Positively underwhelmed


The Education Select Committee  reported   on Careers Guidance in schools in January this year. This was in the wake of the new statutory duty on schools to secure access to independent, impartial careers guidance for pupils in years 9 to 11 from September 2012. Following a consultation, the Government agreed in December 2012 to ‘extend access to independent and impartial careers guidance to 16-18 year olds in schools and colleges to help young people make well informed decisions about their education, training and work options’, from September 2013.

The Committee, chaired by Graham Stuart, a Tory,   came to the conclusion that the transfer of this responsibility to schools was” regrettable,” as was the way it was done.  None of the £196 million in funding that the Connexions service received for its careers guidance work (Connexions provided a range of services to young people including careers guidance)   was passed to schools. As  Stuart pointed out, in a recent Westminster Hall debate, (16 May) a survey by Careers England found that only one in six schools had the same level of investment in careers activities as the year before. That is, one in six maintained what they had. The survey also found that not a single school had increased its level of investment, even after the Connexions service, however patchy its performance, had been removed from the scene.

The Government counters that it is early days, which of course it is, and that a thematic review being undertaken now by Ofsted , and due to report this summer, will give a clearer indication of the state of play. However, arguably you can get a pretty clear idea early  on, about how schools are providing,  and intend to provide, careers guidance to their pupils by asking them, which is precisely  what this survey did.

It is pretty clear, though, that the Committee, including its respected Chairman, was positively underwhelmed by government policy on careers guidance in schools as expressed during the hearings, in terms of the principles underpinning its approach , its execution and its probable effects and consequences on the quality and scope of advice available to pupils. Of most concern to them, and the experts, is the fact that face to face advice will not be available to many pupils.

There was another bone of contention-the use of evidence to inform government policy. It is the view of Professor Tony Watts that the government largely ignored a  commissioned paper that  he gave the then Minister, John Hayes ,which told them that international evidence does not support the governments approach-that is- giving the responsibility for careers guidance  to schools,  within a loose accountability framework.

This point was  raised in the debate by Stuart. He said “Evidence from countries that have transferred responsibility for careers guidance to schools, such as the Netherlands and New Zealand, does not support that approach. In those countries, the schools were at least given funding to supply the service when they were given the duty to do so; nevertheless, the Committee was told that even there, the transfer of the duty had resulted in a significant reduction in both the quality and extent of careers guidance provision in schools. That is why we described the transfer of responsibility as regrettable, much to the Government’s chagrin.

“Separately, the OECD has highlighted the limitations of a purely school-based model of careers advice. They include lack of impartiality, weak links with the labour market and inconsistency of provision between schools. That matters, because young people need guidance in order to make good decisions. A recent study by the Education and Employers Taskforce, led by Nick Chambers, underlined the problem. The taskforce surveyed 11,000 13 to 16-year-olds, mapping their job ambitions against the employment market up to 2020. It showed that teenagers have a weak grasp of the availability of certain jobs. For example, 10 times as many youngsters as there are jobs likely to be available were aiming for jobs in the culture, media and sports sector.”

Meanwhile, two more respected figures have expressed their concerns about the direction of travel. John Cridland ,of the CBI, wrote in this week’s Guardian  that we need , ‘ to equip young people in making the transition from school into an increasingly complex labour market.’  He continued  ‘We know that schools are struggling with the new duty to provide careers advice which in many places is increasingly on life support. Businesses must step up to the mark to help with this but ministers’ attitude suggests that they simply don’t prioritise it. We need urgent action if the forthcoming impact assessment proves the negative picture many anticipate.’ If Cridland knows that schools are struggling with this new duty, how come Ministers don’t?

And Jan Hodges, who manages the  respected Edge Foundation, which promotes practical learning, again in the Guardian this week , wrote that ‘young people are getting very different experiences of careers advice and guidance. Some schools are buying in the services of careers advisers and providing quality work experience opportunities for their pupils. Others may be relying on online materials, which have their place but cannot replace face-to-face, independent advice and guidance.’

It is widely accepted that for the most disadvantaged pupils face to face careers advice from a professional is the most appropriate form of advice. But we also know that there are no guarantees that  they  will get access to such advice, as it is up to schools to decide what type of advice they offer, in the name of autonomy. And, of course, face to face advice is the most expensive type. Under budgetary pressure and with no ring fenced funding, schools will be loth to offer it even to disadvantaged pupils. One can hardly blame them. But one can blame  the government for its lack of joined up thinking. Its laissez faire approach will undermine its attempts to improve the life opportunities of the most disadvantaged pupils and do nothing to improve social mobility, both  policy priorities.

Relevant documents: The impact of the new duty on schools, Seventh Report of the Education Committee, Session 2012-13, HC 632, and the Government response, Session 2012-13, HC 1078.]


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