There’s an obvious question to ask Claudia Harris, the CEO of the organisation set up by the government to improve careers advice in schools: what did she want to be when she was growing up…?
“When I was younger I wanted to be a theatre director,” replies the boss of the Careers and Enterprise Company (CEC) with a smile. “I knew I liked organising things and having an opportunity to be quite creative.”
Clearly, things have turned out a little differently from what she envisaged back then. But Harris credits the experiences she had at school for reshaping her career aspirations and helping her get to where she is today.
Now, she’s on a mission to end negative perceptions about careers advice, and to make sure young people everywhere get the same opportunities she received.
Harris grew up in London and attended St Paul’s Girls’ School, an exclusive private school in Hammersmith. Like many pupils, she remembers that business “was not particularly an area that I knew anything about”. But that changed – along with her career ambitions – when St Paul’s introduced her to individuals from the world of work.
“People used to come in regularly to talk about what they did in their careers,” recalls Harris. “I met a lot of different people from business, and one woman in particular, who talked about what her role involved – the ability to lead a team, take decisions, be creative and shape something…I found that very inspiring. My decision to go into business after school was definitely shaped by some of those encounters.”
Learning the levers
After studying at the University of Oxford, Harris went to work for consultancy firm McKinsey. That role landed her the opportunity to join the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit – Tony Blair’s vehicle for supporting delivery of his public service policy priorities. Working in the unit’s healthcare team, her job was to tackle the MRSA superbug – at the time, the NHS’ biggest priority. “There was an ambition to reduce MRSA by 50 per cent, which we achieved; in fact, it was reduced by more than that,” she says proudly. “I learned a lot about how to turn around a big system at scale [and] the levers that make the difference.”
After Downing Street, it was back to McKinsey, where Harris found herself working on skills and education, as well as spearheading the company’s efforts to champion female leadership. That was how she was introduced to Christine Hodgson – chair of both consultants Capgemini UK and the newly founded CEC, which was launched by education secretary Nicky Morgan in 2015 to boost careers support in schools. She was interviewed for the role of CEC boss and was given the job.
Harris says she was inspired to apply for the position for a number of reasons, including her own positive experiences of careers support at school: “I always felt that other people should have the chance early on to start thinking about what they like – meeting different people from different backgrounds and thinking more deeply about what their plan is going to be in the future.”
She was also influenced by another experience close to home. “My mother got her first full-time job when she was in her forties and I saw what a big difference that made to her,” says Harris. “She loved her work.”
When she pitched up at the CEC, there was no question that there was a job to do. The quality of careers advice in schools has repeatedly been criticised over the years. In 2014, Morgan acknowledged that “careers provision in schools has long been inadequate”. A year before, the Commons Education Select Committee had published a report stating that it had “concerns about the consistency, quality, independence and impartiality of careers guidance now being offered to young people”. Other organisations, including regulator Ofsted and the British Chamber of Commerce, had stated similar views.
When you mention school careers advice, many people will recall a depressing conversation with an uninspiring careers adviser who presented a bleak and narrow view of their future prospects. Harris agrees that “people have very mixed experiences in terms of career support”, but insists it is changing.
So, what makes good careers guidance? Above all, Harris says it has to be a “visual experience” for pupils.
“Expecting a young person to make a decision based on a list of jobs that they’ve never encountered is almost impossible,” she says. “Young people need to experience and see different workplaces, different environments, to be able to imagine what their future might be and to plan for it.”
If you come from a “social mobility cold spot”, she explains, your experience of the world and exposure to adults from different walks of life can be narrow. If schools don’t broaden the vista, then pupils will default to what they know, which is usually what they have witnessed on a screen.
“A lot of young people form ambitions based on what they have seen on television,” she says. “So when CSI comes on, more young people aspire to go into forensics. It’s very rational because if you can see it, you can make a plan around it.”
While careers support may have long been in a parlous state, Harris believes it now has the full weight of the government behind it. In December, the Department for Education published its careers strategy, which included a commitment for all secondary schools to provide pupils with at least one “meaningful interaction” with businesses per year.
Harris says she has seen how life-changing these experiences can be. “When you spend time with a young person who’s been through one of these employer-engagement programmes, you can see the spark, the energy – they’ll tell you about the confidence that they’ve developed,” she says.
Harris gives the example of a female pupil who was inspired to consider a career in science, technology, engineering and maths by a CEC-sponsored programme that teaches young people how to build and race electric kit cars.
Gender equality in the labour market is a subject clearly close to Harris’ heart. It’s also an area in which the barriers can be different to how they might first appear. The CEC ran research on career expectations for young people based on the theory that parents held gendered career expectations for their children, which were holding their daughters back. In fact, they found the opposite to be true. “Young women have more gender-conservative views than their parents,” says Harris.
The research suggested that young women aspire to jobs with an annual salary that is £1,000 lower than those that young men aim for – while their parents think they should be reaching for more. Harris says the good news is that “when you expose young women to female role models, you dramatically increase their salary aspirations”.
The CEC now has an army of 2,000 “enterprise advisers” across the country – local business people who work with schools on their careers support. As 52 per cent of these advisers are female – higher than the current representation of women in senior business roles – Harris says the CEC is “bringing entrepreneurial senior women into schools”.
Another key part of the careers strategy is the creation of “careers leaders” – a new role that every school in the country will be required to have in place by September. This individual will be responsible for the complete careers programme in the school, but they won’t have to provide advice to students themselves.
Some might question whether hard-pressed teachers will want to take on more work for themselves, but Harris thinks the role can be sold as a leadership-development opportunity – because the position has to sit on, or report into, the senior leadership team.
“It will bring status because it’s a senior role,” she says. “I think one of the things you’ll want to see is that this role becomes a stepping stone for people, over time.”
Skills for an uncertain future
One of the great pitfalls that Harris has to avoid is guiding pupils towards jobs that might not exist by the time they finish school.
She says that young people will need to be equipped with skills that will allow them to get good jobs in a world revolutionised by automation. “The things that robots can’t do are creativity and problem-solving, on the one hand, and interpersonal skills on the other – so, care,” she notes.
Harris thinks the education system may have to be focused more on building these attributes, although she concedes “there are always risks with picking a few skills in a very uncertain future”. Instead, the most important thing is that young people become “adaptable” and “learn to learn”.
“Young people will be changing jobs regularly, that we can be sure,” says Harris.
Another existential question hangs in the air. Careers advice is an area that is prone to government intervention, and the shelf life of national career organisations can be short. Connexions – the body previously charged with providing youth support services, including careers advice – fell foul of the coalition government’s spending cuts. Does Harris feel that the CEC has the sword of Damocles hanging above its head?
“We are trying to build a model that joins the dots of what is the best work out there, and is sustainable, frankly, whether we are here or not,” she says.
But Harris thinks the battle is being won on careers support – and that dull and depressing advice is being shown the door.
She points out that in the areas in which the CEC is currently operating, the number of pupil encounters with employers has risen by 50 per cent. “It’s a system that requires lots of different people working together, which is why we’d like to stick around.”