Jan Ellis and her mission to transform careers guidance

Jan Ellis has dedicated her life to championing careers advice – she talks to Tes about her latest crusade: the development of 160 new community-led careers hubs
2nd July 2021, 8:00am


Jan Ellis and her mission to transform careers guidance

Careers Education: Jan Ellis, Chief Executive Of Qdos Education

Jan Ellis laughs when I ask her if she’s got any weird or wonderful hobbies. 

“I don’t know if it really counts as weird or wonderful, but I am a sailor. My husband and I do long-distance sailing, and actually it’s a very exhilarating experience - we might sail across the channel or sail to the west country. You can’t think about work, so it’s a very good turnoff,” she says.

“It’s very challenging: you’ve got to deal with situations which are very different. You’re dealing with wind currents, other vessels around you, the state of the sea, all of those things, it’s very multidimensional so it’s very different from my day job.”

But perhaps on reflection, it’s not so different to Ellis’ career. For 40 years, she’s dedicated her professional life to careers guidance, passionately believing in the difference good careers advice can make to people’s lives. 

Unfortunately, the government hasn’t always shared those same views. Michael Gove’s Department for Education withdrew funding from the careers advice service Connexions after a 2010 review and ever since, careers guidance has been patchy across the country - a boat on very rocky seas, barely keeping afloat.

Indeed, when speaking at a Westminster Education Forum in February 2021, Ellis blasted the current provision and said careers advice and guidance in England needs a complete overhaul. 

And in her new role as chief executive at Qdos, Ellis is determined to bring about change. Over the next five years, the organisation will open 160 community-focused careers hubs across the country, providing impartial career guidance and employer-led activities to young people and adults.

News: Careers support funding may be linked to Baker Clause

Listen: Comprehensive careers advice for students is crucial

Background: Careers education ‘is not acceptable’, say Jan Ellis

Ellis was born in Liverpool, but moved across to Leeds with her parents aged 3. Her parents were both industrial chemists, and were bemused when Ellis’ interests didn’t take her down the same scientific road. Instead, she was more interested in social justice and mobility. 

“I was very aware I came from a relatively middle-class background but not everybody had the benefit I had. Some young people at school were hungry, I could see why schools had school uniforms because it gave a level of equality, and it was all those sorts of things which got me really interested,” she says.

Ellis went to a secondary modern in Harrogate, completed three A levels in English, geography and economics, and went on to study social policy at the University of Hull. Upon leaving university, she was torn: she’d been influenced by her father’s progression to business (he’d gone to work in a sales role), and yet she still had a desire to work in social justice. Unsure of her options, she went to the university’s careers department. 

“When I came out of the discussion I did think, well, I quite like that person’s job because you’re talking to people all day, you’re learning about them, you’re trying to be helpful and supportive and trying to move people in their direction,” she says. 

Experiencing bad careers advice

Ellis decided to take a year out to think about it: and spent most of the year in Israel. On return to the UK, she went to see another careers advisor in Leeds - and the experience made her mind up.

“I’ll never forget sitting opposite this lady, and she asked me lots of questions, and I honestly thought, you’re not asking me the right questions, you’re not challenging what I say. I was almost saying something and she would agree with me, and I thought well, I’m just saying that to get out of this office as quickly as possible,” she remembers. “You’re not really probing about what my motivation is, and I began to think, I could do what you’re doing, and I might even do it better than you.” 

She went on to study a postgraduate qualification in careers guidance in Kent, while also gaining as much work experience as possible in a bar, in a shop, in an office. Upon graduation, she got a role as a careers advisor in Mansfield, Nottingham. 

It was the early 80s, and there weren’t a lot of jobs around. Lots of people in Mansfield went to the coal mines, or textile mills. Ellis was interested in the power of higher education, and how to encourage young people to consider staying in education after high school. When an A level specialist role came up with Surrey Careers Service, she moved across the country, keen to make a difference.

Ellis spent the following decades doing just that, helping thousands of people progress in their lives as she worked her way to the top of the food chain in careers advice and guidance. She led a careers office in Sunbury-on-Thames, worked in professional development in the careers service, earned MBA in marketing and communications and went on to become a marketing and business development executive for the VT Careers Management group, covering the South East, Buckinghamshire and Hackney, Islington and the City of London. 

In that role, Ellis thrived: she got to work internationally a lot - including in the Middle East trying to encourage them to buy into the concept of career guidance - as well as bidding for contracts and working in marketing and resources.

Jan Ellis

The defunding of the careers service 

And then, everything changed. “Mr Gove decided that careers was not the thing to invest in, and all the money for careers and connection services was taken back into the government,” she remembers. Ellis was made redundant in 2010, and says she was really hurt by the experience. Unsure of what to do next, she set up her own company. 

For a couple of months, Ellis worked on all sorts of other projects, including one for a Yacht company in Sweden - but it wasn’t long before careers guidance came knocking again.

The Institute of Careers Guidance were looking for a new manager - and Ellis was the perfect fit. After a couple of years, ICG joined forces with the three other professional bodies to become the Career Development Institute, with Ellis running it as the first ever chief executive. She ran the Institute for eight years, taking it to a turn over of £1m, and absolutely loved it. But as the CDI moved into the next stage of growth, Ellis decided it was time for a new challenge and moved across to Qdos in June.

Her mission at Qdos is laser-focused: to provide quality - and much-needed - careers advice and guidance in ‘hard-to-help areas’ through local careers hubs. On the state of current careers guidance today, she is clear: it is not good enough. 

“It’s not a good enough standard, it really isn’t. The careers and enterprise company has done a fantastic job with limited resources, let’s be fair, credit where it’s due, to raise the profile of careers education and guidance in schools, that’s been very important,” she says. 

“And three or four years after they were established, Sir John Holman and the Gatsby foundation published their work on the Gatsby benchmarks, and it was decided that schools will be encouraged to work towards these but without any additional funding and Gatsby benchmark eight is all about delivering personal one to one career guidance.

“If you look at how many schools have achieved those benchmarks in 2018, and you looked at 2020, you wouldn’t see much of a difference. Why is that the case? Why are schools refusing to invest? Well, to some extent it’s about money: schools give it a limited budget, and they have to spend it as best they can and it’s about prioritising that spend. But remember we did have a career service in this country and the government took the money back, and it didn’t re-share it or allocate it to schools, so they’re hugely underfunded for the task they’re being asked to do.”

Ellis highlights the lack of take up of the Baker Clause as a consequence of that - and says she agrees with people like Robert Halfon on the need for Ofsted to be stricter about penalising schools who do not enforce it.

The role of the Qdos careers hubs

She’s hopeful the new Qdos careers hubs will help ease the burden of careers advice for schools, and says the ‘master plan’ is they will be staffed by qualified careers advisors, which teachers can take students to see. But Ellis’ plan extends beyond the school day, and beyond pupils in school, too.

“Young people will be able to walk in and use them in the early evenings, they’ll be open at weekends, they’ll importantly be open when the schools shut in the summer. One of my personal crusades from last year was, where do young people go to get career guidance, after the 16 of July, when the schools break up? There is nowhere to go, unless you go to a job centre, and some job centres have bouncers on the door and I’m not sure I want my 16-year-old son or daughter going into a job centre, so it’s about place and space,” she says. 

“Just think about all the young people that leave school and sort of disappear, I’m using the awful “Neet” phrase here but where the Neet young people go, they end up at the job centre, and then they end up on programmes, they disappear into the black economy, where do they go for support? Where do young people go, who are not in school? There are thousands of young people that aren’t even on the roles, where do they go for career guidance and support? There is nowhere.”

Ellis is hugely passionate about quality careers guidance - and has a determined vision of what the Qdos careers hubs can achieve. Why? Because, as she says, “good career guidance is life changing.”

“You can see those lightbulb moments in people’s minds when you’ve had career conversations and you suddenly see, they get it, and they’ve decided yet what that what they’re going to do. That career guidance skill and that career counselling skill is a real expert skill, which has been undervalued in recent years, and I want to bring it back to the fore.” 

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