service industries, farms and shops, schools and colleges, a development bank and a welfare insurance system. I hired the BBC film and showed it 25 times in a month around Teesside, including to the full Hartlepool Borough Council. The Mondragon co-ops now employ over 80,000 people in nearly 300 companies and organisations across Spain and the world.

 Back to Hartlepool. The local Churches, the local Council and the Government’s Co-operative Development Agency together set up the Hartlepool Co-operative Enterprise Centre in 1982, based in an old factory on one of the town’s industrial estates, providing 50 young people with work in six embryonic co-ops ranging from bike refurbishment to toy making to the repair and recalibration of industrial equipment. The local Churches raised £5000 to start the process and we got another £1/2 million from national and local Government and Europe.

Within a year, we’d gone bust… 

 But you learn a lot from failure.  And I’ve learned this. If you don’t try and model different ways of doing things, nothing changes.. and things just get worse. We’ve got to challenge the dreary management thinking which pervades so much of our working culture. The idea that you can bribe, cajole and bully people into giving of their best is not only singularly ineffective but it’s demeaning and counter-productive… and terribly old fashioned! 


I’m a part time parish priest in a small town near Milton Keynes. We’re a growing community with a big new housing estate at one end, and the Churches have set up a community project called Love Woburn Sands. We’re teaching older people to use IT. We’ve set up financial literacy classes in the two local schools and have a Reading Army of local and company volunteers helping children practise their reading. Last November we had Bananas Day and our community worker spent the day dressed as a banana. A local store donated 1200 bananas for all the kids – and provided healthy eating classes in the schools. We’re starting a community cinema soon and developing lots more. We’ve also set up a print shop. It’s a social enterprise. It provides a community service and it’s created, so far, a couple of part time jobs. Last month it moved for the first time into profit. 

There’s been a long but not very well known Christian tradition of action and reflection on economic matters, rooted in the values of love and justice but also thoroughly pragmatic and committed to making things happen. Father Arizmendi’s co-op ideas, for example, grew out of Catholic Social Teaching. 

At its best, it’s an open, generous tradition, keen to work with everyone regardless of faith, ethnicity or anything else, and built on the understanding that human beings are infinitely creative and well able to rise to the challenge of tackling poverty and producing enough wealth for all. And, by the way, it has a great vision for the workplace – as somewhere we can discover our true vocation, sharing with others in providing what the world really needs. And finding a real sense of meaning and purpose and hope for the future.

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