‘Careers guidance in this country has an appalling history, which reflects well on no one’

1st May 2014 at 13:00


Lord David Sainsbury is former Labour minister for science and former chairman of Sainsbury’s. He writes as chairman of the Gatsby Foundation:

I believe that work is central to the lives of most people. If these lives are to be fulfilling, they need, while at school and university, to be able to acquire the knowledge and skills that will enable them to get jobs that make full use of their abilities. This means that they must have access to good careers and labour market information.

This is not, however, what happens today. Currently, for example, there are huge numbers of skilled technician vacancies at a time when there are many young unemployed people who have the ability, but not the skills, to fill them. This must be seen as a major failure of our education and training system. There is, of course, no single reason for this, but it has been clear for many years that career guidance in our schools is not properly preparing our young people for the opportunities or challenges of working life.

Seven years ago, I identified this as a cause for concern when I conducted a government review of the changes needed to science and innovation policy. I noted the widespread consensus – across both the public and private sectors – that the career guidance on offer was insufficient, of dubious quality and often provided too late. 

A series of authoritative reports, both before and since, have raised the same concerns. The sad truth is that governments of every hue, while reorganising and renaming the system over the last 30 years, have spectacularly failed to take the actions necessary to improve the quality and consistency of career guidance. It is an appalling history that reflects well on no one.

What evidence we have suggests that the position has got worse, not better, since my report. The result is that too many young people are being kept in the dark about the possibilities open to them and what they need to do to boost their pay and prospects. Simply studying for an A-level in maths, for example, can boost lifetime wages by an average of 10 per cent.

So how do we put this right?  It is not just the UK, of course, that suffers from high youth unemployment. The impact of the global financial crisis means that youth unemployment is a feature of many European countries. But this is not the case everywhere. In Germany, where there has long been a focus in schools on career guidance and on technical education and apprenticeships, youth unemployment is lower than the adult rate. 

This is why when my Gatsby Foundation asked Sir John Holman, a former headteacher and highly respected educationalist, to examine career guidance in our secondary schools, we decided not to add to the pile of reports criticising the present system, but instead to look at best practice around the world. By visiting countries and schools – at home and abroad – seen to be achieving good results, the aim was to identify what would deliver real improvements for our young people and the economy.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has looked at this area that Sir John’s report finds there is no single ‘magic bullet’  to tackle this crisis. Instead, it calls for government, schools and employers to work together to transform the culture and approach of schools' career guidance. By examining what works well, we have established eight benchmarks against which progress can be measured. We believe that Ofsted should consider these benchmarks when evaluating school performance on career guidance. We also argue that schools should be held to account for the quality of their career advice through performance tables.

A series of individual measures are also identified to help drive improvements. We recommend for instance that secondary schools publish where their pupils are studying or working three years after leaving. This would provide valuable extra information for parents. But it would also help to ensure that schools give career guidance the long-term attention and priority it requires.

The report also calls for the worrying gap between education and the workplace to be closed by requiring every school to have a local employer on its governing body. This already happens in many schools, but it must be universal. Their input will be invaluable in helping schools and pupils understand the skills needed in the economy and in building better links with employers.

These and the other recommendations inevitably come with a cost attached. We commissioned PwC to quantify the resource required to bring all schools up to our benchmark standards. PwC arrived at a figure of £54 per pupil per year. While not trivial, this figure represents less than one per cent of a typical school’s budget. Perhaps more strikingly, PwC estimates that, for every pupil prevented from becoming Neet as a result of implementing our recommendations, the government would save sufficient money to provide the benchmark level of career guidance for a further 280 pupils.

If our recommendations are followed, I am convinced that collaborative action by key players can, for the first time in a generation, address current deficiencies and deliver a world-class career guidance system that is both effective and efficient.  If we are serious about tackling the appalling problem of youth unemployment, reforming our system of career guidance should be a priority for the government.




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