Post GCSEs: Are 16-year-olds making informed decisions, or following in their siblings’ footsteps?

By Tami McCrone

Wednesday 20 August 2014

recently published online survey of school and college leavers and current university students, undertaken by The Student Room, on the subject of post-Level 3 options and the influences that affect them, indicate that one third (32 per cent) of those who took part in the study rated their school’s careers advice as ‘weak’.

For example students said:

‘I was told to choose the subjects I enjoyed and did best at. But I never realised how many doors I closed by picking humanities subjects rather than sciences.’

‘I had absolutely no clue that history was an extremely desirable subject when applying for an English literature degree.’

‘It wasn’t made clear which subjects were needed for which university course. Since I didn’t know which degree I wanted to do I wish teachers had helped me to choose A- level subjects which would allow me to access to the most courses as now I am slightly limited.’

Routes other than university

It is not only with regard to university courses that many young people surveyed in the study felt they were not making informed decisions. Worryingly, one quarter (27 per cent) either disagreed or completely disagreed that they had received enough information on alternatives to university.

Indeed NFER’s Teacher Voice (for the Sutton Trust report Higher Ambitions) revealed that 65 per cent of teachers said they would rarely or never advise a high-achieving student to opt for an apprenticeship if they had the grades to go to university.

Furthermore, many young people are not being informed about the jobs market. The Institute for Public policy Research (IPPR) has highlighted in their recent report that there is a mismatch between the jobs young people are training for and the jobs available. The Institute, for example, points out that 94,000 young people were trained in hair and beauty for just 18,000 jobs, while only 123,000 were trained in the construction and engineering sectors for an advertised 275,000 jobs. With reference to Europe they also conclude that:

‘Youth unemployment is lower in countries where the vocational route into employment through formal education and training is as clear as the academic route’.

‘Youth transitions are improved by information about the employment outcomes of various options and courses, as part of a good programme of careers education and guidance’.

The role of careers guidance

A personal anecdote brought all these figures starkly to life for me. At the weekend I was talking to a friend who had just received her daughter’s ‘disappointing’ AS level results. My friend was describing to me how the school and her daughter had worked out that she could drop two A levels and just continue to complete the remaining two next year and start one new AS Level – that way she should be in a position to apply for university alongside her peers and she would have the degree that employers wanted. It would appear that ‘going to university’ was seen as the most important aim, irrespective of the quality of the university or the currency of the degree for future employment that would be achieved with only two A levels.  I tried to suggest that possibly the style of teaching in a school sixth form and A levels may not suit her daughter – had she ever considered a BTEC? Or an apprenticeship?  And incidentally employers also value employability skills alongside qualifications…… could she talk to a careers adviser in her school? She responded: ‘I’m not sure that the school has a careers adviser’.

Alison Wolf commented yesterday that we need ‘a broad and mandatory core of general education’ for our teenagers in order to keep their options open. I would argue that we also need to keep them engaged in ongoing learning. Careers guidance plays a vital role in ensuring both that options are kept open and young people are kept engaged.

A call to action!

Every year over one million young people make subject choices in Year 9 and 11. It is time careers guidance was made a priority so that our young people are guided into the university or employment-focussed routes appropriate for them. With the right support, all young people can acquire the knowledge and skills they need to have fulfilling careers; and the economy benefits from the skills it needs to secure all our futures. We can all play our part here by keeping this very important issue high on the government agenda – researchers, teachers, careers professionals, employers and parents.

I really hope that all our young people who receive their GCSE results tomorrow have been supported to consider all the options open to them and are fully aware of the jobs market and what employers want and have made a choice that will  engage them and take them forward to future success in their chosen field.

And as for next year’s cohort, and the following year etc we must do more than hope! I recommend our (ASCL; ATL; NFER; and the 157 Group) careers brief as a starting point for schools and colleges. It is a helpful, free, evidence-informed resource that supports schools and colleges to provide effective careers guidance to young people.