Has careers guidance gone off the rails?

At the 2012 Latitude Festival comedian Shappi Khorsandi suggested that, rather than book a clown for their daughter’s birthday party, parents should hire a careers adviser. If the findings of the Ofsted report into careers guidance are anything to go by, this might be parents’ best option. The much-anticipated report by the schools inspector body presents damning evidence of the poor support provided by schools to young people at crucial cross-roads in decision-making. Schools have been responsible for delivering careers guidance since September 2012 but only 12 of the 60 schools visited for the report were doing a good job to ensure that pupils were able to make informed choices about future careers. Ofsted states that

‘the DfE’s guidance does not prescribe clearly enough the way that schools should provide students with independent and impartial guidance’.

The report follows recent research by the charity Barnardos, which found that the web-based National Careers Service set up following the dismantling of the much criticised Connexions service, is remote, under-used and no substitute for face to face guidance. Ofsted found schools did little to promote the youth telephone service and that teachers and students found the website to be too focused on the careers information needs of adults.

But how important is careers education and guidance for young people and who loses out most if schools don’t deliver? Research carried out by NIESR with the International Centre for Guidance Studies (iCeGS) for the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2011 reviewed the evidence on the equality impact of Careers Education, Information, Advice and Guidance policy and practice. This work was the first of its kind, looking across all equality strands and using evidence from data, literature and new case studies on how young people fare when it comes to decision-making about their futures.

Who are the casualties of inadequate careers guidance?

Our research found that while levels of attainment are improving for all young people, inequalities continue. Young people with parents in professional occupations have much higher aspirations in relation to future study and careers than those whose parents are in routine occupations. Of particular concern are that aspirations of some young people decline as they get older: those with disabilities or special educational needs become more despondent about their future opportunities and feel that they are not receiving the support they need to help with transitions from education to employment and adult life. The poor service provided by schools to young people with special needs or disabilities is highlighted in Ofsted’s report which concludes:

‘Very few of the vulnerable young people interviewed were clear about how different pathways could help them to achieve their potential’

Young people’s choices of subjects and career paths are highly gendered: Girls now out-perform boys in the level to which they study, but what they study continues to place women at a disadvantage in the labour market. The persistent under-representation of female participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects, deprives women of many high skilled and well-paid job opportunities. Stereotypical thinking is much more apparent in vocational choices.  Apprentices in popular choices, like construction, plumbing, are more than 90 per cent male, with health and social care and hairdressing more than 90 per cent female. Just as striking is the predominance of young white people in apprenticeships, with these routes rarely taken by young people from minority ethnic backgrounds. Ofsted found that the information students received about careers was narrow, stating that

Too many students were unaware of the wide range of occupations and careers that they might consider’.

And the Barnardos report found examples of gender-stereotyping in the guidance which young people received.

Influences on young people’s choices

Young people are influenced by a range of factors, from family, friends and the media.  Family are the biggest influence and that can be a positive driver for some young people, but for others it can be inadvertently negative as parents may reinforce stereotypical choices, discourage achievement, have traditional perspectives on suitable careers and work, or simply lack information about learning pathways and careers.

The Connexions service was dismantled in 2011, in favour of direct delivery by schools. Where Connexions services were available to young people most reported that the support they received was at least quite useful. But the problem with Connexions was that the support provided was variable: not all schools chose to take up the full offer from their local Connexions service. Consequently not all young people had had access to a careers adviser and did not receive the one-to-one guidance which is so important for decision-making. But rather than improve the resourcing of Connexions and firm up the requirements on schools, the decision was made to end it and leave schools responsible, but with no additional resources.

Ofsted’s findings should not be a surprise to anyone. For many years, schools careers work has been covered by a confusing array of statutory requirements and non-statutory guidance which schools have found difficult to interpret. They have been subject to only very light touch inspection from Ofsted (you are lucky to find a sentence in any full report), and consequently their application from one school to the next has reflected the culture and ethos of the school rather than the career learning needs of their pupils. 

What needs to be done?

So what can be done to improve careers education and guidance for young people? Ofsted has a range of recommendations which involve firming up requirements on schools. Our report suggested 7 main steps to ensure that careers education and guidance works better to meet the needs of all young people, including those who face disadvantage in the labour market:

1. An earlier start to raising aspirations. In Scotland career-related learning begins in primary schools. We recommended this should be expanded UK-wide. Not about getting young people to choose a career but improving knowledge and understanding of world of work and to get them to aim high.

2. Clearer requirements on schools in relation to what should be delivering and to ensure that equality aims are included in careers related learning. We know that careers education and guidance is patchy and that many young people are being short-changed because their schools don't take careers education seriously.

3. Monitoring and inspection to back this up. We need effective monitoring data to show which young people are getting careers support to inform inspection.  Ofsted inspections tread very lightly in this area - yet what could be more important than how well a school is preparing its students for their future?

4. Clear requirements on careers advisers to tackle stereotyping and encourage young people to consider the widest range of options.

5. Parents and employers have a stake in improving careers guidance to young people and both should be more involved in schools' programmes around work-related learning and in the work of careers services. Employers need to be encouraged to offer work placements and to go into schools - for employers it's a wise investment. We know that employers have skills shortages, including in areas like engineering, and have to recruit from outside the UK. They complain that young people are poorly prepared for work - so we say they should get involved - tell young people about opportunities in their industries and give them something to aspire to that they perhaps would never have thought of.

6. We need to target young people in most need of help. Some young people lose out in a major way – particularly disabled people, Gypsy Roma and Travellers and teenage mothers. They need additional guidance and support.

7. Finally, Ofsted identified good practice in some of the schools it visited. This is good news but examples of where schools are enabling pupils to make choices free of traditional expectations are too few. In research we did for EOC in the late 1990s careers services and schools were doing more to tackle stereotypes than when we looked again, 10 years later. So our final recommendation is not just to keep equality in careers work ticking over or done by a small group of enthusiasts but to spread and escalate activity and make equality actions second nature to all those involved in careers work with young people.

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