After four years of neglect and disarray the government is at last looking again at careers advice, guidance and education.
If it is serious about social mobility it ought to be: one look at the careers service in an independent school will convince you that this is something they take very seriously and which heavily benefits their alumni. State school pupils cannot compete on their qualifications alone – they need contacts, networks and, above all, knowledge about how things operate in the world of work.
This could not have been met by cutting central support, imposing a duty on schools and leaving them to get on with it in isolation. I don’t buy the line that teachers don’t understand “real work” – that’s an out-dated stereotype and many enter teaching from different professions.
But, with the best will in the world, it is hard to stay up-to-date with labour market trends, time-consuming to build contacts with employers, challenging to tell good services from bad, and difficult to be impartial (after all, if you don’t think your 6th form is the best provision in the area then there’s something wrong). Support is needed.
The danger in bathing in the renewed glow of government affection is moving from one extreme to another. We certainly don’t need government to tread on the local initiatives and networks that have sprung up to try and fill the gap.
Here’s what government could do. First, benchmark or quality-assure various providers to help schools cut through to the really high quality initiatives. Second, provide good information on what is out there and connect together different initiatives so they complement rather than compete. Third, collect, analyse and disseminate good data and information on labour market trends: demand and supply, entry requirements and average earnings for various jobs and careers.
Behind all this, proper funding is essential, both for these national activities and for the in-school provision which will always provide the bulk of the offer. The Gatsby Foundation recently estimated, for example, that it would cost the average school around £50,000 a year to provide world class careers advice and guidance. That’s a serious commitment at a time of stretched budgets.
A lot of people also argue in favour of destinations data as a key form of accountability. This sounds sensible in principle but we should not underestimate the ability of government to distort behaviour through crude measures. To what extent will this data account for local variations or national trends in employment opportunities? Or will we seek to hold schools accountable for the economy along with everything else?
With the right framework in place, we can expect a lot from schools. If education is about preparing young people to make the most of adult life (it is also about the intrinsic value of learning but preparation must be part of the task), then helping them understand what work involves, what opportunities exist and how to make the most of them is surely important.
And work on raising aspirations can have an immediate payback in terms of academic standards. One lesson we have learned from our work in careers education, alongside organisations like the Education and Employers Task Force, is the importance of starting young on this job. This is not just a post-14 priority, it is not even entirely a secondary priority but should begin at key stage 2 onwards. Too many decisions have been made, too many avenues closed off, by the traditional ages for careers advice.
Let’s hope the new funding and support is not a pre-election gimmick but a long-term commitment to high-quality careers advice and guidance for every pupil.
Russell Hobby is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. Visit www.naht.org.uk