The revised careers strategy: is it enough to ‘address the issue of variable quality’?

By Tami McCrone

Thursday 14 December 2017

It is encouraging for the next generation of young people that the revised careers strategy has been published, after a considerable wait. 

It includes some good ideas such as the expectation that every school and college should have a named ‘careers leader’ to lead the careers programme from September 2018. The strategy rightly highlights that careers guidance ‘involves a set of complex activities across the whole school, as well as working with external stakeholders’. It continues by pointing out that the role ‘requires a person with leadership skills, administrative ability, and specialist knowledge of careers’ and that the Government will provide £4 million to develop training programmes and support for at least 500 schools and colleges ‘in areas of the country needing most support’. It is unlikely that any school or college would dispute that this is a good idea, but it is unclear how the remaining schools and colleges are going to fund this role.

The introduction of careers hubs by September 2018 is another good idea but an additional responsibility for a school, along with liaising with mental health groups, research and teaching schools etc. Furthermore, the expectation that schools and colleges have to publish details of their careers programmes for young people and parents by September 2018 will add to the demands on schools, but importantly will also contribute to informed decision-making and as such is welcome.

The Gatsby Benchmarks are widely accepted as the underpinning principles of effective careers provision and, as part of the new careers strategy, new statutory guidance on implementing them is promised for January 2018. It is true that some schools are already embracing the values and ways of working articulated in the Benchmarks. NFER recently published a report: London Ambitions Research: Shaping a Successful Careers Offer for all Young Londoners, alongside a useful practitioner guide, in partnership with London Councils. The London Ambitions careers offer was published in July 2015 to support London schools in their careers provision, following the government’s transfer of the duty to schools to provide impartial careers advice and guidance in 2012. The NFER report highlights examples of promising practices that map onto the seven key elements of London Ambitions’ careers offer (and the Benchmarks) for young people. For example, it outlines how one primary school runs a family careers day to raise awareness of the diversity of opportunities at a young age.

The most notable recent change highlighted in the careers strategy is that from January 2018 all schools must give providers of technical education and apprenticeships the opportunity to talk to young people. This is indeed good news. This means that apprenticeship providers and other providers such as University Technical Colleges (UTCs) will be able to inform young people about alternative pathways. NFER’s Evaluation of UTCs: Year one report, published this week, provides some excellent examples of how profound employer engagement can inspire young people with an interest in a technical sector such as engineering.

A difficulty, however, for the revised careers strategy achieving its goals is the fact that whilst it outlines additional responsibilities for schools, it does NOT address the issue of variable quality or the issue of how the majority of schools and colleges will be able to fund quality careers provision. Many schools, currently feeling overwhelmed, will find it hard to give careers provision the attention it needs in order to ensure all young people can make fully informed decisions about the technical and/or academic routes to their chosen career.

The new strategy also proposes a new role for Ofsted and although Ofsted must comment on careers provision in college inspection reports from January 2018 (they already consider careers-related provision in schools) we will have to wait until September 2019 for the revised Common Inspection Framework to see the extent to which coverage of careers provision will be included.

I agree with Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), who believes that the success of the careers strategy will depend on how well schools respond to what they are being encouraged to do. He said: “Longer term, there may need to be an adjustment to the Ofsted inspection framework so that all schools are assessed for the quality of the careers guidance they provide as part of their overall rating if not enough progress is made voluntarily”.

The revised strategy claims that it will ‘address the issue of variable quality’ (p 6) in careers provision and some of the measures outlined above have the potential to contribute to reducing that variability. However, until schools are provided with sufficient funding to implement these good ideas and careers provision is fully integrated with the accountability regime then variable quality will persist. Additionally, we are in a waiting game. We will have to wait for the new statutory guidance on meeting the standards in the Gatsby Benchmarks, due in January 2018. We will have to wait for the new Ofsted Common Inspection Framework, due to take effect from September 2019. And we will have to wait a bit longer for systematically evaluated and consistently applied high quality careers provision, across all schools. Until then some young people, particularly those neither ‘advantaged’ nor ‘disadvantaged’, are at risk of continuing to receive inadequate careers provision and another opportunity to improve social mobility will be missed.