Dr Deirdre Hughes is one of a small group of academics regarded as an expert on careers education and guidance. She has just published a new paper ’’Careers work in England’s schools: politics, practices and prospect’ . Her verdict on the guidance landscape is that ‘The present system of support for careers work in England’s schools is chaotic and congested.’ Her particular concerns also extend to ‘ the disparities that exist and social inequalities that arise when young people have restricted access to independent and impartial careers guidance’.
The Government has long promised a Careers Strategy, aimed at addressing our dysfunctional system so the dots are joined and better outcomes follow . This ,we are told, is due out this autumn. The point about our current system is that there is plenty of excellent careers advice out there, from professional advisers, through individuals , companies , hubs and partnerships, but its just that access to it is fragmented and inconsistent, across the country. And has been for many years.
The Careers and Enterprise Company (CEC) set up with taxpayers money, by Nicky Morgan, nearly three years ago, aims to provide greater coherence, across piece , acting as an enabler and facilitator, knocking heads together. Its impact though on improving access for young people to good professional guidance has been less than obvious. .
So what is the Careers and Enterprise Company up to? Well it’s a good question.
The first point to make about the CEC is that it was supposed to be self-funded. That was the intention when it was established . But this is clearly not the case. The taxpayer is still footing its bills. It now looks and behaves like a new quango. Government has pleaded poverty when it comes to Careers Guidance. No ring- fenced money was available for schools to support guidance, all money on careers had to come from (autonomous)school budgets . In short there was no magic money tree for Careers. So within this austere context its somewhat bemusing to witness the gradual expansion of the CEC which has no problem in accessing new funds and with no deadline set for it to be self-sustaining. Austere times, indeed!
Secondly, almost all its work is about promoting enterprise, and creating links and engagement between employers and schools, while championing good work experience too. Good though this may be, it hardly amounts to careers education or guidance.
Ministers have been highly supportive of the so- called eight ‘Gatsby’ benchmarks which are supposed to inform good careers guidance across the piece. However, confusingly, the CEC just champions, randomly as it happens, two or three of these eight, mutually supporting benchmarks. In effect it is prioritising some, to the exclusion of others. They will claim there is nothing random about their approach, its based on evidence. Maybe, but all the other benchmarks are evidence based too.
It also seems to misunderstand the difference between inputs and outputs. Its fine at measuring the former, not so good at measuring the latter. Indeed, Ministers championed the success of the CEC within its first year of operation, but had no benchmarks against which to measure its success. Counting the number of transactions or interactions conducted by any organisation tells you nothing about the impact its having or the value its adding.
There is a broader danger here too. And that is that the new Careers Strategy will be all about providing a justification for the existence and continuing role of the CEC, rather than getting back to first principles to mend a broken system that fails far too many young people. What the CEC is involved with, and experimenting with, may be part of the solution, but it can only be part of it, if it continues to ignore the other benchmarks and does nothing to ensure that there is easier access to independent professional careers advice and guidance in schools and colleges. While there is some excellent work going on in schools and among providers to provide high quality guidance, far too many young people don’t have access to this On this the CEC seems to have adopted a Trappist’s silence.
Hughes identifies at least three fundamental design flaws to the CEC:
Firstly, the Careers and Enterprise Company is a ‘market player’ competing withother national and local careers providers and relies primarily (though not exclusively) on enterprise and mentoring volunteers from business, supported by government funds.
Secondly, whilst it has fully adopted a set of universally agreed benchmarks for ‘good careers guidance’ – welcomed by those working in the careers sector – and supported a new tool for schools’ self-assessment against the benchmarks – it has so far failed to make any serious attempt to achieve a stable careers programme in schools (benchmark 1); embrace or acknowledge the need for better use of labour market intelligence /information (LMI) (benchmark 2). This is clearly illustrated in its first published research report ‘Moments of Choice’ (CEC, 2016d). The company remains silent on linking curriculum learning with careers (benchmark 4) and young people’s access to personal guidance (benchmark 8).
And thirdly, it has chosen to prioritise use of scarce public funds to aid further experimentation rather than directly supporting impartial and independent careers guidance for young people to be made available in all schools in England’.
Hughes concludes that all schools and colleges require leadership and practical support if they are to develop effective careers work And If, as she calls it, the English careers experiment (CEC) continues in its present form, greater fairness, transparency and accountability are required between private and public sector arrangements.
She says ‘ An important and, as yet unresolved issue is whether the role of government is to pump-prime a new player in the careers market (one which is neither fully independent or fully-private ownership) – and for this to be self-sustaining within a set timeframe – or whether government’s role is alternatively to guarantee access to careers provision and ensure quality by bringing coherence to an unregulated marketplace.’
She adds that ‘there is a growing and justifiable demand for Treasury funds to be directed into regions for more targeted delivery of CIAG in schools and local communities. A renewed strategic focus combined with the economies of scale that can be achieved through an all-age national careers service merits further attention. you randomly bolt on initiatives, mix careers and enterprise nomenclature, for example, enterprise co-ordinators reliant on employers and volunteers for careers work in schools, and overlook the added-value contribution of career development professionals’ work, this complicates understanding.’
How do we mend a dysfunctional system , albeit one that includes areas of real excellence, to ensure all young people have easy access to good independent professional guidance at crucial stages in their lives and ensure that the barriers that prevent this are removed? Can we better harness and direct the excellence already in the system and build on it? The answer clearly is not to keep calm and just carry on, relying on the CEC and its experimentation. There are clearly resources available. Cant we use them better to secure the outcomes and returns we need ?
The Industry Apprentice Council, set up by Semta, has just delivered a survey which suggests that many apprentices feel they received poor careers advice and that there is a gender bias in much careers guidance . Many in the sector, however, believe that much of the outstanding work that is being delivered by professional advisers, with young people, on the ground ,often in difficult circumstances and with limited resources , is not being given sufficient recognition in terms of its quality and its impact on outcomes. The reality on the ground is that professional advisers are at the forefront in highlighting apprenticeships aswell as other non-traditional pathways into employment that are increasing in scope. Nor has there been much recognition of significant improvements in quality assurance throughout the sector and the increased professionalism of the sector and improving status . If schools conduct careers education and afford access to qualified independent professional guidance experts that is the best way to ensure they are equipped to make informed career decisions.