Factors influencing careers advice and work experience

Written by: Professor Louise Archer & Emily MacLeod | Published:
Image: iStock

Research into young people’s aspirations and the careers information they receive has unearthed worrying findings about the factors that influence whether pupils get effective careers advice and work experience. Professor Louise Archer and Emily MacLeod explain

The issue of careers education and work placements is both topical and contested. Until now, much of this debate has focused on how much careers guidance students should receive, when they might benefit from it most, and how it can best be administered.

But a new report from the ASPIRES 2 education research project at King’s College London has found that careers education provision in England is not just patchy, but is patterned by social inequalities in terms of who receives careers education, advice and guidance.

Evidence from our surveys of more than 13,000 year 11 students shows that the likelihood of a young person receiving careers education or participating in work experience depends greatly on their gender and background.

In light of these findings, we call for attention to be focused on careers education participation, not just provision, and for more targeted efforts to be aimed at broadening access to careers education opportunities.


ASPIRES 2 is the second phase of a 10-year education research project based at King’s College London and is funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The team, led by Professor Louise Archer, is investigating the science and career aspirations of young people aged 10 to 18 through nationwide online surveys as well as in-depth interviews with selected students and their parents.

The first phase of the project ran from 2009 to 2014, and tracked students from year 6 to 9 to study if, and how, children’s interest in science affected their future aspirations. We found that although most young people enjoy learning science, only a small percentage (15 per cent) aspire to be a scientist.

How likely a student is to aspire to work in a science-related field is highly influenced by what we termed a student’s “science capital” – that is, their science-related attitudes, resources, activities and social contacts, such as whether a young person has a family member who works in science, how often they discuss science at home, do science activities in their spare time, and so on (more information about science capital can be found on the project website).

ASPIRES 2, the second phase of our project, is continuing to track the cohort of students from year 9 to 13 in order to understand how family and friends, school, careers education and social identities influence young people’s interests in science and their future career aspirations.

In our recent survey of 13,421 year 11 students, 58 per cent agreed that they learn interesting things in science but still only 14 per cent aspire to a career in science.
We found that many young people do not realise that science qualifications and skills are highly transferable (useful for many jobs), and struggle to identify jobs beyond “scientist” and “doctor” when asked to name jobs that science can lead to.

Here follows some of our other key findings.

Careers education

Data collected from our survey suggest that:

  • Gender influences access to careers guidance. Boys were 1.27 times more likely than girls to report receiving careers education.
  • White students are significantly more likely to report receiving careers education than their peers. Students from Black and Chinese backgrounds were least likely to report receiving careers education.
  • Students from higher socio-economic backgrounds were nearly 1.5 times more likely to receive careers education than those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
  • Students in the lowest sets are least likely to report receiving careers advice.
  • Students planning on leaving full-time education at 16 are significantly less likely to receive careers education than those planning on studying for A levels.
  • Students aspiring to medicine, science and engineering were some of the most likely to report receiving careers education.

In total, less than two-thirds of the students in our study said that they had received some kind of careers guidance. When students did attend careers guidance sessions they were often clouded by a belief that the advice was not impartial, with some students feeling that they had received biased guidance and had been discouraged from applying for routes outside of a school’s own sixth form provision.

Many of the year 11 students also felt that accessibility to careers education could be improved. This was especially true in cases where careers education provision was optional: “People are afraid to just kind of pop in,” said one year 11 boy.

Students also felt that careers education was offered “too little, too late”, with many asking for longer term guidance, starting earlier in their school careers. One year 11 girl told us: “I think you should have it over time, instead of just one meeting.”

Work experience

As with careers education, we found that the likelihood of a student completing work experience is greatly influenced by their background:

  • White students were disproportionately more likely to report having completed work experience compared to minority ethnic students.
  • Students surveyed in the North East, North West and Yorkshire were least likely to have participated in work experience.
  • In contrast to careers education, students aspiring to medicine, science and engineering were among the least likely to have completed work experience. Most likely to have completed work experience were those aspiring to become teachers, tradespeople or work in business.
  • Students planning on taking A levels were significantly less likely to report having completed work experience compared to those planning on entering work or Apprenticeships after GCSEs.

Less than half of the students surveyed had undertaken work experience. Those who had completed work placements valued the experience gained, with some saying that it had influenced their post-16 plans.

However, most students who had undertaken a work placement reported that it had been organised through family and friends. This means that those from disadvantaged backgrounds may be less likely to access a range of quality placements.

What causes these patterns?

Our findings indicate that girls, minority ethnic students and those from poorer backgrounds are most likely to miss out on careers education and work experience.
There may be many reasons for this, for instance they may not feel that the provision on offer is meeting their needs. Students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds are also more likely to attend schools that are less well resourced.

Our qualitative data also suggests that some girls and students from working class backgrounds may be less likely to make use of optional careers sessions.

As one year 11 working class girl put it: “I think a lot of people in our year ... were leaving it (careers education) because they’re not being pushed to do it.”

These inequalities are further amplified for work experience. Many of the students who had undertaken work experience spoke of how it had been organised through family and friends. But, by their nature, students from the most socially disadvantaged backgrounds may be unable to draw upon this kind of support.

Advice for schools

What does this mean for teachers and school leaders? As our research shows that a student’s participation in careers education is greatly affected by their gender, social class and ethnicity we feel that more might usefully be done to address these inequalities. For instance:

  • Careers education opportunities should be provided to all students, rather than on an opt-in basis. Our findings indicate that opt-in/opt-out careers events are most likely to be taken up by the most advantaged students. Careers events that are optional should be widely publicised and efforts made to target encouragement at those who might not otherwise put themselves forward.
  • Efforts should be made to monitor participation in careers education, advice and guidance by gender, ethnicity, social class and those in lower sets.
  • Careers education should be personalised and unbiased. Many of the students interviewed who had received careers advice felt that their experience could have been improved by inclusion of advice tailored to them, as opposed to whole-year events. “Some of them they just gave you a leaflet then you like took a pen and left, so pretty bad,” said one year 11 boy. Many also felt that some schools were only interested in promoting particular routes (e.g. sixth form).
  • We believe that long-term careers education from an early age could also be highly beneficial. Most students and parents considered current provision to be “too little, too late”.
  • Professor Louise Archer leads the ASPIRES 2 research team at King’s College London. Emily MacLeod is a research administrator for the ASPIRES 2 project.

Further information


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