It is been heartening in recent months to have seen such a focus in public debate on how we can achieve a parity of esteem between vocational and academic education.
Most recently, it was the CBI, normally an organisation I struggle to agree with, which championed the creation of vocational A levels and a more rounded education.
While the focus of the current administration is still firmly fixed on the academic above everything else, the public debate has been fiercely and strongly in support of a rounded education which balances academia, skills and creativity – and which champions all pathways to the workplace.
This is why it was very concerning to see evidence this week that careers advice has been reduced in more than eight out of 10 secondary schools. A study by Careers England of professional careers advisors in 1,500 schools found “dramatic reductions” in the amount of guidance on offer between 2011/12 and this year – in fact, 83.5 per cent had reduced provision. If one extrapolates that across all of England’s 4,000 schools, it comes to 3,300 institutions.
This is disturbing because effective careers guidance has never been more important. Students today are trying to find their way into a huge and varied workplace that is constantly changing and evolving. The range of qualifications they need is becoming more and more varied. Higher education may be essential, or it could be that vocational or applied learning is key. The experience and practical application of skills and knowledge is also crucial to getting a foot in the door.
Schools, of course, were dumped in the deep end in September when they were given the statutory duty to deliver “independent and impartial”, face-to-face careers guidance for students in years 9 to 11. Before this, local authorities provided careers services, mainly through the Connexions offices. It is thought these face-to-face services cost as much as £200 million a year. However, this money has not been given to schools, meaning they have been left in the lurch, trying desperately to maintain levels of guidance but with no additional funding. So, really, I am not surprised that provision has reduced.
But there is more to it. Funding aside, schools have been caused much difficulty because of the vague nature of the new duty’s wording and the differing interpretation of “independent and impartial” aspect. The government, rather than offer useful advice, hides behind its rhetoric of freeing schools to decide how to deliver careers guidance to suit their students. While schools may know what their students need, the duty is so vague that it is confusing to know whether one is meeting it or not.
I fear the government knew exactly what it was doing in transferring this duty to schools. The saving to the public purse was massive, but we are now left in a situation where even if a school understands how to meet the duty, it probably doesn’t have the money to truly provide an effective and all-round careers guidance offer.
Steve Stewart, chairman of the Careers England Board, said this week: “The survey shows that the ill-defined statutory duty, coupled with minimalist statutory guidance must to be strengthened. Schools have been let down by the Department for Education (DfE), poorly prepared for the transition to their new role. And to expect more and better careers guidance for students, when schools have not a penny more for the new duty, is not delegation of the duty to schools it is abdication by the DfE.”
Hear, Hear. The study’s findings are all the more pointed exactly because of the rhetoric from government that only academic and university routes through education matter.
In a climate when our ministers are ignoring the importance and role of vocational and practical education and talking only about academic pathways, independent careers advice has never been more important in ensuring that all students have the information they need to make the right choices for themselves and their passions.