Careers guidance: how to mend a fragmented system?

Tom-Middlehurst-finalThe third in a series of three articles presenting highlights from one of the discussions and debates that SSAT have hosted over the past three years, relating to educational reform and policy-making. Careers education is crucial to young people’s life chances, but neither the school system nor successive governments have got this right.

This February, SSAT invited a small number of school leaders from our networks; policymakers; and experts in careers information, advice and guidance (CIAG) to a dinner to discuss careers guidance. Dr Deirdre Hughes, currently in a commissioning role at the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, introduced the discussions.

There was agreement around the table that the current system of careers guidance offered to young people is fragmented; this is a real issue; and it needs mending.

Decentralisation will create opportunities

Dr Hughes reflected on the political landscape affecting careers guidance, evoking Adam Smith’s distinction between the two public purposes of education: that which can be acquired through daily experience ‘without any attention of government’ and that for which ‘some attention of government is necessary’. It was suggested that any government will seek intervention on careers guidance, although the current focus is likely to be on a more encompassing notion of career development, rather than guidance. However, we can expect increased decentralisation, with a move to more devolved power for cities and regions – this will present an opportunity for schools and the careers sector.

CIAG has to be linked to local and national economies, and to productivity, by considering where we are and where we are going in the coming years. Signals to young people (and parents) about the added-value of learning and work are becoming more blurred. For example, weighing up the cost benefits of higher education can be difficult for some young people, even though in difficult conditions graduates continue to experience better outcomes than non-graduates in both lifetime earnings and employability. Many young people have concerns about the added-value returns for their investments in learning and work, job quality, zero hour contracts and future salaries.

Wider benefits of CIAG

We know there are examples of good practice out there; but disseminating these only goes so far. Although CIAG is ultimately centred on individuals, benefits of guidance and counselling go much wider: linking individuals’ agendas with those of enterprises and governments’ economic and social goals. Guidance can be used in enterprises, local communities or schools to improve learning outcomes, knowledge transmission, productivity and innovation.

Returning to Smith’s distinction, Dr Hughes questioned the role of central government in mending the system. She cited Lord Young’s report on small firms, which referenced the new company, with £20m funding, ‘responsible for enterprise and careers for young people’, whereas previously the secretary of state for education had referred to it as ‘careers and enterprise’. Will careers development in 2015 be dominated by the enterprise agenda, she wondered. We don’t know how the new company will work, and whether it will serve to address the obvious fragmentation and the gaps. Are we pushing in the right direction?

Achieving a joined-up system

Currently there is a multiplicity of providers, over 1,000, including various organisations whether state, market and voluntary led, with different contracts and partnerships – doesn’t that lead to confusion in schools? Where will the new company fit into this jigsaw?

So can we join things up? There are local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) working with Jobcentre Plus and the National Careers Service, etc. The LEP agenda offers an opportunity to consider what is the strategic centre that should be spotlighting careers. Collaborative approaches are already at work, and groups or clusters of schools could be combining to offer careers advice. There could be more consortium approaches covering 14-19 education/business partnerships.

The final question was: to what extent can people access local career development services (or a careers development system, as Dr Hughes prefers to put it). Whether from the public, private or voluntary sectors, is it easily accessible?

Discussion points

  • There is a big challenge to make the brokerage system work; but there may be better ways of investing the £20m that has suddenly become available.
  • It is a resource issue: at the moment there is not enough capacity in schools nor across the system to deliver a joined-up, high quality service. Little thought has gone into this.
  • We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Some schools are delivering very good practice. We need to better identify where best practice is evidenced, then ensure it is disseminated throughout the system and shared in a meaningful way.
  • The government needs to be much better at selling its policy on careers guidance, and to articulate a much clearer vision over young people’s entitlement and its desired outcomes.
  • All stakeholders (except perhaps the government) understand how important it is to ensure that young people have access to good advice at ages 14, 16 and 18. This is essential for the government’s own agendas of improving social mobility, inclusion and better access for disadvantaged young people to top HEIs. It’s a vital building block.
  • There should be much better links between businesses’ careers advisers and schools.
  • There needs to be a careers team in schools, with a head of careers, rather than just an individual providing advice. This team needs real backing by the school leadership at every level (including middle leaders), driven by a passion to make it work and engaged governors (perhaps with a governor responsible for supporting the careers team).
  • Schools need to provide careers education, not just advice, with a more holistic approach. Employers also need educating on the importance of guidance and the role they can play. Teachers as part of their ITT should be instructed in careers education.
  • The government places too much of a burden of duty on employers to get into schools and offer support and guidance to young people. Research clearly shows most employers are not interested in doing this and don’t necessarily see it as a good investment of their time.
  • The new company responsible for careers and enterprise needs to have clear functions. Included in the functions envisaged are: to access and commission research and analysis, to provide effective linkages and brokerage between the stakeholders, to spread best practice, and to manage an investment fund. Rather a lot to be getting on with, some guests at the dinner noted. Is this too ambitious?
  • We know the elements that will make a good careers education information and guidance system work: access to good labour market information, employer involvement, good work experience, easy access to qualified professional advisers, engagement of schools and parents, some form of accountability framework…. But there is a big challenge in getting these elements to work together within a coherent framework without dedicated resources.
  • We need a clear vision of what good careers education looks like from 14-18, and whether we want national or local delivery, or a combination.
  • Careers advice and guidance must sit within a framework for improving the school–to-work transition as a whole.

Key messages for policymakers

  1. We need a better system of measuring and spreading best practice, of which there is some very good evidence.
  2. The system needs to be properly funded and resourced.
  3. We need to ensure that the brokerage system is effective and ensures a good interface between young people, employers’ careers advisers, and other stakeholders; it must be based on an open, collaborative approach.
  4. The system must offer all young people easy access to face-to-face, independent, professional careers advice and guidance.
  5. There is a chronic capacity shortage in schools to deliver high quality careers advice; and little effort is being made to address this.
  6. Too many school leaders are not giving this issue their full attention, regarding it as a second order issue.
  7. The system is made worse by the government’s fragmented approach to labour markets, skills shortages and careers guidance (e.g. DfE and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy).

Schools at the Heart of Educational Reform: an exploration of policy and its link to practice, a new publication covering all of the ideas and outcomes from recent SSAT discussions and debates, will be published at the end of summer term 2017. The full publication will be available to SSAT members on the Exchange, and a hard copy will be sent to all secondary member schools.

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