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Careers education: International literature review

In a welcome move, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has published the results of a literature review into the outcomes of careers education. The EEF is a charity which identifies and funds educational innovations to address the needs of disadvantaged children and young people in England. The review commissioned from the Warwick Institute for Employment Research and Education and Employers Research looked at evidence of what works in careers education. It was planned to prepare the way for an EEF funding round to support projects designed to raise the attainment of disadvantaged students. It is expected that in due course an announcement will appear on the EEF website inviting groups to apply.

A major part of the literature review was an analysis of the most robust quasi-experimental and experimental studies from OECD countries into the impact of careers education since 1996. Of the 73 selected studies that met the terms of the review’s brief, 46 (63%) were from the USA and 18 (25%) from the UK. The report is forthright in acknowledging the shortcomings of the research evidence. There are not enough longitudinal studies in this area (partly, no doubt, because of the expense) and the evidence base is weak, disjointed and often opaque. For this reason, the conclusions of the review are guarded pointing to the need for better co-ordinated research in the future. Nevertheless, the reviewers were able to report significant positive impacts from careers education:

What does the literature tell us? The outcomes linked to schools’ careers education provision, including employer engagement, are primarily positive:

  • 60% of studies looking at educational outcomes are positive (only 2% negative);
  • 67% of studies looking at economic outcomes are positive, none are negative; and
  • 62% of studies looking at social outcomes are positive (only 3% negative).

The remainder of studies produced outcomes that were overwhelmingly mixed. It is extremely difficult, however, to find high quality research studies into aspects of careers education, as defined in this review, that are detrimental to young people. (page 50)

The latter point, that evidence of harm to young people from careers education is rare, is worth highlighting. The ‘displacement’ argument that the time given to careers education could be detrimental to young people’s overall performance is not borne out by the research evidence.

The review is also circumspect in its conclusions about the efficacy of specific interventions owing to the limitations of the evidence base. It does, however, suggest that different interventions may have more efficacy in one area than in another:

Table 15: Efficacy of interventions by outcome area

Educational outcomes Economic outcomes Social outcomes
  1. Leadership
  2. Mentoring
  3. Careers provision
  4. Work-related learning
  1. Job Shadowing
  2. Work experience
  3. Mentoring
  4. Careers provision
  5. Work-related learning
  1. Careers provision
  2. Mentoring
  3. Enterprise
  4. Work-related learning

Note: ‘Careers provision’ is defined as learning, dialogue, guidance and information

Future reviews may be able to identify research that tells us more about the sufficiency of inputs needed to secure positive outcomes from different interventions as well as how to make delivery processes more effective and how to combine career and non-career interventions for maximum impact.

The review’s analytical framework which examines the impact of different types of provision (e.g. careers provision, mentoring and work experience but, surprisingly, not employability) on students’ education, economic and social outcomes works reasonably well. It enables considered judgements to be made about levels of impact (high, medium, low) of different types of interventions (see para 16 of the executive summary). However, the framework does expose a difficulty which the reviewers themselves acknowledge, that researchers have no shared agreement on the definition of the terms they use. The review, for example, defines networking as ‘people’s contacts’ (a business-oriented definition) whereas developmental psychologists would argue that networking is as much about people’s relationships, connections and identities.

The framework is not completely successful in its treatment of the psychological outcomes of careers education some of which are discussed in the context of educational and social outcomes. The review focuses less on what is subjective and personal than on what is publicly-observable and objective. The review says very little about the learning outcomes from careers education other than this single reference which is nevertheless significant:

“There is considerable evidence that suggests a strong relationship between immediate learning outcomes and longer-term social and economic outcomes. The learning outcomes could thereafter be regarded not only as of value in their own right, e.g. gaining experience of work, but also as proxies or indicators for longer-term outcomes such as improved wage earnings and/or job satisfaction.” (p.56)

Future reviews need to examine the research evidence to see whether careers education can deliver a wider range of psychological benefits. The latest theories and models of practice in the area of career learning and development focus on developing individuals’ psychological skills and resources (linked to human capital accumulation) such as those of career construction and self-management, motivation, aspirational capability, adaptability, hope, optimism and well-being. The benefits they are seeking from this type of provision are related to greater social justice, improved social mobility and access to ethical and decent work for disadvantaged young people and not just to extrinsic economic outcomes such as higher salaries.

Overall, the review is a valuable reference tool, finely-nuanced and successful in taming a mass of unruly research evidence. It also makes a number of useful statements in passing. The observation that “careers-focused mediated provision is a public as well as a private good” (p.50) deserves repeating. This should shame governments into boosting funding for research in this area. The reviewers of this study noted that they “have found no evidence of UK academia engaging in a serious fashion without such funded encouragement in the question of whether young people’s educational outcomes can be related to school-mediated careers-focused education.” (p22)

The report also helpfully reconfirms the value of starting careers education early. It says:

“There is compelling evidence that career learning should begin in primary school and continue through adulthood, however very few high-quality intervention studies focused on primary pupils were identified” (p.3).

The forthcoming publication of Career Exploration and Development in Childhood: Perspectives from theory, research and practice edited by Mark Watson and Mary McMahon (Routledge, October 2016) will add weight to this review.

The report further acknowledges that important lessons can be learnt about improving the potential of careers education to deliver worthwhile outcomes by scrutinising the results of more modest research efforts (excluded from their remit) such as small-scale qualitative studies. The contribution of inspection evidence such as the many thematic surveys by Ofsted should be added to this.

In its conclusion, the report makes a number of recommendations about the future direction of research into the efficacy of careers education (see table below).

Key gaps in the literature indicate the need for new studies in these areas:

  • how careers education can support the greatest boosts to academic achievement of the largest numbers of young people, including understanding how identifiable groups of young people can be expected to respond to different interventions; this would require combining quantitative and qualitative approaches to further unlock the ‘black box’ of causality;
  • personalised and targeted careers education (and career guidance) for young people (and parents), particularly those in lower socio-economic groups, young immigrants and those from other disadvantaged ethic groupings, or for those who are disabled or have special educational needs;
  • careers education and systems for tracking students’ enrolment and progression in learning and work over time (using data available from learning information and HM Revenue and Customs) to learn more about career trajectories and thus about ways of identifying cycles of intergenerational poverty and evidence of what helps to break cyclical trends;
  • the effectiveness of ICT in careers education (and career guidance) online, and the use of ICT and labour market information and intelligence (LMI) in the classroom;
  • understanding the career guidance process and the ‘meaning-making’ this provides for young people in receipt of learning and labour market information; and
  • the importance of social and cultural capital as a resource for schools, for example opportunities for young people to broaden their networks and expand their horizons. (p.57)

In Bill Law’s celebrated phrase, careers education in England has been clinging to the edge of the timetable and this state of affairs has persisted for too long. It is to be hoped that this encouraging review will help the EEF devise a plan for the next stage of its work and encourage other national players to move careers education centre stage.

Anthony Barnes

Careers education: International literature review by Dr Deirdre Hughes OBE, Dr Anthony Mann, Dr Sally-Anne Barnes, Beate Baldauf and Rachael McKeown (Education Endowment Foundation, 2016) can be downloaded here

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