A history lesson

Marx said that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”, but a reading of David Peck’s Careers Services: History, policy and practice in the United Kingdom suggests that Marx under-estimated the ability of mankind to fail to learn from its own mistakes. Peck’s book shows that the history of UK careers services is a history of governmental mismanagement, repetition and opportunities missed.  Despite the best efforts of those in the profession the perceived political and economic significance careers work means that governments have been unable to leave careers services alone and have constantly reconceptualised their role and purpose. Peck’s book, then provides us with a handy guide to this political and organisational history between 1902 and 2003.

What is frustrating about the story that Peck tells is the way in which government policy at once acknowledges the importance of careers work and at the same frequently chooses to develop policy without listening to the practioners who actually know something about it. This is not to say that professionals should have a stranglehold over policy development, clearly in a democratic and pluralist state it is important to listen to the multitude of voices. Given the way that careers work sits between the worlds of education, employment, youth work and so on it is clear that the opinions of careers professionals should be only part of that bigger discussion. However it is not clear that as the nature of the careers services were focused and refocused during the twentieth century, that any government consistently is listening to any of those voices or indeed to the voices of the users and clients of the services.

So the history of careers work is one in which the policy and institutional frameworks within which practioners operate lurch between different conceptual poles about what careers work is supposed to be achieving. It might be worth briefly setting out some of these poles in order to think about where a more considered approach might take us.

So we have

  • Careers as servant to economic planning
  • Careers as agent of personal development and self-actualisation
  • Careers as social leveller
  • Careers as education
  • Careers as social work or youth work
  • Careers as welfare safety net
  • Careers as employment agency
  • Careers as extension of employers recruitment and training

And so on…

Probably careers work needs to encompass a little of all of these definitions, and probably all of us would put the emphasis in different places. Peck certainly suggests in the book that there would be value in progress towards a universal adult guidance service which could operate with individuals at various stages in their lives, careers and with varying degrees of skills and knowledge. It is clear that this is not the direction that careers related policy has been moving in over recent years. Others, might put the emphasis in different places, but it is not so much a difference in emphasis that is frustrating. There is undoubtedly room for 1000 flowers to bloom (Marx and now Mao – what ever next!), but the expenditure that has gone into the repeated construction and deconstruction of different versions of the careers services is shocking and must have expended huge resource on structure rather than service delivery.

It is worth setting out Peck’s main thesis as it is extremely useful in understanding how careers services have developed over the last 100+ years. Peck argues that the three historical themes in careers guidance services are:

  1. An uncertain administrative framework
  2. A body of dedicated practioners able to exert influence individually and collectively
  3. Increasing awareness of the educational, social and economic value of career guidance as the twentieth century progressed

We can only hope that (3) remains as the trajectory and that (2) manage to reduce the negative aspects of (1) in the future.

Peck’s book opens up some very interesting questions and there is room for substantial work to follow it up in the future. There are some key turning points for the guidance movement that would merit further investigation ranging from the origins of guidance work to a deeper consideration of the ideological perspectives of New Labour as they interact with guidance and related fields. The further work that I’d be most interested in would be a companion volume that looked at the social and cultural history of guidance and guidance practioners. This would provide some really exciting additions to our understanding of the political and institutional developments described by Peck.

Any historians out there who want to talk more about this should get in touch.

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One comment

  1. I just read this post after commenting on your previous post about the NICEC debate.Even more proof that career practitioners and researchers need to be more confident in their expertise and more willing to speak out in the political arena. So often policy is made by people who know too little or think too little about the complexity of the issues they are pontificating about.I remember thinking "that’s just not going to work" when it was decided that Connexions staff would be generalist ‘personal advisers’ rather than dedicated career advisers. Now we have had a couple of reports, one from the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions and one from the Women and Work Commission, both of which criticise Connexions because their remit is too wide. Is anyone now saying "I told you so!"?David

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