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'Michael Gove is wrong when it comes to careers guidance in schools'

Tristram Hooley, reader in career development at the University of Derby, writes:

On Wednesday, Michael Gove was quizzed by the House of Commons Education Select Committee. One notable feature of this encounter was that it contained the education secretary’s first public comments on the subject of career guidance. He approached this new subject with the same mix of humility and diplomacy that have endeared him to the rest of the education system.

He started by defending the Government’s record on career guidance, but quickly moved to denounce the careers lobby for skewing the debate, question whether there is any need for professional career guidance and argue that greater employer involvement in schools is all the careers advice than anyone will ever need.

In fact, Mr Gove’s support for greater employer involvement in schools is welcome. There is a vast array of research (helpfully collected together by the Education Employer Taskforce) that suggests that there are numerous benefits to providing young people with access to those in the workforce. These include increasing motivation in school, supporting successful transitions and enhancing career thinking and aspirations.

However, the government’s enthusiasm for education/employer collaboration is rather undercut by the fact that it has presided over the collapse of the Education Business Partnerships and Connexions – the two key organisations that provided brokerage between schools and employers. In fact, the Government has done nothing to improve education/business relations and much that has made these more difficult.

Mr Gove’s conception of what employers can do in schools is actually extremely narrow and largely borrowed from his colleague [skills minister] Matthew Hancock’s grandly titled Inspiration Vision Statement. This makes the argument that young people need inspiration more than they need advice and suggests that only employers can provide this kind of inspiration.

The idea that all that is needed is inspiration is essentially education policy drawn from the Rogers and Hammerstein song Happy Talk:

You gotta have a dream, if you don't have a dream,
How you gonna have a dream come true.

Unfortunately, back in the real world, inspiration is often not enough. Negotiating the complexity of an ever-changing education system and a dynamic labour market requires more than having a dream. Employers can provide useful insights into this, but they are usually specialised in a single industry and are unlikely to be able to keep up with the twists and turns of the secretary of state’s education policy.

On the other hand, a specialised group of education professionals who have knowledge of the education system and the labour market might just be useful here. In fact, career professionals and employers are not alternatives, but rather complementary facets of a career education.

Career professionals can provide an overview of systems and labour markets, while employers can provide experience, personal reflections and detailed knowledge of a particular industry. Equally importantly career professionals can help to prepare young people for encounters with employers and set what is said into a broader context.

Finally, it is worth noting that the government’s policy relies on all employers being “inspirational speakers” which seems like a pretty tall order. Careers professionals can help to prepare employers for interactions with young people and create forums that actually facilitate meaningful conversations rather than requiring them to turn on the illusive “inspirational” X factor.

Mr Gove’s first words on the subject of career guidance were clearly not particularly encouraging. He made repeated calls for evidence that proves the effectiveness of career guidance, but then showed that he had very little understanding of the activity or how it fitted into the education system.

We can only hope that Mr Gove learns from his mistakes and ensures that his next speech on career guidance seriously addresses the issue of how to make sure the education system supports young people to maximise their potential, make effective transitions to work and build happy and worthwhile careers.

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