The poetry and prose of careers guidance

By Ben Durbin

Tuesday 14 April 2015

It is said that you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. While Labour’s education manifesto, launched last week, was hardly poetry, when it came to its commitments on careers guidance the sentiment was certainly right.  However, it was light on detail and raised as many questions as it answered.

The manifesto included the following commitment:

Young people will be signposted along this new vocational route via quality careers advice and guidance. Labour will guarantee young people independent and face-to-face advice, delivered by careers professionals trained to give information and guidance on academic and vocational qualifications. This will support more young people to make the right choices about their future, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds who can lack the networks and prior information often used to access opportunities and progress.

The press release added further detail, stating ‘The new proposals, to cost approximately £50 million and to be funded and supported through a partnership between universities, schools, colleges, and employers, form a key plank of Labour’s education manifesto’ and furthermore ’Schools will be held to account for the programmes they offer’.

Labour’s objectives are sound: careers guidance is important and it’s not working.

Careers guidance is important.  It enables young people to navigate the complex routes they could take through education and to employment.  It ensures that they do not make poor choices now which will unnecessarily constrain their options later.  In the jargon of economics, it addresses an information failure for young people and enables better matching of their interests and abilities to the routes and jobs available.  Effective careers guidance can also provide more immediate benefits, providing the motivation needed for young people otherwise at risk of disengaging from education. Indeed, a recent study by The Sutton Trust found associations between schools holding a careers guidance Quality Award and improved GCSE performance, lower persistent unexplained absence, and improved destinations.

Careers guidance is not working.  In 2012, schools were given the duty (with no ringfenced funding) to secure independent and impartial careers guidance (instead of the local authority careers service).  However, many schools were ill-equipped or under-resourced for these new responsibilities, especially in the context of a wide range of other reforms taking place simultaneously. In 2013, Ofsted reported that this was indeed proving difficult for schools to manage and that further support was necessary to ensure its success.  At the same time we published our own think piece on the topic arguing that the policy was failing.

The Coalition Government recognised the need for action in December 2014 when they announced £20m to establish a new careers company to improve the quality of provision. Labour has now upped the ante with its own £50m policy. This includes a number of headline features and associated set of questions:

Face-to-face. How many sessions would a young person receive through their time in secondary school (an optimistic calculation suggests £50m buys each secondary school pupil 24 minutes contact time per year)?  Trusted relationships are clearly important in providing advice that young people will heed, but is it possible to establish such relationships with a handful of brief conversations with someone who potentially doesn’t work in the school (see below)?  Is the evidence supporting the value of face-to-face provision sufficiently robust to justify prescribing such an approach in all circumstances?  Will other forms of provision also be given due consideration, such as online resources, and will schools have the opportunity to innovate?  Would a Labour government then invest in robustly evaluating the range of approaches adopted, so that the next time careers guidance is overhauled it can be informed by a stronger evidence base?

Independent advice / careers professionals. This implies provision will be from a central pool of careers advisers, unaffiliated with any individual school or college.  Will they be employed by a local or a national organisation and will the cost of this organisation be covered by the £50m?  In which case will schools or colleges have any choice in selecting the type of service they buy-in, choosing not to access a particular service if they are unsatisfied with the quality? Or will the careers professionals be self-employed or employed by private/third-sector organisations, with schools able to buy-in these services from the open market?  How will quality of provision be guaranteed, and will schools be supported to be ‘informed buyers’.

Funded and supported through a partnership. Where will the £50m go – to cover administration or training or other central functions, or to employ the careers advisors themselves?  Will schools see any of this money directly and if so will it be ring-fenced?  Who will drive partnership development, what will the incentive be for different parties to engage, and what will ensure these partnerships share a clarity of purpose? And is this all in addition to, or instead of the fledgling careers company and  the section of the National Careers Service  for young people (at central and at local provider level)?

Accountable. What form will accountability take?  Will it be through mandating an annual careers plan to be published on the school website much like pupil premium action plans? Or through Ofsted, perhaps in its new lean, peer-review format proposed by Labour? Or will it be through destination measures, focusing accountability on young people reaching and sustaining post-school/college destinations?

Many of these questions will apply equally to any set of proposals intended to improve the quality and consistency of careers guidance.  Whoever finds themselves in power next month will need to begin the real work of translating lofty campaign poetry into weighty policy prose.