While colleges have long argued that schools fail to provide pupils with information about their options in the FE sector, there has been little recognition of the problem by the powers that be. But chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has given the strongest indication yet that schools' careers provision could be formally inspected as part of Ofsted's framework from September.
While inspectors take into account the extent to which "pupils have gained a well-informed understanding" of the career options available to them, there is no separate grade for careers provision. As a result, critics have warned that schools are not being adequately monitored to ensure they comply with their duty to provide impartial and objective advice on qualifications at nearby FE providers.
Appearing before the Commons Education Select Committee last week, Sir Michael stressed the need to "recalibrate the schools framework to focus more on careers advice".
"It's really important that impartial advice is given to students on progression routes and I'm not sure that's the case," he told MPs. "In our adjustment to our inspection framework from September we will give the inspection of careers advice a priority."
Joy Mercer, policy director at the Association of Colleges (AoC), welcomed the news. "We are pleased to learn that careers advice in schools will be included in the new inspection framework," she said.
But an Ofsted spokeswoman said the watchdog would first publish a thematic survey on school careers provision to ascertain the scale of the problem, before making a final decision on whether to change its framework this summer.
Last year, the responsibility for providing careers information to pupils was transferred from local authorities to individual schools, and a new statutory duty compelling schools to offer impartial and independent information, advice and guidance was introduced. While FE minister Matthew Hancock told TES last month that there was "clear evidence" that the new system was working "very well" in "lots of places", concerns have been growing among FE providers.
Last month, the Commons Education Select Committee published its own report, which argued that the decision to hand responsibility to schools was "regrettable" and raised concerns about the "consistency, quality, independence and impartiality" of the guidance currently on offer in schools.
"We heard evidence that there is already a worrying deterioration in the overall level of provision for young people," the report said. "Urgent steps need to be taken by the government to ensure that young people's needs are met."
It referred to FE colleges' concerns that some schools with sixth forms fail to inform pupils about vocational options available at rival providers, due to the drive for "bums on seats". This can, the report said, create "a conflict between the interests of their learners and the school's interest in trying to keep learners with them because of funding".
A survey published in March 2012 by the AoC found that just 18 per cent of colleges that responded were granted "significant" access to pupils at local schools, while 74 per cent claimed schools would not even distribute their prospectuses.
Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, warned that information, advice and guidance (IAG) would be a very complex area for Ofsted to judge accurately. "Some pupils need hours of work because they are in a very complicated situation. Others already have a clear focus on what they want to do next. We need to ensure that IAG is meeting students' needs, not just about proving that you've ticked a box," he said.
An Ofsted spokeswoman told TES that the watchdog would not make a final decision on whether to give careers greater prominence in school inspection reports until the summer. "We will draw on the findings of the Ofsted thematic survey, due to be published in the summer, and consider if any changes are required to its inspection frameworks," she said.
18% of colleges are allowed 'significant' access to pupils at local schools.
74% of colleges have been prevented from distributing their prospectuses in local schools.