'It's not too late for those let down by school careers advice'

Careers advice in schools must improve to match the needs of young people and the economy, writes NOCN's Graham Hastings-Evans

Graham Hastings-Evans

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In the run-up to this summer’s GCSE and A level results, careers guidance for young people has come under the spotlight.

For example, Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, has gone so far as to say that the employability skills gap left by schools and colleges is a more pressing problem than Brexit, and that a change in attitudes towards vocational and work-based learning is needed, bringing more business brains into schools. Developing a person’s employability skills is crucial to improving their productivity and hence helping to close the 30 per cent gap with other competing economies.

Recent research reveals that just one in 10 apprentices were signposted to their course by a careers adviser or teacher. In fact, more than half of those in the manufacturing and engineering sectors had to undertake their own research to find their vocational programme. Since apprenticeships are a major talent pipeline for vital sectors suffering from severe skills gaps as older workers retire – and in the face of ever-faster technological advances and relentless competition from overseas economic powerhouses – this is disappointing news.

Time for an education revolution?

Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, recently wrote in The Times that “education needs a revolution, not just more cash. We are still stuck with a school system that fails to cater for two-thirds of young people [those that don’t go to university].” He said that the “relative neglect of the FE sector, and in particular of vocational education, stands out in international comparisons” and pointed to OECD research which shows that the UK spends more on education relative to most of its competitors, the exception being on vocational education.

For rising numbers of school leavers, the university route is not an attractive or attainable one. Many intelligent, talented students are not academically minded, while others are increasingly daunted by the massive debts they will rack up in just a few years, but which could cast a lifelong shadow. However, many find that, without training, skills assessment and accreditation, they cannot simply step out of formal education into gateway roles.

This is why vocational development is so important. The learn as you earn apprenticeship model sees students acquire relevant, industry-recognised abilities while being paid – with employers boosting their knowledge bases.

With degree apprenticeships and T levels on the horizon, clearly priorities are changing. But as Johnson highlights, it is more about outputs than it is about policy and spend. The growing number of pathways into careers over recent years must now be championed vigorously to increase awareness and uptake.

The economic case

Schools are best-placed to make the greatest impact. They can ensure that each and every student standing at the starting line of their adult life receives comprehensive, accurate information about how best to turn their interests and skills into occupational competences.   

And for those clinging to the misconception that vocational routes are ‘soft’ options, lacking academic rigour – or where professional entry hinge on a higher education qualification – a new range of degree apprenticeships will come on stream in September.

These debt-free courses allow participants to split their time between study and work, with course fees shared by government and employers – but they have to be presented as a viable option to school-leavers.

Social mobility, diversity and equality are all key agendas when it comes to opening up vocational education to those that don’t want to or can’t go down the university route. But there is a strong economic case for improving careers advice for school-leavers too.

With UK productivity levels way below that of competing nations and ever-growing skills shortages, careers advice needs to be much more geared around and directed towards where skills are needed and jobs are available. Apprenticeships may be entry level qualifications but they can and should be the first step in a long-term career, not the end of the journey.

And for those who for so many years have been let down by poor careers advice in schools, it’s not too late. Apprenticeships and other vocational routes are not just for school-leavers. Job Centres and adult careers centres should be presenting these options, too.

NOCN has been creating opportunities through vocational learning for 30 years, and there has never been a more important time to ensure that these opportunities are not missed.

Graham Hastings-Evans is managing director of NOCN and CSkills

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Graham Hastings-Evans

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