How do we tackle the careers advice postcode lottery?

Careers education across the country is patchy - we need a new approach fit for the 21st century, writes Ruth Gilbert

Ruth Gilbert

Careers advice: A regional approach and cooperation with employers and LEPs would help schools and colleges to meet the Gatsby Benchmarks, says Ruth Gilbert

The future looked bright for careers education in 2017 when the Department for Education launched its new career guidance strategy – at the heart of which were the eight Gatsby Career Benchmarks. These benchmarks were developed as part of an international study by Professor Sir John Holman, outlining world-class careers education.

So far, so good. Ensuring that every young person in the country has access to unbiased, high-quality careers advice to make informed decisions about their future is a policy no one can argue against. The government’s ambitious strategy was warmly welcomed and we saw an increased awareness around the importance of good careers guidance.

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Careers advice: the Gatsby Benchmarks

Our optimism was then dampened when the Careers and Enterprise Company (CEC) published its "State of the Nation" report in late 2018. The CEC report revealed that the average number of Gatsby Benchmarks being achieved across 3,000 schools and colleges was just 2.1. At this stage, only 21 institutions had achieved the full eight and the CEC itself concluded that "there is still a very long way to go’.

There is no doubt the Gatsby Career Benchmarks are sensible and indeed should be achievable. So what are the barriers for schools and colleges that are struggling to reach them?

Firstly, it’s the issue of responsibility. Each school and college is now individually responsible for their own careers guidance – which inevitably leads to real variation in quality and quantity. In the past, there was more local authority responsibility, with regionally contracted services, which levelled the playing field somewhat.

But now, it’s every school for themselves, which can either dramatically improve provision or seriously reduce it. With schools and colleges struggling with the public funding levels across the board, the chances are the latter will be the reality.

How can we keep abreast of change?

Secondly, we need to consider exactly who delivers career guidance. Subject-specialist teachers usually have to take on the role, but even for school/college-based careers advisers – how can they really be expected to keep fully abreast of the changing career and industry landscape?

We are living in a rapidly changing world. Technology is hard to predict, but we know that it will affect all industries in a variety of ways – as will globalisation, sustainability and population ageing. Around a fifth of people are currently working in occupations that are expected to "shrink" by 2030.

It is, therefore, essential that young people understand the opportunities available to them, enabling them to choose the right pathway to achieve their career ambitions. And to do this, specialist, unbiased advisers are needed, who understand industry and the skills needed by employers who are operating in the modern world.

Regional career opportunities

We also need to address the clear mismatch between the current national curriculum and predictions on future careers. From 3D craftspeople and renewable energy specialists through to pre-natal health planners and virtual architects, the future job market is hugely exciting and must be communicated properly to enthuse and inspire young people.

Regional work is also ongoing to support the careers strategy, the aim of which is to improve guidance for young people, while serving as a beacon of best practice for other areas.

In the East Riding of Yorkshire, for example, proposals for a regional Careers Hub are being developed in partnership with the LEP, four local councils and employers. This is a unique and collaborative approach in which needs and possible solutions are being identified for careers education in the region – with a mutual understanding that new ideas are needed if the Gatsby Benchmarks are to be met.

The Qdos Careers Hub is a unique facility, which will provide impartial careers advice to young people from schools and colleges across the region. The project, being developed by Manor Property Group, will complement existing and established services, working with local stakeholders and responding directly to employment opportunities. 

Funding pressures

The key to this approach is accepting that schools and colleges have many priorities and shrinking budgets – with careers education often being the first victim of any cuts. A further report from the CEC and Gatsby this month highlights the need for more resources to achieve national requirements.

By taking a regional "hub" approach, young people get access to cutting-edge facilities and advice from dedicated experts. The subjectivity of institutional bias (i.e., in-house sixth forms) is also removed, offering traditional routes as part of many wider options via inspiring days in an advanced work environment as opposed to a classroom. Employers and businesses are also much more likely to be able to commit time to a central hub (to offer talks, workshops, projects) than they are to visit 100 schools in the area.

This initiative is an example of an emerging new approach, in which business pump-primes educational pilots. If we don’t start thinking outside of the box when it comes to careers education, it is unlikely that the ambitious aims of the DfE’s Careers Strategy will be met.

The world is changing rapidly so the way we look at education has to change, too. Yes, the responsibility for careers education is vested in the educator, but we need more shared, sustainable resources to ensure effective regional promotion of career opportunities.

It’s time to remove the postcode lottery by encouraging schools and colleges to work in partnership with employers, LEPs and developers to create career education models that are fit for the 21st century – supporting young people to make informed decisions about their future and inspiring them into great careers.

Ruth Gilbert is group education director at Manor Property Group and an honorary fellow at UCL Institute of Education

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