The challenges of school based careers work


Up until now school based career work in the UK has been largely based on the partnership model. Essentially this means that schools have had an external agency (the Careers Service and then Connexions) to draw on in order to deliver a careers curriculum. AS our recent Collapse or Transition report argued, this model is currently under some threat. There is some international evidence to suggest that the partnership model is superior to more school based approaches to delivering career guidance (see Tony Watts recent summary for the DfE). In general the main points that are made are the fact that a  partnership approach offers greater connections with the labour market and with colleges and universities, that it can enable a school to mobilise a wider range of expertise and that it is more impartial and independent.

However, there are also some downsides to having an external agency delivering career in schools. Schools are pretty closed insular communities and it can be difficult for external partners to really penetrate into them. This can result in an external offer that is pretty much a disconnected bolt-on to what the school does. I think that career learning is most likely to happen when it is well integrated into peoples lives and day to day experience. It is about making the connection between where you are now and where you might go in the future. If there is not much of a link with where you are now the whole learning experience is weakened considerably (again the evidence backs this up – have a look at our College and Career Readiness paper to see some discussion of this).

So while there are clearly some strong advantages to the partnership model, there are also some downsides. Of course where schools and external partners work closely together you can really have the best of both worlds. However one of the things that has interested me is the school-based guidance counsellor model that exists in the US, Canada, Ireland and a host of other places. I’m familar with this from films and TV, but shows like Glee don’t give you much of a sense of what the impact on career learning might be. So I’ve been asking some questions about this while I’ve been in Canada. A system where you have a guidance counsellor in each and every school who knows the kids and the teachers and works with them every day clearly has some advantages. It looks like it should offer an infrastructure through which a career curriculum can be established and integrated into the mainstream of the school.

However, what I’m hearing from a variety of people that I’m talking to in Canada is that school-based guidance counsellors aren’t really able to deliver on this kind of vision of career learning. People seem to be advancing three main reasons for this.

  1. School-based guidance counsellors are counsellors first and foremost. In general they didn’t get into this kind of work because they were interested in career. They got into it because the wanted to help kids who were struggling in the school system. This is a laudable aim, but it is a very different one from the aspiration to work in the careers field. The delivery of a careers curriculum is a cross-school activity which isn’t particularly targeted at struggling students (although it should help them) and potentially one which draws on different skills and interests from one to one supportive counselling.
  2. School-based guidance counsellors are busy. They have huge caseloads and are expected to deal with every problem kid that the school has. Accute needs around excessive sex, drugs and rock n roll tend to trump less accute needs around career development.
  3. School-based guidance counsellors are not very powerful in the hierachy of the school. The kind of school-wide curriculum based career learning programmes that seem to be most effective take up time and require a strategic lead from someone higher up in the school. Even where guidance counsellors are committed to this kind of approach they can often find it difficult to get whole school buy in.

Do these points ring true with those who are involved in school-based guidance work?

So, all of this perhaps leads us back to somekind of partnership model? Alternatively it would be possible to make the argument for a strengthened role within the school and a more strategic engagement with the idea of careers. However, in the UK we are not moving from the partnership model to a guidance counsellor model. We are throwing away the partnership model with no real idea about what will replace it…



  1. Hi Tristram. This is a really good post – something for people to get their teeth into (hello people, are you hungry?). But I don’t understand why there is still an ellipsis at the end. The story of school based careers work has already been rewritten and is moving on. This is noticeable where schools have either sought out what their options are for careers IAG, or have been well informed by forward thinking external agencies/individuals. The American/Canadian/Irish school-based counsellor model (a la Emma in Glee) is already established in most UK schools – this role is that of the Connexions Personal Adviser, not to be confused with the more specific Connexions Careers Adviser. If you do/did Connexions work ,you knew which job you were being paid for. If you were being paid to do both, you were never going to manage the caseload.I agree with the 3 points you make about the lack of impact a school based counsellor can have. This is no different to many other jobs. You are paid to work towards a common understood organisational agenda which involves producing the best outcome for your ’employer’, (or school, or college etc). But surely, if you are working in an educational establishment (EI), you must believe in the EI’s fundamental premise, which is to provide a good/excellent/outstanding education for its students, otherwise, why are you there?I respect the evidence which suggests that the partnership model is more effective than the school based careers approach, but there is one flaw. The careers guidance professional employed by, say, Connexions has to meet the required outcomes/targets of Connexions. The careers guidance professional employed by say, a school/college has to answer to the required outcomes of their educational establishent. There is no difference. A properly qualified, or currently training, alert and engaged careers guidance professional will always put their client first. That’s the first rule of careers guidance. Yes, we are throwing away the partnership model but there is something to replace it. Serious careers guidance professionals aren’t languishing and they aren’t throwing away their principles or their training. The setting is irrelevant. You are trained to do a job. You take that training with you, full stop. That’s why so many are turning to the private sector. They are in control and can work unhindered to meet their clients’ needs.Careers guidance is a profession. It has a code of ethics. You are still accountable, on an individual basis. This has nothing to do with your school or your Connexions employer. If you can be ‘bought’, you ought not to be in this profession.This is the new partnership model: TRAINED CAREERS GUIDANCE PROFESSIONAL + INTEGRITY + BANG UP TO DATE LMI = MEETING CLIENT’S NEEDS.Best wishesNicole

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