Robert Halfon, the Apprenticeship and Skills Minister, addressed an invited audience at Westminster Academy on Monday to outline his initial thoughts on the future of careers; but schools will still have to wait until later in the year for the government’s comprehensive careers strategy which was first promised back in March 2016 (http://www.cegnet.co.uk/news/education-excellence-everywhere).
What can we tell from the Minister’s speech this week about the broad principles that are likely to underpin the strategy:
- It will be a coherent lifelong careers strategy – "from primary age right through to retirement"
- Careers will be expected to contribute to "developing people’s skills", one of the ten pillars of the government’s Industrial Strategy
- Careers will be expected to deliver the government’s new policies on apprenticeships and technical education
- Evidence-based practice will inform the development of a careers system that works for everyone
- The strategy will seek to achieve five goals:
- consider (improve) the prestige attached to careers information, advice and guidance
- seek to raise (expand) the quality of careers provision for people of all ages, e.g. by making destination measures “as clear and as comparable as possible”.
- ensure we are truly addressing the skills needs of our country, e.g. by developing a UCAS-type system for apprenticeship applications, by developing a digital ‘Passport for Life’ and by getting the agencies concerned to work more closely together
- support those who are most disadvantaged and use careers to improve social justice
- focus our efforts on securing the end goal of meaningful skilled employment, ensuring a country that works for everyone.
It is also apparent that the Minister’s speech exposed a number of gaps in his understanding of what is required to restore England to its position as a global leader in making excellent careers provision for all its citizens:
- A truly lifelong careers strategy should include provision for citizens beyond retirement. The Minister, John Hayes, in Belfast in 2010 promised a lifelong career guidance strategy but the policy subsequently stalled
- The imagery of the government holding the careers ladder and helping people to climb up is simplistic. Far fewer people today have straightforward linear careers that are managed for them by the organisations they join. In the gig economy where insecure portfolio and serial careers are commonplace and good and decent work can be hard to find (think zero hours contracts) we need a careers strategy that equips people to manage their own careers with hope, optimism, adaptability and resilience
- While the commitment of the government to strengthening the quality of apprenticeships and developing a technical education and qualifications is to be welcomed, it underestimates the systemic barriers that could threaten the success of the policy. The culture of many parents and schools is still that apprenticeships and technical education are ‘second-rate ladders’. We need adequate monitoring to check that young people from lower socio-economic status backgrounds are not disproportionately being channelled into technical education when with the right challenge and support they could aspire to a first-class academic education. The Minister reaffirms his commitment to social justice, but if the careers strategy is weak, it is predictable that social mobility will further stall. These are complex and difficult issues to which strengthened careers provision can make a difference
- Putting government spin aside about a careers system (country) that works for everyone, the resolve to build on what works must be strengthened. It is convenient for the moment that there is some evidence that supports what the government has asked the Careers and Enterprise Company to do; but further down the line there will emerge inconvenient evidence of what works that the government must not ignore. Community involvement as represented by the £90 million investment over five years to build a network of enterprise co-ordinators and advisers should be part of a unified careers guidance model for schools; but so far the government has shown little understanding of the other parts that are needed to make a school-based careers guidance system work. The Minister encourages schools to build their own ‘comprehensive and tailored’ strategy using the Gatsby benchmarks and Career Compass tool but there is no benchmark that addresses (i) the need for careers education and (ii) partnership with parents in an effective careers system. The airbrushing out of ‘careers education’ in all careers announcements by government since 2010 is shameful while the neglect of parents who in a school-based careers system need to be fully-fledged partners with the school in their children’s career development is unfathomable.
Schools and colleges do not always welcome policy initiatives and there is nothing about Monday’s announcement that will genuinely excite them. Much of it covers familiar ground – how many more ‘new’ initiatives to develop people’s skills can we stand? It is also unhelpful that the Minister claimed that he could only find isolated examples of good practice in careers provision in schools. He made no reference to evidence from the Quality in Careers Standard and Ofsted that provision is good or better in about one third of schools. The careers field is strongly aware of the need to strengthen the professionalism of all those working in careers and to find ways of bringing the next third of schools on board, and then the remining third; but they are disadvantaged by the shift from a supply-driven to an under-funded demand-driven system. The demand that should be forthcoming from schools is not there because many are experiencing severe budget constraints; and the government shows no inclination to provide financial help to schools simply repeating the tired mantra that “I do not believe that this is just a question of funding.” In an interview after his speech, the Minister did go out of his way to praise careers provision in colleges http://feweek.co.uk/2017/01/30/halfon-careers-advice-at-colleges-state-of-the-art-but-schools-not-good-enough/
The Minister faces a daunting task ahead to rebuild careers provision in England. He will need to tackle elements in his own party that believe that employer engagement is (i) always inspirational and (ii) sufficient. The signs are not promising. His concluding message that “careers advice is not there as a standalone thing in its own right – it’s the engine room of our plans to drive improved productivity and social justice” could be seen as setting up careers to fail. Careers is not and never has been a magic bullet – it works best when it is combined with a range of strategies. Careers cannot be held responsible for the failings of successive government and business over a number of years to raise productivity and improve social mobility.
Read the full speech here https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/robert-halfon-careers-speech-at-westminster-academy
Read the Cegnet careers blog about the strategy here