Opinion: 'England needs a comprehensive careers guidance service'

27th January 2016 at 18:11
Stewart Segal, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, argues that schools can't be experts in all types of FE provision - but a new national careers service would help

In an announcement this week, the government has finally realised that it needs to strengthen its guidance to schools on careers information and advice. The new requirements are based on the Association of Employment and Learning Providers' (AELP) calls for better training provider access to schools and parents, which TES reported back in December.

It’s interesting how these announcements often coincide with ministerial appearances before Commons committees, and the new action was promised just as MPs were launching a new inquiry into the issue. The skills minister, Nick Boles, actually fielded questions from MPs, mostly about the wider apprenticeship reforms and the area reviews, but he accepted that growing apprenticeships requires a much greater awareness among teachers, parents and young people about the advantages that the flagship skills programme offers. 

The government introduced legislation in 2011 requiring schools in England to offer independent and impartial advice to pupils about all post-16 education and training options including apprenticeships – a measure that AELP and others had long lobbied for. Statutory guidance for schools followed but the fact remains that only around 6 per cent of school leavers start an apprenticeship and this proportion hasn’t changed for years. We, therefore, called for that statutory guidance to be strengthened.

With all the other demands placed on them, it’s unrealistic to expect teachers to be experts on the merits of apprenticeships. However, in making its latest announcement, the government was right to highlight two major areas of concern. Firstly, ministers point to some schools currently unwilling to recommend apprenticeships or other technical and professional routes to any but the lowest-achieving pupils, effectively creating a two-tiered system of careers advice. Some schools are not providing information on the full range of options; for example, a school with a sixth form that chooses not to invite a local provider to speak to young people about the range of vocational routes that might be better suited to a young person’s long-term career goals.

We would go further and say that raising the participation age to 18 has unintentionally provided a further opportunity for schools with sixth forms to retain pupils who might be better served pursuing an alternative route. Many schools and some MPs have been heard to call this the raising of the school leaving age. This was one reason why we were the first to call for Ofsted to use its powers of inspection to check that schools were adhering to their statutory duties.

As schools can’t be fully expert on the range of post-16 opportunities, we have always said that they should invite people in who are, and this forms the crux of this week’s announcement. The government will legislate "at the earliest opportunity" so schools will be required to collaborate with colleges, university technical colleges and training providers to ensure that young people are aware of all the routes to higher skills and the workplace, including apprenticeships. AELP members work hard every day to support the schools in delivering the information our young people need to make their decisions. It is not always easy but training providers have the people on the ground that can work with schools and employers to raise the profile of vocational options that young people and their parents need. 

Effective promotion of the different career choices means giving all providers of education and training access to students and parents. In fairness to schools, we need to support schools in managing this access and many training providers work with schools to provide resources such as careers fairs and work experience. Good relationships already exist between some schools and their local providers which should not be jeopardised and the new arrangements should not exclude smaller niche providers who are meeting skills priorities for the local area.  

In our evidence to the MPs’ inquiry, we have said that the position for careers advice has in many ways deteriorated since the select committee last reported on the issue in 2013. While the latest announcement should improve matters at a local level, AELP still believes that England needs a comprehensive centrally run all-age careers guidance service instead of the constant revisiting of new initiatives. The market for providing information, advice and guidance is expanding, and it is about improving the delivery of a tailored solution to schools. However, the presence of a core national service will continue to be important.

The move towards a stronger set of requirements on schools to deliver high-quality, independent careers guidance is a step in the right direction. Giving education and training providers better access to all students is an important part of this process and I know that training providers will support schools in delivering what our young people need.

Stewart Segal is chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers. He tweets at @stewartsegal

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