No-one likes to say “I told you so”, but the careers guidance situation in schools is particularly infuriating because everyone – except it seems government ministers – could see it coming.
Where to begin with this farce? Let’s be clear: Ofsted’s report this week into careers guidance provision – Going in the Right Direction? – is damning (see our coverage of the Ofsted careers report here). Many schools are failing to deliver effective, independent and impartial advice to pupils in years 8 to 11, as they are required to do by law.
There is no shirking from this fact, but this is by no means the whole story. Schools have been left up the proverbial creek by the government cuts which led to the closure of the excellent Connexions services around the country. Furthermore, ministers didn’t see fit to pass on any of the estimated £200 million in funding that services cost when they forced schools to take on the careers guidance duty in September 2012.
We can add to this the confusion over the government’s interpretation of what “independent and impartial” actually means in practice. Its guidance issued to schools in 2012 was not good enough, Ofsted has concluded.
And for good measure we can mention the new National Careers Service (NCS), which is too adult focused to be of use to teachers and which most parents and students have never heard of. The NCS offers face-to-face services, but only to adults.
So yes, schools are failing in their duty to provide good careers guidance, but it is hardly their fault.
Ofsted has called on all parties to do better. Better, more explicit guidance from government, better promotion and outreach from the NCS, more coherent strategies in schools, and it has even said its own inspectors need to pay closer attention to careers provision.
All of the above needs to happen and it is heartening to see a quick response from government this week with its pledge to revise its guidance and improve the NCS, but there are wider problems that need to be dealt with as well.
It is all well and good for ministers to “give schools freedom”, as they consistently tell us they are doing. But when school accountability measures are so prescriptive and narrow, and when schools and school leaders face such severe punishments for failing to meet league table targets, can we be surprised that they focus on exam results above all else?
Furthermore, accountability combined with ministerial rhetoric has also had a clear impact. Inspectors found that schools are still promoting academic routes above vocational options. How can we attack school for this when this is how they are measured and this is all they hear from ministers?
And other policies have had a negative impact too. The removal of the work experience requirement for key stage 4 has led to a reduction in employment experiences for students. Again, not surprising in the current accountability climate as I imagine many schools scrapped work experience in order to focus on examination preparation.
All this is disturbing, not least because I believe that effective careers guidance is one of the most crucial responsibilities that schools have – it ranks alongside quality teaching, exam preparation and pastoral care in terms of its importance. How are we supposed to set our students up for their working lives if we do not give them an idea of what opportunities are out there and what they need to achieve in order to access them, and also give them the experiences and skills that will make them employable and improve their CVs? Today’s workplace is huge, varied and complicated. Qualifications are no long enough and effective, up-to-date careers guidance is crucial to setting young people off on the right foot.
So yes, schools must do better, but so must the government. We have dumped schools in at the deep end and they are sinking fast. And sadly, the longer the careers catastrophe continues, the more damage we are doing to our young people’s career prospects and the future economic success of our nation.