It’s National Careers Week: a fine and noble event celebrating and encouraging students to think about the importance of planning their futures, something that sadly most people outside of this area aren't paying attention to.
“National Careers Week! Yay it's National Careers Week” so began a slightly cynical article I wrote around this time last year. Not because of cynicism about the event but rather a creeping sadness that, despite the huge level of activity (over 1,000,000 students took part), it would once more be overlooked by the bulk of the media unless you were really looking.
I asked myself: how can something as important as the future of every single student not be front-page news? How is it that, despite a new careers strategy, new benchmarks for schools and colleges to try to achieve excellence in careers and academic advice, it's still a grubby little secret that too many schools try to sweep under the carpet?
Like neon leg-warmers, the careers advice that is offered had its time and place – it’s just that this time and place was 30 years ago. And, despite many people’s best efforts, we are dragged inexorably back to that outmoded, teacher-led, form-filling anachronistic nonsense.
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Too many schools refuse to accept there is an issue and embrace the opportunity to do things better. The frustration I have is that schools I speak to won’t countenance the argument that the sector could maybe do things differently. That a profession that encourages the free exchange of ideas, embraces change and welcomes fresh eyes on old problems should be so obdurate in an area that doesn’t fall within its sphere of expertise is baffling to me.
The sector as a whole offers wafty assurances that everything is being done but the evidence simply isn't there (quite the opposite in fact) and too many students' futures are suffering because of this overconfidence.
If parents knew the whole story then maybe a real conversation could happen that would make National Careers Week as unnecessary as a week dedicated to the promotion of the need for oxygen, where we hold breathing-based events up and down the country and remind everyone what a jolly good idea it is.
Good careers advice should be a basic right of all students regardless of their background or perceived social status. It makes me deeply sad and very afraid that the level of meaningful discourse regarding a full and proper careers education in schools is such that we have to rely on parlour tricks and whiz-bangery to get it the attention it deserves.
So many people have been galvanised by the event and are lining up behind it to make sure that schools and colleges across the country are enjoying the benefits of expert speakers, careers days and innumerable events focused on this area – and that is utterly wonderful. However, it shouldn’t take an annual event to create this kind of hum of activity. Schools and colleges, employers, students and parents should constantly be seeking out opportunities to link learning to longer-term careers goals. Many do. But they are sadly still in the minority.
The reality is that, despite assurances from schools and the new guidelines, careers and academic advice is rarely at the standard you or I would want for our children. Too often it's plonked in the lap of a teacher with no more sense of how to advise the students than any other 30-year-old with limited job experience beyond teaching. Schools by and large continue to promote university as the best route for everyone for several reasons: their desire to elevate the school in the rankings, perceived social mobility and often a lack of understanding of the changing careers map.
Keep at it, week after week
The true test of the success of events like National Careers Week is in ensuring that it's not just a blip and that schools engage a proper careers leader to carry on the work after this week is over.
A proper careers leader not just a box-ticking placeholder, and that person should have the necessary and relevant skills to effectively provide meaningful advice. This is not something that can or should be juggled around also being, say, head of geography. It should be a standalone, full-time professional. Outside expertise should be brought in when necessary for specialist provision to help coordinate a breadth of activities and offer counsel to the students, as well as advice to staff.
It’s easy to start finger-pointing without offering some solutions, so let me iterate as I always have – despite the seeming anti-teacher rhetoric – that it is possible to condemn the trappings and actions of an institution without condemning those within it. I know that, for the most part, there is a much greater willingness to address these issues than funding allows for.
My frustration is with those people who pretend they don’t see the elephant and won’t accept any challenge to their authority, as it removes the desire for parents to seek corroborating evidence elsewhere, which is damaging at best and utterly negligent at worst.
So on this National Careers Week I say a genuine, full-throated huzzah for all the people who make this kind of thing happen. I applaud them for dragging something that too often languishes in the gloom into the light where it belongs and showcasing what is possible when people get behind such an endeavour. But let's not let their efforts be in vain, let's take that baton and keep running.
Edd Williams is the careers and academic consultant behind Edducan.com and the author of the book Is Your School Lying to You? Get the career you want. Get the life you deserve