How to get careers education right

Covid has made careers education more important than ever, says Oli de Botton – and here's how to do it well

Oli De Botton

Careers guidance: How schools can make the most of careers education

To say that schools have a lot going on at the moment is an understatement of the epic variety.

It’s the sheer breadth of it. 

Leaders are at once grappling with the fundamental questions of education while running lateral flow (and exam) testing centres. This on top of the general freneticism of school life and the accumulated tiredness of leading through a pandemic. 

So to write an article about the importance of another thing – careers education – feels difficult (especially having just finished working in a school).

But let me make the case. Not that careers education is everything, or should be top of the in-tray, but rather that this summer and beyond it can provide young people with just the right support to see them through.

Careers education isn't what it used to be

When I was a headteacher, I thought schools were about connecting the past, the present and the future. The past was shorthand for the powerful knowledge children needed, the present stood for supporting wellbeing, and the future was about making sure that children were ready for what comes next.

At its best, careers education takes care of the future part. It is about helping young people to find their best next step in a world of uncertainty. It opens up pathways based on aspiration and skill rather than circumstance and stereotype. And it is fundamentally inclusive, removing barriers and rebalancing towards high-quality technical and vocational education.

But what does this look like in practice?

Careers leaders, leading

Like with almost everything in education, teachers make the difference. And since 2018 every school and college in England has had a dedicated careers leader – often a teaching member of staff at a senior level. There is brilliant work all around that usually involves these leaders developing whole-school career strategies, engaging local businesses and securing destinations for school leavers (particularly those at risk of dropping out altogether). 

The more time that heads afford them, the more impact they have, not least because there is now more training and communities of practice (through new careers hubs).

But this summer, without the directional power of exams and after all the disruption, there is a risk that those school leavers will find transitions difficult. For our part, we are working with careers leaders so the current Year 11s have the right support and access to transition activities. In partnership with Youth Employment UK, we’re trying to make sure that talent doesn’t get lost in transition.

Experience of the workplace 

Experiences with employers give young people important social capital that can help to innoculate them against future economic instability. But there is impact in the here and now, too. At its best, work experience is structured learning – planned for in school and reflected on afterwards. It can even become a reference point – almost a real-world assessment – for the skills we teach in schools (implicitly or explicitly).

At School 21 – a 4-18 school in East London – students took eight GCSEs, not nine, and used the “spare” time to undertake extended projects with employers half a day a week. Over the years, projects have included a marketing campaign with HSBC and a community engagement initiative with the Met Police. 

Designed to have high expectations and be mutually beneficial, the projects have included mid- and end-point assessments (and even the opportunity for students to be fired!). 

Where it worked, the impact on motivation was clear. We also saw that the rigours of the workplace improved skills like oracy (which was a focus for the school).

In the context of the pandemic, there has been both more demand for engagement with employers (as young people worry about their futures) and, in some senses, more supply (virtually, at any rate). We have seen lots of innovation like a project in Ipswich where financial institutions came together with football clubs and civil engineering companies to offer insight into the world of work. We worked with Oak National Academy to deliver a programme called My Week of Work, which aimed to do the same.

Some employers are now saying that the virtual environment is making it easier for them to have sustained and inclusive engagement with young people over a longer period of time. Either way, it’s clear that making the most of working with employers – from talks and tours, to engagement with our enterprise advisers (senior business volunteers available to schools and colleges), to extended placements – will be crucial as we help young people renew the economy.

Partnership working by design

Part of the challenge of careers education is that – by necessity – it involves different institutions. How can young people find out about what comes next without seeing it in action? Secondary schools need to work with colleges, apprenticeship providers, universities, sixth forms and employers to give their students all the options. 

And sometimes this is difficult, not least because of the busyness of school life but also sometimes because of organisational boundaries.

When I was head of a school sixth form, I wanted the Year 11s to fill my spaces. It was almost an imperative. But, of course, that’s not the way to go. There are brilliant options out there, and more and more young people (and their parents) want high-quality technical pathways, including apprenticeships and traineeships. The latest research from the Social Market Foundation shows that parents are increasingly seeing the value of vocational education.

So careers education works best when there are strong local partnerships and where colleagues work in the interest of all children.

After the most challenging year in education, it’s hard to see how schools can do more. But in an area like careers, there’s lots of support out there and a workforce in schools ready to deliver. So maybe not now, or not even in the summer, but maybe in September getting young people ready for the future can be part of the way we lead next year.

Oli de Botton is chief executive of the Careers and Enterprise Company, and co-founder School 21 and Voice 2

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