Better career guidance for all

School students have the statutory right to quality careers advice, says David Harbourne. But so far, too few of them are feeling the benefit.

Blank signpost pointing in three directionsWithin the next couple of months, Ofsted will tell us whether young people in English secondary schools are receiving comprehensive, impartial careers information, advice and guidance (IAG).

The answer in its report is likely to be a qualified ‘no’.

The statutory duty to secure access to impartial IAG only took effect in September 2012, so the report is likely to talk about a ‘period of transition’, ‘teething problems’ and ‘lack of awareness’. On the other hand, some schools will be praised for rising to the challenge.

The ensuing media and political debate will focus on three issues – money, face-to-face guidance, and the vested interests of schools.

Money is in short supply; funds previously allocated to the Connexions Services were not transferred to schools when the new statutory requirement came in. There will be loud demands for this money to be reinstated.

Secondly, we’ll hear a lot about the limitations of web-based IAG. Dozens of well-constructed web sites offer insights into hundreds of careers, but their sheer volume can be a challenge in itself. Given that school students don’t know what they don’t know, how can they match their possible careers to their talents and ambitions without the help of an impartial expert?

Then there are the vested interests of schools. Informative options evenings routinely help Year 11 students and their parents decide which subjects to choose when they join the sixth form. But how many schools offer the same quantity and quality of information about their local further education college?

In the present economic climate, the sad truth is that there will be little, if any, new money for IAG. Face-to-face guidance will be prioritised for only a minority of young people. And come what may, schools will still have vested interests, especially if they have a sixth form. This means that in practice, improvements will come only through a series of small steps.

The first and most important step is to introduce young people to the world of work well before they choose their Key Stage 4 options. Typically, very young children know about the police, the fire service, shops and healthcare; they know something about the jobs done by their family members; and they see a limited range of jobs on television. According to research by the Education and Employers Taskforce, the single most popular job among teenagers aged 13-14 is actor/actress. Conversely, there is negligible interest in a whole range of occupations that are largely hidden from view on office parks and industrial estates.

We need a national programme of ‘show and tell’. Initiatives such as Inspiring the Future make it easy for schools to invite people in to tell young people about their jobs and career paths. This needs to be a normal part of school life from primary level onwards, enabling young people to meet people at every stage of their careers from apprentice to managing director.

We also need young people to go and see for themselves. Some workplaces are too dangerous to visit – but most are not. Indeed, many are absolutely fascinating – who wouldn’t want to know how KitKats are made? If one-off visits smack of tourism, there are opportunities to build them into larger projects linked to the core curriculum. Programmes such as Industrial Cadets link industry visits to hands-on projects, teamwork and research and presentations, helping to build key skills and competences among young people aged 12-14.

In the same way, young people should visit a local further education college and a university at least twice before the age of 14. Ideally, they should also visit an independent apprenticeship provider. Primary-age pupils can scarcely imagine the range of opportunities on offer at 16+ and 18+, so let’s take the trouble to show them.

The Edge Foundation is proud to be a Premier Sponsor of The Skills Show for precisely this reason. As an independent education charity, our goal is to raise the profile of technical, practical and vocational learning. The show lets young people see skilled people at work, visit careers stands and – above all – have a go themselves. It’s a perfect example of learning by seeing, hearing, and most importantly, doing.

David Harbourne is Director of Policy and Research at the Edge Foundation. The Edge Foundation is an independent education charity dedicated to raising the status of practical, technical and vocational learning.

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