Tim Clark MA, PGCE, FRSA
In 2013, an Ofsted enquiry into careers education reported that, “only one in five schools were effective in ensuring that all students were receiving the level of information they needed”. Since then, the Department for Education has certainly taken action: schools are now provided with statutory guidance on careers education and the latest Ofsted Framework [September 2023 – the eighth in eleven years] stresses the importance of “next steps” and CIEAG [Careers Information, Education, Advice and Guidance]. Furthermore, the Skills and Post-16 Act 2022 requires all maintained schools and academies to arrange for students in Years 8 to 13 a minimum of six “encounters” with providers of approved technical education qualifications and apprenticeships (though, in effect, this equates to only one “encounter” per year).
Since 2015 the DfE has also funded The Careers and Enterprise Company which provides digital resources and Careers Hubs, bringing together employers, educators and providers, to which some 90% of secondary schools currently belong. In addition, the DfE funds the National Careers Service which is intended to provide free and impartial AIG [advice, information and guidance] to anyone aged 13+; the Service offers web chats, webinars and individual guidance appointments online or at a venue.
Both the Statutory Guidance and Ofsted Framework place great emphasis on the eight Benchmarks devised by the Gatsby Foundation, the charitable foundation established by David Sainsbury. These recommend that all secondary school students should benefit from:-
1. A stable careers programme
2. Learning from career and labour market information
3. Addressing the needs of each pupil
4. Linking curriculum learning to careers
5. Encounters with employers and employees
6. Experiences of workplaces
7. Encounters with further and higher education
8. Personal guidance
Schools will, no doubt, argue that money limits what they can offer: minimum funding per secondary school pupil for 2023-24 is £5,715, rising to £6,050 in 2024-25 [National Funding Formulae 2024-25]. Even though schools receive additional top up funding for additional needs, IDACI and deprivation factors etc. this must cover all school costs (over 70% of which are universally taken up by salaries) and is far short of average independent school fees which stand at about £15,000 per annum. Teachers will also probably argue that it is “yet one more thing” to cover despite the constraints of time and the numerous other demands on their role: the requirement to teach a broad curriculum for as long as possible, the pressure to achieve the highest exam results they can because of public, competitive league tables, as well the requirements to teach PSHE [Personal, Social and Health Education], RSE [Relationship and Sex Education], Cultural Capital, SMSC [Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural development] plus the growing public demand to see greater emphasis on students’ mental health. Time must also be found for sport, music, drama and extra/co-curricular activities such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award, the very things that help to develop character, resilience and social skills.
The question remains, therefore, whether students will be “work ready” when they leave school. For obvious reasons, the national system is unlikely to have the capacity to provide the individual, one-to-one coaching and mentoring necessary to help every student transition from school to work. Time will tell what a difference this recent investment will make, though we must hope that the National Careers Service is not too target driven or preoccupied with box ticking, as some have alleged. A key point is also missing in the latest approach – it is the whole school experience that should help to prepare young people for the adult world, not just in terms of knowledge but skills, personal traits and what used to be covered by the phrase, the “hidden curriculum” – what schools deliver almost subliminally – something hard to measure and quantify, yet indicative of a truly great school.
In my first headship, we gave all Year 11 pupils a dedicated fortnightly careers lesson, during which, as well as developing personal statements and CV’s, they were encouraged through talks, presentations and online programmes, to explore the world of work. More than anything, these lessons proved a great motivator as they encouraged youngsters to begin to understand the whole point of education, that it was leading somewhere and that in order to get there, they had to work hard and to succeed. I was sometimes asked by teachers of core subjects to scrap the lessons and given them to maths or English, but having time to see the bigger picture was, I think, a worthwhile use of finite timetable space. Some years later, this argument was echoed in the 2015 Statutory Guidance which stated that the aim of careers advice and guidance is that pupils should be, “inspired and motivated to fulfil their potential”.
Not the least important purpose of good careers education is to simply open the eyes of youngsters to what is out there. How many teenagers know what a quantity surveyor or an actuary does for a living? Typical teenagers will be limited in their experience of the professions – perhaps just teacher, doctor, nurse, police officer, armed forces – and have even less fist-hand knowledge of technical or practical careers. Having a goal and knowing what you need to do to get there, can only have a positive impact on motivation, attendance and work ethic.
“EngineeringUK has been tracking the annual demand for engineers and technicians needed to just keep pace with infrastructure and other engineering projects…..Despite the prioritising of STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths] in many schools and 2018 being denoted the “Year of Engineering” in the UK, almost half of those between 11 and 19 said they “know little or nothing about what engineers do”.
“Overcoming the Shortage of Engineers”, Riad Mannan, 2021, NewEngineer.
The new T Levels, as with the previous short-lived 14-19 Diploma, place emphasis on industry involvement and genuine, meaningful industry experience for youngsters. This can be of real practical benefit, but we must also be cautious. Since we are talking about teenagers, their ability to travel to placements is naturally limited and consequently there is a danger that since they will be bound to make use of local industries and employers, far from broadening horizons, they could become tied to the needs of the local economy. This will have its benefits, but it is far from the genuine aim of education. We are unlikely to replicate one school in 1930’s Orel, the city in western Russia, where all senior students were trained to be “poultry-breeding technicians” as that was what was required for the city by Stalin’s Five Year Plan, but we must be careful not to narrow students’ options. True “levelling up” demands that we broaden the horizons of all young people, regardless of background, ability or where they live.
When discussing preparing for adult life, it is essential that we also consider the curriculum – what is actually taught in our schools. The emphasis for many years has been to stress traditional academic subjects and the EBacc [the English Baccalaureate – English literature and language, maths, the sciences, history or geography and a language.] The aim, according to the DfE, is to keep “young people’s options open for further study and future careers”. Annually, however, despite all the investment and developments in education, one third of sixteen-year-olds still “fail” their GCSE’s. If we are serious about producing future citizens, equipped with the knowledge and skills to meaningfully contribute to society and the economy, we need to accept that “success” can be measured in many different ways. “To only judge things according to their ability to climb trees leaves the fish going through life feeling it’s a failure”. [Wrongly attributed to Einstein.] Whilst new courses are being developed in technical and vocational subjects, these are currently almost solely for post-16 students. Of course, there is nothing to stop academically successful youngsters from embarking on these courses, as some do, but for many, vocational courses are the only option after “failing” traditional academic GCSE’s. How are we ever to attain parity of esteem between academic and non-academic subjects [the descriptor used in the 1944 Education Act for academic grammar schools and less academic technical and secondary modern schools] if the latter continue to be seen as second best and only available after perceived failure?
This is far from arguing that we want prizes for all, but it does question the efficacy of eleven years of compulsory education. Nor do I argue for a utilitarian approach to education – an appreciation of literature, art and music, as well as an understanding of the country and world which we live, remain essential components of a meaningful liberal education. Accepting different pathways from 14 as opposed to 16 could, however, enable us to raise standards in all subjects, including the traditional academic ones as they would no longer have to be designed to cater for pupils of all abilities. Our aim should be to fulfil the true etymological roots of the word “education”, to bring or draw out, to nurture and nourish and to enlighten: not to “fail” simply because a student has aptitudes other than for academic subjects. As a Head, I always argued that I was happy for us to teach classics and plumbing, on one condition: that we produced the best classicists and the best plumbers. Equally, the calls for a “knowledge rich” curriculum must be accompanied by an understanding of the real purpose of knowledge: not knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but knowledge to aid understanding. Students must also be helped to develop the skills to use and apply that knowledge – only then does knowledge become “powerful” or, indeed, useful.
It might be worth pausing for a moment to consider the French approach. The French Baccalaureate, a three-year course (15-18) has long been renowned as a demanding academic qualification but one that also has a remarkably high pass rate – over 90%. How is that possible? Are French students or teachers better? Does it suggest that academic lycée/grammar schools are more effective? The answer is probably none of these but rather it is down to the fact that only just over half of French students study the academic Baccalaureate – the more academic half; the rest follow technical or professional courses post-15. The point is that by accepting that one size does not fit all, we can raise standards, provide more meaningful and useful outcomes and, not least, improve young people’s motivation to achieve.
In recent years, following the work of the American psychologist Angela Duckworth, a great deal of emphasis has been placed on the importance of “grit” as a key ingredient of success; having “the perseverance and passion to achieve long term goals… It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” [Psychology Today] Of course, developing grit does not mean, as many youngsters have been encouraged to believe in the past, that you can achieve anything you want. You can’t. Success also requires ability and aptitude; effective, honest and realistic careers guidance should help to steer us appropriately and successfully, and also support us if we cannot achieve our initial goals.
As I have previously argued [see Better Schools – The Future of the Country] we need to consider young people’s wider attributes rather than solely their academic achievement. We should introduce a non-academic school leaving certificate which should state factual information about the pupil – attendance, punctuality, attitude, behaviour. These are attributes which really interest employers. During the 1990s and early 2000s, pupils produced a Record of Achievement, a portfolio of documentation about academic and non-academic successes but very few employers, and practically no universities, took any notice of them, primarily because they contained no objective and quantifiable information. In the past, many school reports have also been worthless because of the requirement to be “positive”. Yet it is of crucial importance to employers and admissions’ officers to know whether the pupil was rude, defiant, continually late or frequently absent; such information was missing from the Record of Achievement. A national, standardised certificate could be easily completed by schools and could then be used for job/apprenticeship applications or for admission to colleges and school sixth forms. The idea is nothing new: the Newsom Report of 1963 called for pupils’ wider qualities to be recognised including their, “patience and persistence…general attitudes to learning…honesty, cheerfulness, pleasant manners…and an ability to get on with people”. [S258] Above all, such a certificate places the responsibility for attendance, behaviour, manners and work ethic on individual pupils (whilst also enabling the school to explain any extenuating circumstances) and makes them realize that they will be personally accountable for any shortcomings – what could be better preparation for the world of employment?
We have come a long way since the 1960’s when the headmistress of a local girls’ school allegedly concluded a final assembly by bidding the leavers farewell with the words, “I wish you all every success in your future careers as wives and mothers – and preferably in the order!” Personally, I always chose to end my leavers’ assemblies with the Winston Churchill quotation, “The world was made to be wooed and won by youth”. Our prime duty is to equip and empower young people to do that wooing and winning.