It's the period before lunch at Stantonbury Campus in Milton Keynes and Laura, an articulate Year 11 student, has just met one of the school's three Connexions personal advisers. She has been talking to Irma Richards from the careers advice service about what she'd like to do after her GCSEs.
Laura has a few ideas - a career in journalism, perhaps, after gaining a university degree - but is unsure of what she needs to do to get there. Irma discusses the necessary qualifications and together they come up with a plan to help her build experience in this area.
"I was quite broad in my thinking before, but I've got more focus now," says Laura.
This process isn't unusual; it's taking place at thousands of schools around England between Connexions advisers and secondary school pupils. But what's different about Stantonbury is the emphasis the school puts on careers and work-related learning, not to mention the resources to help pupils identify their skills and the sectors they'd like to work in.
"We've probably got the largest careers department in the country," says Simon Glanvill, head of careers and BTEC public services, who is also an English and humanities teacher at the school. "That's because we're one of the largest schools in the country, with more than 2,500 pupils. But what's also different here is that we have a clearly defined careers team."
That team consists of three teachers, two admin staff and three Connexions advisers. Working alongside Simon as his deputy is fellow teacher, Eamonn McClenahan, who manages careers for key stage 3. He used to work in the hospitality industry, "so he brings business experience, which we like", says Simon. The equivalent position for KS4 is vacant. There is a full- time administrator, who also co-ordinates work experience placements and has a Certificate in Careers Education, and a part-time assistant. There are three Connexions advisers based at the school who deliver careers advice to pupils through one-to-one interviews. They take turns to ensure that somebody is usually available from Monday to Friday.
Simon believes the admin team is what really makes the difference to the quality of the school's careers service. "In my last job, I was head of careers at a secondary school in Northampton, and also second in humanities and head of RE, which is a common situation in a lot of schools.
But it makes the job difficult because you can't physically spend the time making sure everything is done properly," he says. "Here, it's the admin team that keeps the office ticking over every day: it organises all the work experience and mock interviews for pupils, and builds our contacts with employers."
Unfortunately for careers heads who are deprived of time and resources, these services are back in the spotlight. In England, concerns around the skills of today's workforce have focused the government agenda on enterprise education, pupil employability and building closer ties between schools and businesses.
Schools are required to provide information, advice and guidance through curricular and extra-curricular activities, such as PSHE lessons, tie-ins with other subject lessons where relevant, and pastoral activities such as work experience in Year 10.
The approach is similar in Scotland and Wales. In Scotland, the new curriculum for excellence puts greater emphasis on building pupils' skills and creating "a more rounded, holistic young person", according to Vivienne Brown, head of policy and strategy at Careers Scotland, which delivers guidance to pupils and adults.
In Wales, the assembly has emphasised the link between careers and employment by amending the curriculum to combine careers education and guidance with work-related education, under a new framework of careers and the world of work. This is available to pupils between 11 and 19 - previously it began at the age of 14.
"Every young person in Wales is also entitled to careers guidance, not just a small group of people with special needs," points out Trina Neilson, chief executive of Careers Wales Gwent.
By contrast, the Connexions service in England only offers interviews to pupils in Years 9 to 13 considered in need of careers guidance.
Stantonbury skirts the problem to some degree by letting pupils self refer, with priority given to those in Years 11 and 13 who have key career decisions to make.
Pupils also receive an early introduction to the world of work through careers events organised by the school. It begins at Year 9, when pupils have the opportunity to find out what 60 local businesses do at an employer morning. In Year 10, pupils can take part in mock interviews with employers before doing the real thing during their two-week work experience. Years 11 to 13 gain access to more than 40 different training providers and businesses at the school's annual careers fair this month.
Some businesses might visit the school six to eight times a year, which Simon attributes to the good working relationships its team have developed over the years.
"We've probably got 300 to 400 contacts and we write to all of them regularly. We also offer nice personal touches such as a thank you letter every time they've been into school, and we always look after them when they're here with tea, coffee and meals," he says.
The school boasts a well-stocked careers library - "possibly the largest I've ever seen outside a university," says Simon - as well as software programs such as The Real Game and Be Real, which help pupils identify their skills and learn about work, and online resources such as b-live, an interactive careers site for secondary school pupils.
Careers education is given a clear role in the curriculum, particularly within PSHE lessons. Much of Simon's job is also spent chasing up teachers to find out what is coming up in their subject areas to see how it can be tied to careers teaching.
The growing emphasis on vocational learning will only assist his job, he believes. "The more vocational we make education, the better the results will be because you're teaching pupils the skills they need to do a whole host of jobs," he says.
Although it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what impact the careers service has had on school leavers, Simon points out that in the last cohort of Year 13 students, only three are not in employment or further education.
Regardless of the data though, he believes Stantonbury is providing pupils with the preparation they need to enter the world of work.
"A lot of the things we do - the mock interviews and generally getting the pupils used to meeting people from the outside world - mean they are brilliant when they talk to any employer, they are really clued up," he says
HOW TO SET UP YOUR OWN CAREERS SERVICE
- Invest in admin support, it lets you focus on the strategic task of building careers into the curriculum and training staff, instead of spending your time organising work experience placements, chasing up students for mock interviews and inviting employers to events.
- Develop good relationships with businesses. Meet them face-to-face, find out how you can help one another and keep in regular contact. At events, allow enough time for businesses to network with one another and provide refreshments. Most importantly, talk to them as a colleague, not a pupil.
- Work with subject teachers. Find out what is coming up on the curriculum and how careers education might fit into what they're teaching.
- Make the careers component of PSHE count. Don't waste valuable time on admin, but focus on identifying skills, learning about the world of work and discovering different industries.