The careers strategy: An opportunity missed

Written by: Jon Richards | Published:
Jon Richards, national secretary for education, UNISON

The problems of fragmented and patchy careers guidance provision will not be solved by underfunded, piecemeal initiatives, argues Jon Richards

Many years ago when a previous government was reviewing careers services, I was at a TUC meeting with a former senior minister who was consulting on a draft report.

The document included the phrase “no-one has a good word to say about the Connexions service”. I complained about this line and gave a lengthy defence of Connexions and its vital role in supplying independent and impartial careers advice and guidance (IAG).

Acknowledging that the service had its problems, nonetheless it would be sorely missed if it went, I warned.

My intervention had a huge impact. The final report included the phrase “hardly anyone has a good word to say about Connexions”.

The coalition government used the report as further evidence to close the service and transfer responsibility for providing IAG to schools, but without any accompanying cash.

The £200 million Connexions budget was trousered by the Treasury as part of austerity savings and many skilled and qualified careers professionals were made redundant and their knowledge lost.

Without a clear steer on their role and with no budget, it is hardly surprising that many schools struggled to fulfil their new duties, such as commissioning new unknown advisors (who began popping up to fill the void in the post-Connexions fragmented world).

Seemingly startled by the mess created and always happy to apply sticking plasters to major wounds, the government blundered from one half-cocked underfunded national initiative to another to try and sort out the mess.

The National Careers Service could have been a strong central co-ordinating organisation that oversaw a consistent and coherent country-wide service, but was limited in its scope, too web-based and has struggled to assert itself.

A later wheeze was the Careers and Enterprise Company, another example of “business knows best” which was set up to put young people in touch with employers. It even got a reasonable chunk of funding, but is just another organisation competing for schools’ attention in a confusing and overlapping field.

Responding to continued criticism and evidence of continued weaknesses, the government reached for their “book of desperate measures” and announced a new careers strategy.

And after several re-announcements, the long awaited strategy appeared in January along with updated statutory guidance for schools.

After 18 months worth of consideration here was the chance to streamline the system, drive-up quality and provide some additional funding to allow schools to do the job they were being asked to do.

How disappointing then that the careers strategy seems to be a further series of additional short-term, inadequately funded initiatives that will do little to seriously sort out the mess that IAG is in

There are some good bits – recommending the Gatsby benchmarks is helpful (though not new and not compulsory), trialling careers activities in schools could be good if it is done in the right way, and aiming for all schools to have dedicated “careers leaders” (which evidence suggests has a positive impact) could raise the importance of careers.

But – who is going to fund the new careers leaders? Only £4 million has been announced and that is just for training. Will this mean someone gets it added to their responsibility at a time when we are supposed to be cutting workloads and schools are struggling with staffing?

The Department for Education (DfE) says that the leaders will be supported by new careers hubs, but these hubs will only be in areas of the country most in need and they will have to share £5 million between them – how far will that go around?

Once more the plans appear to add on extra initiatives without linking up existing projects or building a national careers service that could provide independent and impartial face-to-face guidance by qualified professionals.

You can have as many shiny initiatives as you like, but as with teaching, the quality of careers advice and the outcomes for pupils depends on the quality of the professional giving the advice. That is where the priority should be.

  • Jon Richards is national secretary for education, UNISON.

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