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'There's plenty of hot air around careers advice, but what's the solution?'

Kirstie Donnelly, Managing Director, City & Guilds UK

It seems we can’t get through a single week without someone criticising careers advice in secondary schools. Recently we’ve seen everyone from MPs to professional bodies to hospitality industry leaders wade in to the debate with the same message - young people aren’t getting the advice they need and the system needs to change. But is this all hot air, or is someone willing to offer a solution?

The latest criticism has come courtesy of the Local Government Association (LGA) which has even managed to put a price on it. Its report blames the high dropout rate in post-16 education on poor advice which, it claims, costs the taxpayer £800 million a year. What’s different this time is the LGA offers a fix to the problem. It demands that control over funding for careers advice is given to local councils, so pupils can be matched to more suitable courses. The thinking behind this that local areas have specific economic needs, and have a greater understanding of their young demographics.

With a quarter of apprentices reportedly dropping out, there is a strong argument for careers advice to be devolved. It’s highly likely that councils are more in tune with their own colleges, schools and employers and that they can work together to find courses for young people informed by the demands of the local labour market. This certainly chimes with City & Guilds’ recent Sense & Instability report, which recommended establishing Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) on a statutory basis. This will empower LEPs to forge better links between schools, colleges and businesses, providing a clear ladder to employment for young people and builds that all important bridge from education into employment. 

What I disagree with in the LGA report is the perception that FE institutions are enrolling students who aren’t suited towards college, purely for the sake of getting funding. I’m also not convinced by the argument that the quality of the courses is to blame for young people losing interest. The quality of the qualifications isn’t in doubt – lots of young people have succeeded in transitioning from them into work, as the official employment statistics demonstrate. What’s important is the ability to choose a well-suited path in the first place. This is what we need to improve, so young people are making the right choice from the outset and understand what they are embarking on. This can be achieved by creating significantly better careers advice and by giving young people access to good work experience placements so they are able to make more informed choices.

Another way to do this is giving young people the opportunity to meet peers who are working in the roles they are considering and hear their experiences. What better way to receive guidance than from those who have recently experienced getting into work? Through our own initiative Apprentice Connect, I’ve seen young people be inspired by others who are able to give them the 'nuts and bolts' on a career route - the real low down - they may not have otherwise considered.

We also need to do more at a national level to encourage people to consider an apprenticeship where we have significant skill shortages to ensure we meet the demands of industry. In sectors such as construction and engineering for example, where there is an urgent demand for skills, we must ensure that businesses are fully on board and connected to schools and colleges. Increasing apprenticeship places without a stable system behind it is only useful for headlines and short-term political gain. In the run up to the election, party leaders will be keen to outbid each other with grand announcements about overall apprenticeship numbers. But this will mean nothing if systemic changes are not made and, more importantly, a commitment to sustaining them.

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