Six ways to improve your careers advice

Thorough academic and careers advice in schools is crucial – and the best practices don't have to eat into your budget

Edward Williams

Celebrities have joined a new YouTube channel offering school pupils advice about alternative career options

Careers and academic advice in schools is unfit for purpose. This should not be up for debate: we know the stats and the evidence and the experts are lining up to reinforce this. 

And lo, in December 2017, the DfE unfurled its New Careers Strategy (you know it's good because it's capitalised). Similarly, the Gatsby benchmarks are now out there, outlining best practice activities to tick that box.

And, therein lies the issue. Too much of careers and academic advice is seen as an extra-curricular box ticking. A nice-to-have competing with must-haves, necessary only to satisfy a political class who've burdened an overworked and underfunded system. too often it feels like rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.

We've all read the articles about how certain jobs won't exist in the future, the importance of training for professions not yet invented and the redundancy of it all as robots will do most of them anyway – hell I wrote several myself. But, they are all an absurd futurist distraction from what is happening in our schools today. I've experienced first-hand the desire of schools to do more for less and it's not an easy fix. I've less sympathy for those who don't accept the overwhelming evidence that things aren't working and instead have dug into a protectionist philodoxical position of dogged insistence that nothing could be done better, no lessons can be learnt and anyone who challenges that is met with a dismissive wave.

So, that said, why am I saying any of this and what can be done? Gatsby benchmarks aren't statutory and the fear is too many schools will rubber-stamp the minimum expectation of the Careers Strategy to keep Ofsted off their backs. Here are a few common issues and some simple, cost-effective strategies that any school can implement almost immediately.

1. Careers advice starts too late

When it comes to careers advice the earlier the better. By introducing careers earlier students may attach greater importance to their studies, knowing they are in service of a potential future rather than an abstraction. Knowing where they're headed, or at least ruling out options will inform their GSCE choices, their A-Level choices and in turn dictate which subjects are accessible to them at university or in an apprenticeship. Talking about jobs that flow from a skill-set or a subject suggests possibilities and raises aspiration. Encourage work experience and employer engagement earlier than the right-of-passage 'sit in an uncle's office for a week at the end of Year 10'.

2. The lack of development and cultivation of alumni networks 

It's a built-in resource waiting to be tapped. Every former student, every parent, every second-tier connection you can co-opt into the fold should be encouraged. If you lack the funds to engage expert speakers, give the students access to professional people working in areas that may stimulate or encourage questions about career paths. Often links to one or two local companies are relied upon to provide keynote speakers to satisfy careers afternoon quotas, by accessing a wider network the students will gain valuable opportunities and information. Encourage informational interviewing, peer mentoring, internships throughout their schooling.

3. There's a fundamental dishonesty about what can and cannot be done in-house

Be honest about what you can offer. I spoke to schools who assured me they were doing it all, despite my working with the families who were horrified at the lack and quality of guidance available. Where there are gaps in knowledge seek to fill them through the newly established brain trust from point two. We always encourage students to seek help when they don’t have the answers and schools should do so too, don’t isolate yourselves.

4. Enterprise and entrepreneurial skills are not routinely encouraged

Work with the community, get the students to start businesses, try things, design apps, gain skills and experiences that will enhance their future opportunities or even just look good on a personal statement. The internet is a playground and offers every business an affordable global marketplace. Success or failure is immaterial at this point, it's about the cultivation and identification of skills, interests and experiences, all of which will show a potential employer, apprenticeship provider or university that they've more to offer than a fistful of exams and a sense that they might have an aptitude for something.

5. The lack of promotion of professional comportment skills 

How to shake hands properly, how to interview, how to conduct yourself in the adult world, how to articulate what you want, what you can offer. Do it early enough and it becomes second nature. Start a debating society, promote oracy, public speaking, reading aloud, drama – these will help with confidence in a professional environment.

6. Promote work experience

Not the aforementioned uncle's office of earlier but genuinely useful experience of what is out there. Students are too often making academic or career choices based on supposition or conjecture, only by getting into a particular environment can one truly confirm or deny one's interest in that area. When it comes to applications, be it UCAS or an apprenticeship, a demonstrable track record of interest is much more compelling than X Factor claims of 'ever since I was young I wanted to be...' It'll help them use the right language and speak from a position of knowledge. It truly is the magic bullet.

Edward Williams is a parent, a school governor, a recruitment consultant and an academic consultant.

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Edward Williams

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