Careers guidance: failing to inspire

This month has seen the publication of new guidance to FE and sixth form colleges on careers. This aims to help us implement the requirement to provide independent careers guidance. There’s nothing in here which good colleges aren’t already doing. In fact, most of us will be doing much more than the document suggests as it seems to assume a rather low base.

The word inspire is used repeatedly in the document and inspiration seems to sum up the government’s view of the purpose of careers advice (see the Inspiration vision statement: careers). Like aspiration, inspiration is often seen as a magic wand to raise achievement. In my experience of working in inner city colleges, most young people are not lacking either. What they often lack are the tools and practical strategies to turn aspiration to reality and that requires planning, consistent teaching and support for skills development throughout their education. A great role-model, workplace visit or inspirational speaker can contribute, but these do not substitute for a well planned careers education programme with support for personal development.

Given the labour market advantage which a university degree offers, there is surprisingly little about supporting realistic HE choices and preparing for successful progression. For most advanced level students this is still quite rightly their most likely next step to realising their aspirations. This is covered very superficially. If all we are expected to do is to support “access to open days” and “help…for example in completing UCAS applications” this doesn’t amount to a comprehensive HE-progression strategy. Fortunately, most of us are delivering well beyond these very basic expectations.

There’s also a heavy reliance on employer links to…you guessed it: “inspire” young people. So for example “Colleges are encouraged to connect with the wider business community to identify speakers from business, student mentors and relevant work experience placements. Governors are well placed to facilitate such engagement.” Clearly, governors are sometimes able to steer their college towards great new business links but any college which relied on their governors to broker these would get only very partial coverage and in any case, it is not a governor’s responsibility to find such contacts.

The guidance emphasises the need for students to make well informed decisions and raise their ambitions but does not suggest minimum acceptable standards. For example, having mentioned the Matrix Standard, why not expect all colleges to achieve this or a similar kitemark? There’s also a remarkable reluctance to mention professional careers advisors and their key role in delivering high quality independent information advice and guidance in a way which no individual employer can. Why not require colleges to employ qualified careers professionals?

There are widespread concerns about the variable quality of careers education and the protectionist practices of some schools which choose not to give high quality advice for reasons of self-interest. The Education Select Committee reported that “the quantity and quality of guidance is deteriorating just when it is most needed” (Jan 2013). Given this context, we might have expected this document and its equivalent for schools to have more teeth or at least some strong incentives to raise quality.

The paper concludes with some interesting case studies and useful links to further sources of information and resources.

Overall, this is a rather disappointing document which probably won’t do any harm or much good either. Despite its great emphasis on ‘inspiration’, it failed to inspire me.

A good way to keep up to date with news, advice and best practice in Careers Education is to follow Janet Colledge’s excellent Careers Defender blog and Outstanding Careers website.

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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