'Improving careers guidance takes time and effort'

One year on from the DfE's careers strategy, John Holman says many schools and colleges are on the right track

John Holman

gatsby benchmarks careers colleges FE government

We have known for years how important good careers guidance is in supporting each young person in making the best decisions for a fulfilling future. However, we were also acutely aware of the criticism levelled against career guidance in English schools and colleges. 

For this reason, with the backing of the Gatsby Foundation and with colleagues from the University of Derby, I conducted an international study, a literature review and a survey of schools in England to delineate just what world-class, good careers guidance looks like. This resulted in eight Gatsby Benchmarks, which are now placed at the heart of government’s Careers Strategy: Making the Most of Everyone’s Skills and Talents, launched a year ago today in December 2017.

As we pass this milestone, there is cause to celebrate. In 2015-17, Gatsby ran a successful pilot of the benchmarks in the North East of England, where we saw the positive difference they can make on the ground. From all of this, I can confidently say that the benchmarks really do make an impact on the lives of young people.

Moreover, when the government placed our benchmarks at the heart of their drive to make career guidance world-class in this country, I was pleased when I saw how schools and colleges quickly embraced the benchmarks as a serious driver for change.

Tracking progress

Over the past year, we have seen schools and colleges naming "careers leaders", publishing their career guidance programmes on their websites and signing up to use Compass, the online tool that allows institutions to track their progress against the benchmarks. Headteachers are prioritising careers and involving their governing board in the development of their programmes. The government has also committed money to the strategy, announcing funding for Career Leaders and the rollout of a national careers hub network, based on the North East model in our pilot of the benchmarks.

However, that being said, we still have a way to go. The government has committed funding to train over 1,300 careers leaders and create 40 careers hubs, but this is just a start: over half of schools in England will still be without the support of a careers hub, for example.

From a recent analysis done by Gatsby, we know that the vast majority of headteachers are aware of the strategy, but we also know that not all governing boards are yet aware of the changes. One of the clearest messages from those involved in our pilot in the North East was that having a governing board that is fully engaged in careers provision leads to a stronger careers programme and more successful interventions. Without this support, meeting all eight benchmarks is that much less achievable.

Coherent framework

And it is all eight benchmarks that need to be achieved – no single benchmark is more important than any other. They make a coherent framework that needs to be considered as a whole. The recent State of the Nation report by The Careers & Enterprise Company highlighted how progress towards certain benchmarks is slower than others, which goes to highlight the need for trained careers leaders and the support of hubs for every school.

Alongside this, we must remember that the benchmarks work best when the whole school understands the opportunities they offer. So, headteachers need to bring all their staff with them: classroom teachers have the most daily contact with students and know their needs best.

I’m encouraged that Ofsted understands the opportunity offered by the new strategy: its director of education Sean Harford said earlier this year: "We ask our inspectors to bear in mind the government’s careers strategy and the Gatsby career guidance benchmarks. We expect, over time, that these will become more and more widely used in schools and colleges."

Perhaps most importantly, I believe that what career guidance policy needs now is a period of stability. World-leading administrations like Germany and Ontario show the value of a stable system where students, teachers, parents and employers all understand what they can expect from the career guidance system. Such stability takes years to establish.

We knew when we developed the benchmarks that they set a high bar, and that fully achieving them across a school or college takes time and a sustained effort. I urge the government to allow schools and colleges the time and support they need to make the most of this opportunity so that our aspirations of world-class career guidance for every student can be achieved. 

Sir John Holman is senior adviser to the Gatsby Foundation and author of Good Career Guidance

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