The academic year is much like a zoetrope: endlessly spinning, showing the same repeated events time and again. No sooner have you welcomed in the new year that you find it’s the exam period, and you start waving goodbye to that year’s leavers.
It’s easy to get sucked into that routine without raising your head to properly look at what happens when students leave. You are focusing on getting the students the best start in life possible and – though you do as much as you can to help them when they leave – the focus is usually on the present, not the future.
In the media and art department at our sixth-form college, we decided that this wasn’t good enough. We set up an annual careers day, aimed at preparing our students properly for their next steps. The approach is applicable for all subjects. Here is what we did.
Decide your focus
There is no point spending money, time and effort on setting a careers day up if you do not have a clear idea of what you want to achieve.
We settled on three aims in our first year and set out a plan to achieve them.
1. For students to be better prepared to choose, apply and be interviewed for university
We invited a range of different institutions to talk about their provision and facilities. These included specialist art colleges – both local and more distant providers – and a selection of universities. For the latter, we wanted a good mix of institutions, with examples of both rural and inner city campuses. The list was not random: we speak to students regularly about where they are considering applying to ensure that we get the right people along where at all possible.
2. For students to have a better understanding of university life, as well as the benefits of studying at HE level
A selection of our own alumni, who were either still studying at HE level or had recently graduated, offered a Q&A session as well as 1-to-1 advice. This allowed a more tailored approach where students could ask very specific questions pertinent to them. The value to students in seeing people who have come from their institutions and the level of personalised advice those alumni can give has been hugely important for many individuals.
3. For students to see a creative career as viable and to be excited by the prospect
We recruited a range of visitors over the years, from freelance illustrators, designers and writers to employees of creative and media companies such as Sky TV, who came and spoke about their careers and working life.
Set a date…and stick to it
One aspect of our careers day that makes organising it simpler is that it happens on the same Friday each year. That means that when any member of staff finds themselves talking to someone who they think would be relevant and interesting to our students, we can book them in then and there. This year, we had around half our sessions already agreed before we really started planning. Confirmation emails were sent out, and once we knew who had definitely signed up we were able to see where the gaps were in relation to our three objectives above.
The same is happening for this year, and a number of people who were involved the previous year are going to come along again.
Be clear on what you want from speakers, and communicate it
This is probably the hardest thing. Most people who come in, particularly those representing organisations, will have their own agendas. This can lead to a hard sell or long, unstructured and dull presentations. Bad enough on its own, but when the day revolves around talk after talk, they need to be managed.
Firstly, we make it clear the talking part cannot be longer than 20 minutes. Yes, of course, this rule does get shamelessly flouted, but by making this clear in the arrangements beforehand we have seen the risk of endless deliveries hugely minimised. Any persistent offenders don’t get invited back.
Secondly, for each visitor allocate one very clear theme or lesson to present. For universities, an example would be a lesson on preparing for interview or compiling a portfolio. We also insist that all sessions must have an applied element to engage with learners. In the example above, we would want not just tips about interviews but actual practice interviews, with students being put on the spot. That way, if they can’t answer the question, the speaker can provide support for devising and practicing answers.
Don’t overfill the day
This was a mistake of ours in the second year. Excited by the first but small event, we booked in everyone we could. The result: small groups for some speakers who had come a long way, students overwhelmed with choice and no clear focus. The whole day ended up being a complete muddle.
We have found it best to give a maximum of two choices for each session of the day, and only one if you believe a particular visitor should be a key speaker.
Ensure the basics are covered
Have you booked car parking spaces and sent out directions for your visitors? Do they know where to sign in and who will meet them? How will you deal with thanking one visitor for their contribution as the next arrives and the day propels forward? Do you have a guide on what files are compatible with your network to minimise IT fails? And most importantly: who will get the tea and cakes?
And finally, the Ofsted bit
While I don’t believe in thinking too much about what Ofsted wants, it’s not always that simple. So with that in mind, what does the common inspection framework ask for?
Under the section “Effectiveness of leadership and management”, an educational institute is expected to “Successfully plan…careers advice so that all children and learners…are well prepared for the next stage”.
As for the personal development, behaviour and welfare criteria the requirements are that “provision is successfully promoting and supporting children’s and other learners…[with] choices about the next stage of their education, employment, self- employment or training”.
Ofsted want to see the distance travelled by the students under our tutorship. With this in mind, a before and after questionnaire can provide simple clear evidence of an improved understanding of the topics you will cover. An online provider, such as surveymonkey.com, compiles the answers for you.
Alternatively, a simple counter in a yes/no box can be quick and easy. Select a very clear learning objective, such as: “Do you feel confident in understanding the requirements and expectations of a university interview?” Then get each student to answer yes or no at the start of the session covering this topic.
At the end of the session, ask the same question and you should have a set of positive statistics that you can place alongside each session, showing increased understanding. This feedback can be used to consider what themes should be addressed next year.
Hannah Day is course team leader of arts and media at Ludlow College, Shropshire