Our patchy careers education system lets too many children down – there’s a better way

The careers support provided to young people and adults is far from perfect, argue Aveek Bhattachrya and Niamh O Regan. But a new Education Select Committee report, drawing on the Social Market Foundation's research, shows there is growing consensus on the way forward.

If you speak to enough different people about careers guidance, you start to notice something funny. Those above a certain age are more likely to be cynical and dismissive of the exercise, seeing it as unhelpful or unresponsive to their needs. But younger people who have been through the education system in the last four or five years tend to be much more positive. Far from seeing careers guidance as a waste of time, the main complaint of students today is that they don’t get enough of it.

A report from the Education Select Committee, published yesterday, concludes that when it comes to careers provision in schools, “the right framework is broadly in place, but there is a lack of overarching strategy with stated outcomes”. We agree with that diagnosis, and most of what is in the report – perhaps unsurprisingly, given that it draws substantially on research we have done at the Social Market Foundation.

Having been largely neglected in the early years of the Coalition government, careers information, advice and guidance has come on leaps and bounds since the 2017 Careers Strategy. Schools are now required to have a named careers leader, to see how they measure up to good practice as distilled in the Gatsby benchmarks and the majority of them participate in mutually supportive careers hubs that connect them to employers and labour market information.

Yet there is still much to do. The quality and quantity of careers support students get varies significantly from school to school, place to place. Unsurprisingly, it is students from disadvantaged backgrounds that tend to get the worst deal. There is a general tendency to promote academic options over vocational education and training, though the opposite is true in less affluent areas – embedding social inequalities.

Work experience presents particular challenges. We estimate at best half of school students have access to work experience, of varying quality. The Labour Party has pledged to ensure all do, but unless it can get more employers to sign up there is a risk of perfunctory and low quality placements. The shift to remote working has great potential to broaden young people’s horizons and options, but more groundwork is needed to grasp the opportunity.

The Education Committee report recognises both the progress that has been made, and how much further we have to go. Its recommendations overlap substantially with ours. The committee calls for Ofsted to put more emphasis on careers support when it inspects schools. We have suggested that careers information, advice and guidance could be added to the four ‘key judgements’ Ofsted make, with an explicit rating on the front cover of the report for each school.

The committee also identifies a lack of good online resources. At present, this is the responsibility of the National Careers Service. Yet the NCS is not well known among young people, and primarily caters to adults. While beyond the remit of yesterday’s report, we have also suggested that adult careers support should be reviewed. Few adults we spoke to were aware of careers support for adults and negative perceptions of career guidance means many adults are reluctant to seek support, even when they are informed of it.

The committee shares our concern that rolling out universal work experience too quickly risks creating a “tick box exercise”. It takes up our suggestion that the Department for Education should develop a toolkit of what represents meaningful work experience so that appropriate standards can be set for schools. It also echoes our call for a national platform of remote work experience placements so as to spread opportunities more widely across the country.

For all the improvements of recent years, the careers system as it currently operates lets too many young people down. The good news is that there is a growing consensus on what is required to ensure less potential is wasted. Now over to the Government (or opposition) to make it happen.


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