Careers education: A little less spin, please

Written by: Jon Richards | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The self-satisfied spin emanating from the government’s £19 million-a-year Careers and Enterprise Company is doing nothing to help its credibility or win support, says Jon Richards

Some people are good at blowing their own trumpet. Modesty of that sort is not for the likes of the Careers and Enterprise Company (CEC) who go for the full euphonium.

In the press release accompanying its recent “State of the Nation” report (not just a mere annual report for the CEC), the chief executive states: “After decades of underperformance, careers education is now improving – fast. In under five years we’ve moved from something patchy and often low-quality to a system recognised as world-class, operating at national scale.” (CEC, September 2019)

This nicely steps around the criticisms from many in the education world – including the House of Commons Education Select Committee (May 2018) – that the CEC itself has been seriously underperforming, except in the area of high executive pay where they compete very nicely (the Education Select Committee hearing cited an example of a chief marketing officer for £100,000).

The CEC was established by the government as an independent social enterprise in 2015 with the aim of supporting schools and colleges in improving their careers guidance for those aged 12 to 18. It has an annual Department for Education (DfE) budget of around £19 million.

The CEC’s press release went on: “Business is at the heart of this new approach, creating real-life experiences and opportunities for young people, connecting them to the modern labour market and helping them imagine and plan for their futures.”

Unsurprisingly with such a focus the CEC got some lovely free puffery from the FT (2019) and the Sunday Times (2019). Job done.

The CEC says that “State of the Nation” is based on “research”. Now unlike Michael Gove, I quite like the views of experts backed up by research. I have even done a turn at the increasingly important ResearchEd national conference.

So when the CEC says that the hyperbole is backed up by research, we should all rejoice.

However...

You would expect an august government-funded body such as the CEC to base its triumphant exclamations on “research” that is irreproachable.

Indeed, at the start of the report it says that it is based on data from “3,826 state-funded schools and colleges, representing three-quarters of such institutions across England”. A good turn out.

But in chapter 2, it says that it is primarily based on 3,351 schools that completed Compass (the name of the CEC’s self-assessment tool) in 2018/19.

More importantly only 2,800 schools have “completed Compass twice” – so the improvement data only represents around half of institutions rather than three-quarters.

Of course that is still a very decent sample and in any kind of research you would be happy to attract such a sample size. Indeed, I admit to flogging surveys based on lower numbers than this in my time, lured by the chance for a headline in a national newspaper (in my defence, it is bloody hard getting any coverage for education support staff).

However, my real beef with the CEC’s report is that this is not an independent study. It is a self-selected assessment form completed by respondents who deliver the services themselves – and they are responding to a careers organisation desperate to prove its worth.

The assessment uses the Gatsby Foundation careers guidance benchmarks (see further information), which have been widely adopted in the sector and which feature in the government’s statutory careers guidance for schools (DfE, 2015). These are accepted by most of us in the careers game as being a very useful tool.

However self-assessing yourself against these benchmarks for Compass is nothing more than a judgement call.
Of course most careers professionals in schools will, I hope, do the right thing and try to report accurately and impartially.

However, commenting on your own work is often open to indirect bias and, sadly based on evidence from elsewhere in the system, we cannot discount people deliberately inflating their outcomes.

As far as I am aware no attempt has been made to do any data quality checking to see if the Compass self-assessment forms are correct and accurate. So the bold statistics – and the extent to which the CEC boasts about them – are open to question.

This is in the context of an organisation that, between 2015 and 2018, has spent around £900,000 on just nine research reports (Education Select Committee, May 2018).

Of course, you can see why they have made such a fanfare. The CEC has had a few severe kickings over issues of underperformance, including about the lack of concrete evidence proving its effectiveness. So they need to justify their high annual DfE budget and excessive executive wage bill.

I am afraid our careers advisors do not recognise the CEC’s claim that things are improving fast, nor their claim that we now have a world class system.

They tell me that the previous patchy system has been replaced by a different patchy system – especially when they compare the reality they face to the effective careers system in Scotland.

With a bit of modesty, the CEC could rightly have said that their self-assessment survey, with all its flaws, indicates that schools-based careers services look like they are improving and pupils are getting better access to information advice and guidance.

They could also have said that after their own initial problems the CEC is contributing to the improvements. We would have been happy to acknowledge and welcome their role.

As it is self-satisfied, PR spin does nothing to help their credibility.

  • Jon Richards is national secretary at UNISON.

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