As she looks out of the floor-to-ceiling windows in the swish UK base of Capgemini, the international consultancy firm where she is the chairman, Christine Hodgson can see the offices where her career as an accountant in London began – a mere stone’s throw away.
Her first experience of work, however, was rather different. Growing up on a poultry farm on the outskirts of Blackpool, she collected eggs to sell on her father’s market stall in town.
Hodgson is the chair of the Careers and Enterprise Company – the organisation charged with delivering better careers support in schools and colleges across England. She admits the advice she received at school “was very limited”.
“Careers education has always been something that I thought wasn’t great," she says. "My own careers education was non-existent. It was a classic: ‘Christine, you’re good at maths, you should be an accountant.’ I grew up in a small industrial town near Blackpool and I’m quite passionate about social mobility and making sure there are opportunities for everybody.”
Hodgson says she was “very lucky” with her education – going to a state primary school, then grammar school and on to university – but she admits that lots of people she grew up with “aren’t so lucky”.
By all accounts, Hodgson has enjoyed an impressive career, working for a number of respected accountancy firms before rising through the ranks to be appointed chairman at Capgemini UK eight years ago, having held CEO and CFO roles in the process. Hodgson was personally asked to set up the Careers and Enterprise Company in 2014 by then education secretary Nicky Morgan, an opportunity that she jumped at.
“I felt if we could set up this company and actually achieve these goals, which is really to try and inspire younger people for the world of work, then it was something that was worthwhile to do,” Hodgson says.
Since the inception of the Careers and Enterprise Company, careers information, advice and guidance – or IAG for those who like an acronym – has rapidly risen up the policy agenda.
In its first two years of operation, the Careers and Enterprise Company worked in partnership with Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) across England to build and co-fund a national network of “enterprise coordinators”. The brief of the company has also increased during this time to reflect this. The government’s careers strategy that was introduced in December 2017 gave the company a greater role in supporting schools and colleges across all the Gatsby Benchmarks, denoting high-quality IAG.
“What we see is a careers revolution happening,” Hodgson says. “Whether it’s Ofsted talking about careers advice improving or the appetite in schools.
“We have now got a gold-standard – we now know what good looks like – and schools are benchmarking themselves and we have seen an improvement in those benchmarks. We have seen the creation of careers hubs – 40 by September. There is real momentum, which is great. The ambition is that the momentum keeps going and we see all schools hitting those benchmarks and we can really say young people are having better preparation and inspiration for the world of work.”
Scrutiny for Careers and Enterprise Company
The work of the Careers and Enterprise Company has come under increased scrutiny over the past year, with Hodgson and the company’s chief executive Claudia Harris facing two tough sessions in front of MPs on the Commons Education Select Committee, who questioned the organisation’s value for money. In a speech in Westminster last December, committee chair Robert Halfon expressed “deep concerns” about the company, which he described as “ludicrously wasteful”.
Hodgson does not shy away from this scrutiny. “The challenge around being more transparent and watching value for money is a fair challenge. We are operating with government funds and we run a very tight ship and monitor everything we spend because we have got taxpayers' money.
“I think it is part of [MPs'] jobs to make sure we are managing everything well so we have taken on board some of their feedback. From a transparency point of view we publish our minutes, we publish our grant-funding agreements, so every line of our money is scrutinised. We welcome the challenge and, as I say, we run a really tight ship.”
'We felt the money was justified'
In November, MPs blasted Hodgson and Harris for the fact the company spent £150,000 on a conference costing around £200 per delegate.
“The conference was more than a conference,” Hodgson insists. “We were bringing together around 850 people. It was as much a training session as it was a conference. It wasn’t just some networking event – it was really training some of the enterprise advisors and coordinators. We have employers and schools there. It was a really useful event.
She adds: “We felt the money was justified in how we spent it. We don’t do conferences every year and we’re not doing one this year. We’re very mindful about we spend money.”
Ahead of the government’s expected upcoming spending review this year, taxpayer-funded organisations could be forgiven for feeling nervous, with Brexit uncertainty looming large of the public purse. Hodgson says the Careers and Enterprise Company has “assurance” that its funding will continue.
“The DfE have been fantastic supporters of us since the start – we’ve had three secretaries of state. Nicky Morgan – it was her idea. Justine Greening – she was passionate about social mobility and created the opportunities areas which she asked us to get behind. Now we have Damian Hinds, who is very supportive of the careers hubs and as you know he announced the first 20 and then very rapidly announced another 20 – so he is very supportive of us.
“A lot of what is in the careers strategy runs until 2020 – while our grant funding agreements are done on an annual basis, there is some trajectory in our spend because of what we’ve been asked to do as part of the careers strategy so we’re very confident in the ongoing funding from the Department and as I said they could not be more supportive.”
Looking back at her own career, Hodgson says she would offer herself some better advice than that what she received at school.
“I would have said go out get out as many different experiences as possible. I was very focussed on passing exams so I was very studious and very concerned with that. My work experience was collecting eggs for my dad on the poultry farm, serving on his market stall.
'Blackpool is a fantastic place'
“My advice would have been to go out and get many different experiences, whether it be volunteering experiences or different types of work experience just to have many reference points.
“Use your holidays to do as many interesting things as you can. I think I was always just relieved that the terms were over and if I looked back I would say go and do some more interesting things. I would say be curious about the sort of things that are out there.”
Hodgson said she is passionate about social mobility, particularly in the area where she grew up. She chairs the board of the Blackpool Pride of Place Partnership – a project that aims to tackle some of the seaside town’s challenges.
“I think Blackpool is a fantastic place, and I’m spending some time trying to help improve it because it’s a town that has suffered because of the decline in tourism. But now there is a lot of investment and good things going on. When you do a study of the aspiration of young people in Blackpool it is pitifully low. So one of the things that we’re trying to do is to give them more points of reference and help raise their aspirations and inspiration by giving them more experiences.
'Still a long way to go'
“Otherwise you can end up with low aspirations and generations of unemployment and I think that’s where employers must, must play their part in opening the eyes of these young people. You will just have a downward spiral and a lack of social mobility – which is just unacceptable.”
Assessing the Careers and Enterprise Company’s first four years of work, Hodgson says a lot of headway has been made but there is more work to do.
She added: “Anything that we can do through getting the schools to focus on ‘How do we break this cycle?’, that’s what I’m passionate about. We have got to do that.
“As far as we’re concerned, yes there is progress, but there’s still a long way to go.”