Good career guidance is the key to social mobility. But what does it look like?

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18 November 2014 by ATL
Career guidance is the key to social mobility.  Well-off homes can tell their children about all the great opportunities open to them if they have the right qualifications.  But if no-one in your family has ever had a skilled job, how are you to know about these opportunities if the school doesn’t tell you?

Career guidance in English schools gets a bad press, most notably after Ofsted’s 2013 report ‘Going in the right direction?’. Tired of hearing how bad it is, the Gatsby Foundation wanted to know what career guidance would look like if it was good, and they asked me to find out.

The results are in the Gatsby report ‘Good Career Guidance’.  Working with the University of Derby, we visited six countries (Germany, Netherlands, Hong Kong, Finland, Ontario and Ireland) where the OECD said good guidance was to be found.  We visited schools in the UK and we scoured the available literature.  From all this, we came up with eight benchmarks that define what good guidance looks like – these benchmarks cover both school activities (like guidance interviews) and employer activities (like work experience).  There is no ‘magic bullet’ to getting this right – it’s about doing all the things defined in the benchmarks, consistently and well.

Creating a network of career advisers, as some have called for, won’t solve this on its own. Nor will calling on employers to step forward, as the government has done.  Only schools can decide what is best for their pupils.

The government was right to hand the autonomy for career guidance over to schools.  But that is not enough, especially with no school focus to the National Careers service, no requirement for schools to have a careers plan, and very little incentive for headteachers and governors to prioritise this critical activity. No wonder Ofsted found it so variable, with only 12 of the 60 schools visited ensuring that ‘all students received sufficient information to consider a wide breadth of career possibilities’.

We asked PwC to cost the proposals in the Gatsby report, and they found the cost of reaching the eight benchmarks would be less than 1% of a school’s budget.  But the answer is not to be found in funding alone.  Even if the government were to find extra money, what would they do with it? Schools have autonomy over their own budgets, quite rightly, so they can’t be compelled to spend on career guidance.  Re-creating the discredited Connexions network won’t work.

Schools need better national support.  It is nonsense that the National Careers Service is effectively a no-go area for schools. Schools need somewhere they can look for guidance, for good practice and for support in finding employer partners. They need a School Careers Service, independent from government if possible so it responds to the people who matter – employers and schools.

To incentivise schools to do better with career guidance, we need to do much more with destination measures. Instead of being handed down to schools from on high, destination data needs to be owned by schools themselves and published on their websites so that parents can see where pupils end up, be it in apprenticeships, university or jobs.  And schools can use destinations data for other purposes – such as analysing their own performance in career guidance or making contact with alumni and getting them back to school to talk about their own careers.

Perhaps the most striking thing I learned in our international study is that in Germany, youth unemployment is lower than general unemployment.  Compare that with the UK, where youth unemployment is 2.5 times higher than the general rate.  In part at least, this is because of Germany’s efficient, well regarded and well understood career guidance system, which guides people to the path that best matches their skills and interests.  The results can be seen in both social mobility and the economic performance in that country.  We need more of that here.

John is a member of the panel on ATL's pre-election debate on funding effective careers guidance, "Funding effective careers guidance – is another 'lost generation' a price worth paying?" which takes place in London on 26 November.

In this, the second in a series of free discussions about education, our panel will be questioning whether funding careers guidance in a slowly recovering economy is a luxury or a necessity.

There are limited number of places still available - to find out more, see the ATL website.

By John Holman, Emeritus Professor in the Chemistry Department, University of York, UK, and adviser in Education at the Wellcome Trust and the Gatsby Foundation.

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