James Kirkup

Why shouldn’t a ballerina retrain?

Why shouldn't a ballerina retrain?
(Image from UK Government)
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A 'story' covered by several outlets today about a ballerina and a government skills campaign is the latest evidence of how Twitter is making us all more stupid and should generally be ignored.

The 'story' in short summary: a government campaign to encourage people to consider training to develop skills in 'cyber' is using images of people doing jobs, including dancing, to suggest that people who are today doing one thing for a living might one day do something else. (For more on the full range of jobs depicted, see this bit of proper journalism from a BBC reporter.)

The ad that’s picked up some attention online shows 'Fatima' a ballerina, with the caption: 'Fatima’s next job could be in cyber (she just doesn’t know it yet).'

This, apparently, is outrageous, a Philistine attack on the arts and all those who work in them.For a summary of the 'outrage' sparked by the ad, you could read this Guardian piece or similar bits of copy in a dozen other places.

That coverage, of some things some people said on Twitter for a few hours this morning, is the first reason to be depressed by this saga. As I’ve written before, media outlets that treat 'stuff people said online' as news are killing journalism, and their own businesses. Journalism is supposed to reveal, analyse and enlighten: copying a load of shallow cobblers off your Twitter feed and rehashing it under a headline is not, and never will be, reporting. Nor will it generate the sort of 'content' (ugh) the people will pay for, one way or another, at levels that will sustain a media company. Add value or die, comrades.

The second reason for despair over the Fatima outrage is that it’s either stupid, or done in bad faith, or both. The campaign is a perfectly sensible one. Britain desperately needs to increase the skills of its workforce; our poor record on skills and training is a large part of the reason UK productivity growth has been so dismal in recent years.

This is not the place for an essay on skills and productivity, but if you’re prepared to take my word for it (my day job is running a think tank that studies, among other things, skills and training policy), let’s just say that unless we do a lot better at developing the skills of our population — and matching those skills to jobs — then our long-term economic future is a gloomy one.

That’s especially true in the context of rising life expectancy. If 'Fatima' is 20 years old today, there’s a decent chance she won’t retire from work until she’s 70. Do any of the outraged of Twitter think she should making her living from dancing until then? Plug: my think tank published a report on long-term skills provision earlier this year that concluded that public engagement with retraining is a key barrier to better skill levels. Fewer than four in ten of those aged 35 to 54 say they are interested in changing careers, even though some of them have more than 30 years of work ahead of them.

Encouraging today’s workers to think more about their future careers and skills needs is just sensible; it’s certainly not an attack on people for doing a particular job today. It’s just sensible policy.

A better offer for retraining and skills development is hugely important. If I have a criticism of the 'rethink, reskill, reboot' campaign it is that it’s come so late. This campaign should have been running since the spring, when millions of workers on furlough had more time to think about their future skills needs. And don’t get me started on funding and policy frameworks for adult education, both of which should have been a much higher priority for government for several years now.

This stuff isn’t controversial. It’s not a partisan thing: most people who’ve bothered to engage with the issue for five minutes know that better skills and retraining provision is a good thing. The outraged of Twitter are either too dim to know this stuff, or simply being disingenuous in their fury. Either way, their thoughts should be ignored, not amplified.

Which brings me to the saddest bit of this tale. Because the shallow anger mob weren’t just given a megaphone by self-harming media outlets, they were indulged by a grown-up politician. According to Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, the Fatima ad was 'crass' and, in effect, nothing to do with us, guv.

Which, of course, gave more media outlets an excuse to write about the ad. It must be a proper story if a minister talks about it, right?

Maybe. But ministers say all sorts of stuff all the time. A couple of weeks ago, Gillian Keegan, the skills minister, spent two hours at the education select committee talking about adult education and skills, but no one outside the specialist press bothered to cover it. 

Instead, they yelled about an interview she gave on BBC Radio 4 earlier that day, in which she admitted she didn’t know the answer to a question about Covid policy. Because that’s what people on Twitter were shouting about, of course.

I spent years listening to and writing about David Cameron, and it’s fair to say that we didn’t always see eye to eye. But he was 100 per cent right when he said that Britain and Twitter are not the same thing.

That was almost exactly five years ago but — possibly because of who said it — a great many people who should know better have failed utterly to learn the lesson Cameron offered them. Instead, too many people in politics and the media are allowing a small, unrepresentative chorus of empty vessels to tweet British public debate into a state of idiocy.

Written byJames Kirkup

James Kirkup is director of the Social Market Foundation and a former political editor of the Scotsman and the Daily Telegraph.

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