'There’s much to like in the new careers strategy, but is it lacking in ambition and funding?'

We need less caution and more money if the government’s plans for careers education are really going to take off, writes the director of Schools NorthEast

Mike Parker

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Last week the government finally launched its long-awaited Careers Strategy.

There is a lot to welcome, especially the planned rollout of the eight "National Career Benchmarks" developed by Sir John Holman and the Gatsby Foundation. They have the potential to be truly transformational: skills minister Anne Milton has called them the “bedrock of our careers strategy”. There will also be a new requirement for a "careers leader" in every school following the Careers and Enterprise Company’s State of the Nation report in October, which highlighted the importance of a dedicated careers leader to the challenge of meeting the benchmarks. There will be a further £5 million to develop 20 "careers hubs" across the country.

The Gatsby Benchmarks, which identify the key elements of good career guidance, such as linking curriculum learning to careers and encouraging encounters with employers and employees, were first piloted here in the North East following a joint campaign by my organisation, Schools NorthEast, and the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (NELEP) to have the national pilot based in the region.

Sixteen schools and colleges in the NELEP area took part in the pilot, which involved two years of intensive careers activity with schools, colleges and local businesses, as well as four years of data collection. They were then scaled up as part of "North East Ambition", in a commitment to ensure all schools and colleges across the region could benefit from adopting the framework. Statutory guidance is now planned for January and the new school-based Careers Leads, created by the strategy, will be responsible for ensuring schools meet the benchmarks.

From my perspective, the way schools in the region embraced these new ideas genuinely transformed how we provide careers advice for the better and has the potential to do the same for the entire country. David Baldwin, executive head at Churchill Community College and Norham High School, has said: “We, as educators, all have a responsibility to ensure that we can help children become an effective part of society. The benchmarks provide an effective framework for careers education, information, advice and guidance that allows us to do this.”

Implementing the careers strategy

The government needs to consider carefully how it rolls the strategy out nationally, if it is to ensure that it is truly transformational. While it is a no-brainer that all schools should have a Careers Lead, the timescale for their rollout looks distinctly unambitious. The timetable published alongside the strategy says only that training will be funded “during 2018 and 19”. We are keen that schools are able to benefit as soon as possible and urge the government to consider how this work could be accelerated.

Funding is, as ever, also an issue. The £4 million earmarked for training the Careers Leaders is very small, extending to just 500 schools. More clarity is needed on how other schools are expected to pay for this, given existing budget restraints. In addition, to ensure the long-term success of the strategy, government needs to be facilitating networks of careers leads, not just funding their training. The first tranche of leads will inevitably move on in time, so more consideration needs to be given to how we can support CPD and the development of networks.

The DfE also needs to be innovative in its approach to industry and consider how businesses can do more than just fund the "enterprise advisers", who currently advise heads on opportunities for employer engagement activity in the local area. The natural evolution from this would be working even more closely with industry to ensure that the careers leads are people from business with a strong knowledge of the local and regional economies and business networks. This would help pupils to better understand the options open to them and think about their futures, supporting the provision of good careers advice. The business sector is keen to engage with schools in this area and there is room for creative thinking as to how these roles can be staffed and funded in future.

The government says the 20 careers hubs, which will link schools and colleges with local universities and employers to help broaden pupils’ horizons, will be set up “to support young people in the most disadvantaged areas”. In practice, this will almost certainly mean at least one will be located in each of the 12 "Opportunity Areas" –  the DfE’s flagship social mobility scheme – with, at most, 8 left to share across the rest of the country. Anyone familiar with the Opportunity Areas policy will know the North East is the only region outside of London not to have one, something that is nothing short of a scandal. It would make sense to locate at least one of the hubs in the North East. With our experience with the Gatsby pilots, nowhere else in the country is in such a unique position. The potential exists to make a huge success of a careers hub here in the region.

The government’s recognition that an overhaul to careers engagement is needed is an important step and we welcome the publication of the Careers Strategy – building it around the Gatsby Benchmarks is absolutely the right approach. Getting the nuts and bolts of the strategy right is crucial to provide the step-change in careers advice provision that the country so keenly needs.

Mike Parker is the director of Schools NorthEast

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