Is there a light at the end of the dark tunnel that careers advice services for England’s young people has become?
Education secretary Nicky Morgan has at least been more positive than her predecessor and certainly seems more willing to accept that there is a problem.
One cannot argue against her plans, unveiled last month, for a £5 million investment fund to be operated by a new careers and enterprise company. This is to support schools and colleges, increase employer input, and to “stimulate” school-business partnerships (for more, see http://bit.ly/1BL1tex).
Appearing before the Education Select Committee last week, Ms Morgan said, however, that she would not mandate schools to provide professional careers advisors and that it was for individual institutions to commission the services they need – continuing to perpetuate the government’s long-standing myth that it is giving all the powers back to schools.
The truth is that most schools, given the choice, would hire a qualified careers professional to deliver these crucial services. The problem is most schools simply do not have the money.
And this is the nub of the problem – funding. We now have a postcode lottery because while the government “mandated” schools to deliver careers guidance services to pupils from year 7 upwards, it didn’t pass on any of the around £200 million a year in funding that it cut from the Connexions service.
Teachers are certainly not ignorant of the world of work. As Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says in his SecEd column this week (see page 14), the stereotype of teachers “not understanding” the workplace is “out-dated”.
However, notwithstanding this, the fact remains that careers guidance is a complex task that requires to be delivered by professionals. One could be forgiven for thinking that most of the cabinet probably has no idea of just how crucial careers guidance is for those students not born into privilege. Perhaps this is why they seem to think that teachers can deliver these services – you know, in the five minutes at the end of a lesson, or perhaps at break time.
No. It is evident that every pupil must have access to independent careers guidance professionals. Services delivered by support staff or teachers who have been lumbered with “doing careers guidance” will not be of sufficient enough quality and will be inherently biased.
Employer-engagement is vital too, but again we cannot simply stick students in front of a handful of local employers and call this impartial, unbiased careers advice.
So until the government addresses the funding issue, we will not really solve the fundamental problem. And addressing it will require proper investment. The Gatsby Foundation’s report last year revealed that every school will need around £50,000 a year to deliver effective careers services. So while I welcome Ms Morgan’s investment fund, it’s not enough to fix the problems we have.
Since 2010,we have had all and sundry tell us just how patchy and poor careers advice has become, as schools struggled to find the resources to do the job properly. This includes damning reports from Ofsted, the Education Select Committee, the National Careers Council and the Gatsby Foundation, as just mentioned. The government’s National Careers Service was meant to go some way to replacing the Connexions centres, but offering as it does a basic phone line and website is nowhere near enough.
I have made some of these points in this column before but I don’t apologise for making them again; this is really, really important. In fact, it’s actually crazy when you really think about the current situation:
We have a government that constantly talks of how our economy must grow in order to shake off the recession; of how rising employment is key to the “long-term economic plan”.
We have a workplace that has become incredibly challenging and complex, with the “job for life” ending years ago. The skills, aptitudes, qualifications and experiences that young people need just to enter today’s workplace are immense.
We have ministers throwing money into areas such as computing and programming, the sciences, mathematics, engineering and others, where the careers of the future are considered to be, in a bid to get students to consider the possibilities that these subjects offer.
But at the same time we have a government that has single-handedly devastated the successful Connexions centres, probably costing many schools hundreds of thousands of pounds in the process, while also robbing many students of access to effective careers guidance and endangering their futures. So while Ms Morgan’s investment and the new focus on careers is welcome, let’s hope that this is one area that is earmarked for more funding and support during the next Parliament.