Charlotte Leslie

Vocation calling

Vocation calling
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I was at a lunch this week to talk about the state of further education, in view of the Government's plans to extend the school leaving age. It was generally agreed that further education and training are in a bit of a mess. "Does Gordon Brown actually know what vocational skills are?" someone asked. Who knows? But his Government could start showing that they understand the problem they need to tackle in non-academic terms by using the right language. 

"Vocational" is the extraordinary term that has slipped into the vocabulary of politicians and educationalists to mean what we used to call practical, manual, technical skills. (That was before the expectation that no political phrase or department name is complete without a little tug on the heartstrings, usually with words like 'children and families' or 'innovation' instead of 'education'.)  But does anyone know what vocational actually means? Vocational is simply a motivation for pursuing something. From the Latin voco-vocare - a calling. I can conceivably have a vocation to be a plumber, a lawyer, a doctor, a balloonist or even a politician.   No wonder there is so much confusion over what so called 'vocational training' is supposed to be doing. The word is being used to fudge things like technical, manual, practical skills as if, cynics might suggest, we can't bring ourselves to say these words. This in a world where, despite loud protestations to the contrary, practical things are being 'academicised' so that learning to cook must involve paperwork about scones.

It sometimes strikes me, as a parliamentary candidate, that I must be absolutely mad to be pursing my chosen course in life. I am unpaid for my candidate work, exclude myself from many forms of more lucrative employment through political affiliation, get blamed for miscellaneous occurrences in my potential constituency of Bristol North West and chose to spend large portions of my time on an unpaid newspaper-delivery round, or knocking on strangers doors to ask them how I can improve their lives.

I gain little sympathy when I suggest this to friends. They tap their noses and talk about the great goal – my salary and allowances were I to become an MP. But if my mission were financial gain, I'm not sure I have made a clever career choice. MPs are not badly off by any means, but their salary is not sky high. It is less than some head-teachers, and allowances take into account things like the need to have two homes  (One for Westminster business, one in the constituency), enormous amounts of correspondence and considerable staffing needs if they are to serve their constituents properly.

No, in financial terms, my decision to sacrifice so much for so little is probably a bit silly, given other things I could do. (Like follow my university peers' lead and go into banking or law.) So how about influence? For every iota of influence, there is an equal or perhaps bigger quantity of possible blame. And then there's the fact that if I have a private-life crash or even a crisis moment in my fashion sense, people (the wrong people) might even notice or care.

But despite all this, I am striving to become an MP. And I also believe that MPs should not vote themselves a pay increase above other public sector workers. Why? Because amongst all the fudged talk about vocational jobs, becoming an MP is surely a choice largely based on that un-definable drive, vocation. An effective MP's vocation should be to serve their constituents. To vote to increase their constituents' tax burden to fund that service, without giving back tangible benefits for the extra cost seems contrary to the whole idea of being an MP: an idea that keeps current aspirants pounding the streets until 2010.  An inflation-busting pay rise would further undermine the beleaguered but invaluable concept of vocation.

Charlotte Leslie is the Conservative PPC for Bristol North West and editor of the Bow Group's magazine 'Crossbow'