'With Brexit looming, schools need to provide world-class careers advice'

Having a 'careers leader' who embeds career learning into the curriculum, develops strong links with businesses and above all, offers personal guidance and support for pupils is crucial, writes two careers experts

Tristram Hooley & John Holman

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Young people are staying in school longer and emerging with more qualifications than ever before. Yet often when we meet with employers, they tell us that their new recruits don’t have the skills and attitudes that they need.

We’ve also seen lots of talented young people failing to realise their potential because they don’t understand how the system works. This is particularly the case for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. For all of these reasons, we are excited to welcome the government’s new careers strategy, Making the Most of Everyone’s Skills and Talents. This strategy sets out a new way forward for careers work in schools and colleges.

Three years ago, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation conducted a research project to identify what world-class careers guidance looked like. The project brought together international best practice with the expertise of careers specialists here in the UK to establish the eight Gatsby benchmarks for "good career guidance". The government’s new strategy endorses the Gatsby Benchmarks and provides schools with a clear steer on what they should be aiming for.

The benchmarks highlight the importance of schools planning their careers provision, making use of high-quality information, tailoring provision to the needs of their pupils and embedding career learning into the curriculum. They also emphasise the need to provide access to employers and working people, quality work experience and encounters with all forms of education and training. Finally, they note that young people should have access to personal guidance to support them in making their decisions.

We have seen from the successful pilot of the benchmarks in schools in the North East of England that schools find them easy to use and transformative. We have also developed an online tool called Compass, free for all schools to use, which allows them to review their practice against the benchmarks and identify new ways forward. We are happy that the new strategy encourages schools to use the benchmarks and Compass to work towards the best possible practice in career guidance.

The pilot in the North East has also demonstrated the importance of leadership. Gatsby’s international research highlighted the role of the schooldekaan (careers coordinator) in schools in the Netherlands, a named individual who is responsible for leading the school’s careers programme. We’ve found that if schools are going to successfully implement the benchmarks they need someone in a similar role. In England, we’re calling them careers leaders.

The careers leader needs support from the school’s senior management, but they also need the skills, knowledge and authority to coordinate the complex set of activities that career guidance involves. The new strategy also highlights this role and argues that we need "high-quality leaders at the heart of our approach".

We’ve been conducting research in schools across the country to explore how they are managing their careers programmes. Without exception, wherever we’ve found good career guidance, we’ve also found a good careers leader.

These careers leaders’ roles vary, but typically include being:

  1. A good leader who takes responsibility for conceiving, running and reporting on the school’s careers programme
  2. skilful manager who is able to both run projects and in some cases line manage more junior staff
  3. careful coordinator of staff from across the school
  4. skilled networker who is able to develop a range of links beyond the school with employers and education and training providers.

There can be no doubt then that being a careers leader is a demanding job.

It is important to note that the careers leader is a distinct but complementary role to that of the careers adviser. The careers leader takes responsibility for the school’s whole careers programme. They lead, manage, coordinate and build the networks that support careers provision in a school, but do not necessarily deliver all of this careers support themselves. A careers adviser will be seeing students, providing information, advice and guidance, and offering specific expertise on the labour market, educational pathways and career decision making. Our research suggests that it is common for the careers leader to either manage or commission the careers adviser, although in some circumstances it is possible for the two roles to be combined.

Many careers leaders are teachers who have taken on careers leadership as a middle leadership role, although they can also be careers professionals or people from other professional backgrounds. The background of the careers leader is less important than ensuring that they have the time, authority, knowledge, skills – and, critically, the clear backing of senior school leaders – to do the job.

DfE’s new strategy asks Gatsby and The Careers & Enterprise Company to work together to define the careers leader role and to build a blueprint for training careers leaders. We are happy to take this work forward, building on the pilot in the North East and our other research around careers leaders. This research suggests that the role already exists in many schools in England, which gives us confidence that careers leadership is realistic as well as necessary. We are also able to draw on academic work in this area and further pilots and thinking from Teach First and the Career Development Institute. A real consensus is starting to emerge around careers leadership and we look forward to drawing this consensus together and codifying it in a way that schools can easily implement.

With social mobility, a continuing concern and the proximity of Brexit highlighting the importance of homegrown skills, the release of the government’s careers strategy could hardly be more timely. By working together with school leaders, employers and careers specialists we can make the most of this opportunity and help improve career guidance in every school.

This is important for the future of the UK economy and, above all, it is vital for realising the potential of every young person.

Professor Tristram Hooley is the director of research at the Careers & Enterprise Company, and Sir John Holman is senior advisor to the Gatsby Foundation and author of the Gatsby career benchmark report. 

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Tristram Hooley & John Holman

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