More contact is pupils' wish

Sheila Semple and Cathy Howieson on new research messages. With management demands radically changing, a recent research project, Guidance in Secondary Schools has looked at the careers services relationship with schools. While the research covered all aspects of guidance - personal, curricular and vocational - a specific aim was to review the management of careers service work in the six project schools.

Pupils themselves (and their parents) wanted "more": more time to speak to the careers officer on their own; more contact with the careers officer prior to a careers interview; more preparation for the interview; more (and better) careers education.

Meeting the careers officer should also be "earlier". Pupils and parents suggested a need for increased contact at the S2 subject choice stage, and many thought this should be on an individual basis. Guidance teachers also valued careers service input at this stage. They and, to some extent, careers officers wanted to maintain individual careers service contact with S2 pupils. But Scottish Office guidance does not identify S2S3 subject choice as a "key transition point" - there are no Year 9 and 10 (S2 and S3) funded initiatives in Scotland as there are in England and Wales - so work with S2 pupils does not have the same priority as work in the upper school where there are defined transition points.

How should the careers service respond in a situation where the need expressed by pupils, parents and teachers for input in S2 seems to be at odds with official priorities that focus on the upper school, particularly when they are required to identify and respond to customer expectations as part of their quality management strategy?

There are a number of aspects that contribute to the careers service's effectiveness in working with individual schools. Firstly, schools which had had one or more changes in careers officers, were likely to be getting a more basic service. In these schools, four of the six in the study, the careers officer was not well known to either staff or pupils, performed mainly routine interviews and group sessions, and had little impact on or knowledge of careers education or the broader curriculum or life of the school. In this situation, many guidance staff did not personally know, and several could not name, the careers officer who was giving advice to pupils on their caseload.

Relatively high levels of turnover have been common in the careers service in most regions in recent years and were prevalent at the time of the research, because the service was only able to offer short-term contracts due to the changes to its management. Such contracts are still common.

An important issue for both careers services and schools is how to maximise the relationship when there is a lack of continuity of staff. An organised induction course for a new careers officer joining a school is a minimum requirement.

Are systems sufficiently well organised to be almost independent of the individual in the post? This may mean the development of a team approach to schools by the careers service.

From the schools' side, it appears that the way in which the links with the careers officer are organised has an important effect. A system which is administratively convenient can have a negative effect on other aspects of the relationship between guidance teachers and careers officers.

In the majority of the project schools, the careers officer liaised mainly with one guidance teacher. This enabled the efficient organisation of interviews and reports, but distanced them from guidance staff as a whole.

The Scottish system is designed to give teachers responsibility for personal, curricular and (first stage) vocational guidance, with the careers officer building on the guidance teacher's preparative work and knowledge of the child. For this to work effectively, the careers officer and guidance teachers need to have close working relationships that allow discussion of individual pupils' decisions and guidance needs, and not just the arrangements for the next batch of interviews.

One result of the changes to the management of the careers service has been the introduction of service level agreements which allow schools and careers advisers to put their working arrangements on a more formal footing: this has had the effect of focusing the minds of both sides. While this was viewed favourably by schools, it seemed that the introduction of numerical targets for the school's careers officer gave rise to some questions. For example would there be less flexibility in negotiating a careers officer input that reflected the needs of the individual school or locality?

The personality and competence of the individual careers officer was very important as it was with guidance staff. The large majority of pupils who had contact with a careers office had positive impressions, but ensuring consistency of provision, regardless of the specific careers officer involved, remained an important task for managers.

While pupils who spoke to a careers officer were mostly satisfied with the contact, access arrangements were not clear. There was considerable confusion and dissatisfaction among them about the careers service interview systems. Many pupils were uncertain about interview arrangements although these had been explained to them. Both guidance staff and careers officer over-estimated pupils' awareness of how the system worked. Parents and pupils wanted better access to an interview with a careers officer even if the pupils was not about to leave school or did not have a problem with careers choice - these are common reasons for pupils to become a priority for a careers interview.

Uncertainty about careers interviews was compounded by a reluctance amongst young people to take the initiative in seeking careers advice or in using sources of information such as careers computers and the library.

The rhetoric or "empowerment" for young people seems an ideal when so many wait passively for solutions to their career uncertainty to be organised for them.And while interviews with careers officers were mostly valued, there were a number of criticisms made of the manner in which officers challenged what might have been seen as narrow or inappropriate career ideas. This seemed to be partly because young people did not expect to be challenged in this way, and partly because the challenge had been insensitively handled.

Overall, then, the evidence of the research shows the careers officer's role in schools as being valued by pupils, parents and teachers alike, but improved effectiveness would result from changes in interviewing systems, more integration with guidance staff and the school as a whole, and a review of the priorities set by means of targets for the careers service.

Guidance in Secondary Schools by Cathy Howieson and Sheila Semple is available from the Centre for Educational Sociology, 7 Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh, EH8 9LW, price Pounds 15 An Interchange summary of the project is available, free of charge, from The SOEID Dissemination Officer, 5 St John Street, Edinburgh, EH8 8JR

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