FEfocus Editorial - Still making hard work of careers advice

22nd April 2011 at 01:00

Whether it is fair or not, careers advice does not have a high profile among the general public. While other aspects of education have inspirational screen representations - Goodbye, Mr Chips, To Sir With Love, Jack Black in School of Rock - the world of careers advice only has that guy in The Graduate, saying: "One word. Plastics."

Memories of inept advice - or worse, careers advice being used as a pretext for further battering the self-esteem of struggling students by telling them they would amount to nothing - mean it lacks a repository of public goodwill. Many people may not even notice the changes that will see Connexions for young people replaced by patchy provision organised by schools (page 33). Plenty of teenagers go from school or college to university without ever taking its advice.

Connexions' initial success was in engaging drop-outs, however, and just because careers advice has rarely been done well in a comprehensive way does not mean it is not worth trying. The Government proposals are worse than a missed opportunity - they shamelessly dress up reduced support for teenagers as fulfilling a promise to create a unified all-ages system, when it is clearly nothing of the sort. It is a retreat that is being disguised as reform.

Colleges have made much of the problems with advice in schools. Incentives in schools tend to encourage production lines of A-level candidates and university entrants. Many schoolteachers have huge gaps in their knowledge about the range of alternative options.

But colleges do not have a spotless record on advising students themselves. They still allow many people to join courses knowing they cannot possibly have a career in that industry: how many hairdressing students are churned out of colleges only to have to find work elsewhere?

They say that students are more engaged in doing their subject of choice, and they pick up transferable skills, in any case. But do many of them tell students straight up that they are unlikely to work in the industry they are training for?

So there is a case for an impartial service focused solely on students' career prospects. But will teenagers listen? They rarely have an idea what they want at such a young age and never enjoy being told what to do. The real advantage of an all-ages service would have been to introduce them to a resource that they would be able to use for life: to plan their professional training needs after school, college or university, to manage career changes in later life, or to find out about opportunities to return to education and get the qualifications they missed out on.

It also seems a missed opportunity not to have integrated it into Jobcentre Plus. Rather like how Orwell's Ministry of Peace presided over perpetual war and his Ministry of Plenty administered rationing, the Department for Work and Pensions mostly concerns itself with unemployment.

But with a careers service inside, instead of being mainly concerned with penalising and harassing an underclass for being out of work, Jobcentres could have become places where people of all classes come to get advice about work and the skills we need to thrive. Surely a fraction of the vast sums at stake in our welfare system could have been used to finally get careers guidance right?

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