Any incoming government loves a quick win, particularly if it’s in a tricky area which its predecessor has been seen to have got badly wrong. So should the next government be red of hue, could I suggest that they look to careers guidance as soon as they take office?
No one, not even members of his own side, thinks Gove’s marketization of careers guidance has been anything other than a largely unmitigated disaster. The fix isn’t going to be straightforward. But the lack of any previous ‘golden era’ of careers advice frees us up for some creative thinking.
There are positive signs that Labour is up to the challenge. Movers and shakers with shadow briefs in education like Tristram Hunt and Rushanara Ali have not only been saying the right things about the essential role of high quality careers guidance in schools and colleges, but they really seem to mean it. They seem to have more than a passing understanding of why careers guidance is so important.
So far so good, but what should the shadow ministers actually propose to do in our chaotic educational context? Our diffuse and increasingly fragmented secondary education sector is dogged by some of the greatest inequalities of outcome of any in the world. The ever-growing and endlessly tinkered-with choice of post-16 pathways and options are all held in different levels of esteem and understanding by employers. And this is all underpinned by the toxic effects of class inequality, which makes forging a coherent policy as challenging as it is essential.
There are days when a sector revolution might feel like the only way to sort out the mess, but in my more optimistic moments I remain convinced that we can start to get careers guidance right in a way that would not require national structures or endless reinvention of the wheel. The following ideas could engender positive effects pretty quickly.
Schools, their pupils, and their pupils’ parents need help and information personalised as far as possible to the aptitudes, achievements and interests of the individual, and relevant to the local or regional context.
Further and higher education institutions need students who are well suited to and qualified for the courses they offer, and who will thrive because of them. Employers of all sizes need trainees, apprentices, school-leaver or graduate employees who are reliable, resilient and who really want to work for them. And everyone, by and large, would like to square the circle; making sure that it’s talent, not background, that determines these outcomes.
Draw on the expertise of charities like my own, Brightside, and the many others who work tirelessly to plug the social capital gap that too many of our young people face, and you’ve got a potentially large coalition of the willing. They just need some organising.
There’s more good news: we don’t really need any new infrastructure to facilitate that organising. There are all sorts of bits of local and regional infrastructure that already do fantastic work. In some regions you’d start with the residual Aimhigher Partnerships, in others the Local Enterprise Partnership. Elsewhere it might be the successor to Connexions, the Education Business Partnership, or any other local variation that brings people together across the sectors to make the links between young people and those who want to train/inform/support/advise/employ or in any other way reach out to them.
The point is to build on whatever is already working well, and plug any gaps in provision so that you end up with a hub. This could not only facilitate and broker all relevant education, training and employment opportunities, but could also facilitate and broker the careers guidance ‘market’. It would ensure stable employment for the army of now peripatetic careers guidance professionals, and a quality assured procurement route to help schools meet their duty to deliver access to that guidance.
The icing on the policy cake? It doesn’t need masses of new money. Some dedicated money would be nice – don’t get me wrong – but it could be done without. Another short-term option would be as-yet under-tapped sources such as Big Society Capital. Employers already spend huge amounts on recruitment, and many bigger firms also spend a good deal on diversity-related outreach. Universities have access agreement targets to meet, and money to fund student recruitment, widening participation and employability initiatives. Some schools have pupil premium funding, and most headteachers I’ve consulted with agree that for a service that really delivers for their students, money can be found.
So, not a simple solution. But one that could be locally and regionally responsive, build on the best of what’s already working, be implemented quickly, be near-as-dammit cost-neutral, and solve one of the biggest problem in education today? As potential policies go, that’s a pretty good place to start.
Dr Tessa Stone is chief executive of Brightside.