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'Careers advice should begin in primary school'

Thinking about careers during the early years of schooling boosts pupil engagement, write Robert Halfon and Judith Doyle

Careers advice should begin in primary school, write Robert Halfon and Judith Doyle

Thinking about careers during the early years of schooling boosts pupil engagement, write Robert Halfon and Judith Doyle

The Fourth Industrial Revolution could bring dramatic improvements to the UK’s productivity but a third of jobs could be obsolete by 2030.

What will our education system need to look like to provide the skills that are needed for Britain’s future economy? It is essential we prepare our current and future workforce for these new challenges. At the heart of this is the need for high-quality, impartial careers advice available to everyone.

Today, a staggering one in four students who begin their A levels do not manage to complete or pass their first year.

This statistic points to a reality that for most of these young people the academic path was the wrong one and, most damning of all, that they did not receive the right advice at the right time to help them make the best choices. The government’s careers strategy is to be welcomed but it is very clear that a more effective system to deliver careers advice is sorely needed.

Bring kids on to campus to code

A new advice system should embed careers education from the first day a child enters the classroom. This must be done carefully but we should be creative in thinking about how to give children the experience of the workplace and the opportunities offered by further education from an early age. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky stuff; some of the best primary schools in the country are already doing it.

The impact of early engagement can have a hugely positive impact on wider academic attainment, motivating and inspiring both children and their families, by helping them to see a future to which they can aspire and which feels achievable. Gateshead College, for example, brings classes of primary children on campus to try out coding – one small way to widen young people's horizons.

School should be about opening pupils' minds. From helping children to explore more about the arts or the world of engineering. From ensuring the gifted child can realise their talent and be encouraged by their school to excel to giving hope and aspiration to the child who feels like a failure because they happen not to be academically gifted.

But for too long we have been trapped by a mindset that academic achievement is the only real route to success. A new careers system must emphasise the value of skills and vocational learning.

'Brave new world'

Getting parents on board is vital. Parents are an important source of advice for their children but, understandably, many are not up to speed about the modern world of education or the work opportunities available. 

Those who went to university may have an unconscious prejudice about the relative merits of the technical route and a nagging suspicion about what may seem to be inferior options. A new careers strategy must be fully committed to engaging with parents. In this brave new world there will be little point in spending millions to improve the system if mum and dad's shaky advice is what kids rely on.

An effective careers strategy also needs to tackle the challenge of providing the best possible support to students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, who often face the bleak prospect of both limited parental support combined with poor and subjective school careers advice. 

A properly designed careers advice system has the potential help those most in need of good impartial counsel and help to tackle social justice by giving the most disadvantaged the chance to climb the ladder of opportunity.

A single Ucas form for FE 

The government has tried to improve FE college access to schools with a recent legislative reform – the Baker clause. But how much access are schools likely to offer to direct competitors without some "strong-arming" on this issue?

Indeed, Gateshead College has seen a year-on-year fall in the number of schools willing to provide access to their students. The government must ensure that these school career advisers are truly free to offer the best counsel and independent guidance to young people and that schools that find ways to close off other opportunities face suitable sanctions.

We need to make it easier for young people to find out for themselves about the opportunities available beyond their own sixth-form college. The government proposes that the National Careers Service is urgently redesigned but why not go further?

Wouldn’t it be better to consider, for example, a single website where every student in England and Wales could find out about every A-level course, T-level course or apprenticeship on offer? A student applying for university fills out a single Ucas form – a relatively simple process.

An education system designed to drive social justice

Why not a Ucas-style process at 16 too? Ucas offers a template that could be reworked to provide a much simpler, clearer and direct way of communicating to young people about the opportunities available at 16.

This could offer far more up-to-date advice on the vast choice available, such as degree apprenticeships, which offer everyone the chance to earn as they learn and could give more people the opportunity to study for a degree. 

The skills minister recently told MPs that the careers strategy is only "a step in exactly the right direction" and that "it is not necessarily particularly tidy". 

Anne Milton hit the nail on the head. We can and must go even further to create a system that reaches students earlier, operates across the whole of our education system, and is designed to drive social justice and improve awareness about all options – especially the technical route.

Robert Halfon is the chair of the Commons Education Select Committee and a former skills minister. Judith Doyle is principal and chief executive of Gateshead College

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