The service given by careers advisers has hugely improved in the past 20 years, says Sean McPartlin. My first direct experience of the careers service was as a pupil at school in the north of England in the 1960s. Josie Shearer, our careers adviser, was the only female in an aggressively and exclusively male grammar school. The heady whiff of her perfume was enough to flummox most of us, but we had to keep our appointments and hazard a plan as to our futures.
On hearing my desire to return to my hometown university in Edinburgh, she uttered a derisive snort which still echoes down to me over the years. Whether or not it was an insult calculated to make me adopt a more serious approach to my studies, or whether she genuinely felt I had no chance of success, I've never known. Either way, it worked, so I have reason to be grateful for her encouragement, negative or otherwise.
I shouldn't be too hard on her though, because career advisers, just as much as teachers, have changed style dramatically in the past 20 years or so. Who can forget the scene in Ken Loach's Kes set in the mid-1960s, where poor Billy Casper, unloved and untaught, is given a brief interview by an irascible and preoccupied careers officer.
Having shouted at the boy for missing his original appointment, he then offers him a choice of office work, the army or the pit. When none of these evokes a response, he tells Billy: "Well, there doesn't seem to be a job in the world to suit you!" A far cry from the computer-assisted technology which today helps pupils prepare for their career choices, and gives them access to vast amounts of information.
The context of the approach from which Billy suffered is well reflected in a conversation he has with his favourite teacher, who seeks to cheer Billy up in his school-based misery by pointing out: "You leave school next month, Billy, so you'll be working soon." Such optimism can only survive in a world of near full employment. As unemployment has risen the task of the careers service has surely widened and become more skilled and demanding.
Indeed, in most schools, the careers adviser operates as an extension to the guidance team, being present on parents' nights for consultation, having had input into the social education programme in second and fourth year that prepares for course choices, and generally become an inestimable school resource.
The best of the breed get to know the pupils, build up a trust, give helpful, non-directive support to all who require it, and relay invaluable amounts of information into schools to the benefit of all concerned. Indeed, often their most onerous task is to avoid the growing numbers of burnt-out school staff who sidle up to them at coffee time muttering "Gizza job!".
Of course, as their role has grown, so has the training, and the expectations of parents and pupils alike. I remember a second year parents' night. Myself and the careers adviser were doing our Morecambe and Wise double act, trying to link subjects chosen with particular career paths, when one proud mum stated that her son was going to be either an advocate or a consultant. Unwisely, my colleague wrote on the sheet "Lawyer or doctor", only to be rounded on by an irate parent: "No! I said advocate or consultant - there's no point in being an ordinary doctor or lawyer." We were remarking on her high ambitions as she walked away with her embarrassed offspring when we overheard him moaning: "But Ma, I tellt ye I wanted to work with animals!" If ever evidence was wanted of the dedication and professionalism of the careers service, it was provided by an adviser who worked with my year group in an Edinburgh secondary in the 1980s. He was faced by a pupil who had avoided all contact with the careers service throughout his schooling, who had made no appointment, and who walked in to see him within a month of his school leaving date.
"This won't take long," he announced. "There's only one job I've ever wanted to do."
The careers adviser looked up to be faced by a tall and rather fey young man, dressed in black from head to foot. He asked: "And what job is that?" "I want to be an embalmer."
Years of training and experience came to the adviser's aid, as, unblinking, he reached for the list of undertakers, and made the necessary arrangements.
The whole staffroom agreed: faced with a similar situation, we would have been less charitable. Our reply would have tended towards taxidermy rather than embalming. Such are the skills required and provided by the careers service - and a good job too.
Sean McPartlin is assistant headteacher at St Margaret's Academy, Livingston. He writes in a personal capacity.