Was there ever a ‘golden age’ for careers education and guidance?

paul chubb

In this guest post Paul Chubb, a CEG professional with 40 years’ experience (Twitter Account: @PACBoundary), offers his personal reflections (He is keen to stress that these views are only his, but I’d be interested to hear who else agrees with them)….

How often is history not just forgotten or ignored, but actually rewritten? Well, in looking at national policy for CEG it is clear that history has been rewritten by the current Coalition Government. Whether by negligence or wilful intent I am not sure. Let me explain (including looking at different Administrations’ approaches to CEG since 1974[1]).

During the past four years a succession of Ministers, mostly within the DfE but also in DBIS (I know they call it BIS, as they think it sounds ‘hip’, but it is a Department of HMG and thus should be DBIS), have claimed that “there has never been a golden age for careers guidance”. They may well be right, but my memory includes living and working in the time when HMG almost got it right; and I speak of the period between 1994-98. I guess that none of the current crop of Ministers knows anything about that period, nor do their Departmental civil servants. For sure there is no collective memory in the civil service – witness the number of times over the years when, after diligently helping an official to gain a good understanding of CEG, before long he or she was whisked off to another job or department, and we had to start again.

It was in the early 1990s that John Major’s Government continued the Thatcher era’s privatisation of public services. Whatever the rights and wrongs of privatisation (a debate for another time and place), my experience is that ‘privatising’ the former LEA careers service in 1994 turned out to be the closest we got to a ‘golden era’. Why do I say this?

Well let’s look at the historical facts. This is what we had:

  • A national, robust specification of the services to be provided under contract,
  • Mandatory quality standards required of the organisational providers,
  • Mandatory professional standards required of ‘careers advisers’ required to deliver the services, and
  • Pretty decent levels of funding.

Add to this the contractual requirement in each of the 67 careers service contract areas in England for the provider to demonstrate:

  • Appropriate localisation of services,
  • Strong local contact with and involvement of employers (both by the service becoming knowledgeable about local labour markets, as well as leading employers being directly involved in the strategic and corporate governance of many of the contractors),

The contract included, importantly, ring-fenced (hypothecated) budgets for aspects of the contractual duty – amongst which were dedicated funds to enhance the quality of CEG in schools themselves. It was this latter fund which led so many of the careers service contractors (many of them partnerships between LAs and Training & Enterprise Councils, as well as some commercial providers) to develop and establish the CEIAG Quality Awards, which became development tools as much as sources of accreditation for good work. Ministers saw that the better schools were preparing young people for future career decisions, but not all, and so recognising the need to require all schools to have a careers education programme in place, they legislated for it (1997), and supported CEG developments with this dedicated funding stream via the contracted careers service providers.

What went wrong then? Well, not everything was rosy in the contract specification and requirements placed upon providers. It seems that no government can resist interfering with professional practice (why are professionals not trusted to know what is right?). And the then Tory administration began to impose what we all saw as plain daft numerical targets for ‘careers action plans’ for pupils and students (too often focussing upon process not impact and outcomes). This forced professional practice too often to see careers advisers ‘action-planning’ every student they saw in order to meet targets, rather than doing what their professional ethics told them was best for their clients. Of course we balked at this aspect of the contract, but Ministers knew best……..

Then the 1997 Labour landslide swept Major out of office, and it wasn’t long before the warning signs appeared of a different kind of interference with the professional practice of the careers service by the new set of Ministers. Labour began by ‘refocussing’ the service on to young people they deemed most in need.

We tried to reason that the principle of a universal public service was right for the careers service. Academic ability has rarely equated automatically with sound and effective career planning skills (witness the tragic numbers of young people dropping out of higher education through ill-judged decisions and choices). But these Ministers also knew best; they wouldn’t listen either. So we found ourselves in the ludicrous position of many rudderless young people, with a few good GCSEs and above, being deemed by Ministers as “non-priorities” and too often denied access to professional careers advisers to help them consider and explore their options.

Next came the rise of the Social Exclusion Unit in the late 1990s, with the disparaging of ‘careers advice and guidance’, and the flawed national design of what became Connexions focussing too much on targeted services rather than universal career preparation (the former ‘instead of’, rather than ‘as well as’). Sadly, Connexions promised so much to so many, yet its national architects failed to understand the link between labour market intelligence and successful transition support services for young people. Hence, in too many parts of England, the Connexions Service, which succeeded the careers service, regrettably neglected or marginalised professional careers guidance. The national specification and requirements of Connexions providers reduced or removed so many of the better features of the 1994/98 era which addressed careers provision. Sadly the dedicated funding for CEG quality developments in schools did not survive for long after the 1997 Election, the intervention of the SEU and the creation of Connexions.

Ultimately Connexions became unloved by Labour’s own Ministers, as if they had played no part in undermining its ability universally to deliver professional careers services as well as its targeted support services. Labour rewrote its own history, blaming Connexions when it was their design (and their anti-careers guidance prejudices) which had undermined the ability of Connexions consistently to deliver. In 2009 Alan Milburn MP finally produced a report for Ed Balls (then Secretary of State for what had become DCSF) which effectively put the first nails in the Connexions coffin. Milburn criticised Connexions as being ‘patchy’ and as having neglected supporting social mobility.

Had Labour won the 2010 General Election then Connexions, and the LAs now back running it, would have had 12/24 months to turn things around for the better. To its credit DCSF set up a Careers Profession Task Force charged with producing recommendations to reinvigorate the profession and reposition it to become successful and make a positive impact everywhere in England.

Excellently led by Dame Ruth Silver, the CPTF produced a series of recommendations to do just that. However, May 2010 saw Labour ousted – so it was to the new Coalition Government that the CPTF reported in the summer of 2010. All of its recommendations were, on the face of it, accepted by the new Ministers (Nick Gibb and John Hayes). But the former demonstrated a complete lack of appreciation of the value of CEG, only surpassed by his Secretary of State (Michael Gove). John Hayes on the other hand “got it” entirely.

Hayes knew the power of labour market informed professional CEG to empower and enable young people (and adults) to take control of their learning and work careers. He wanted to establish a world-class specialist all-age careers service for England – pledging to do so at the Belfast Conference of the Institute of Careers Guidance in November 2010. But he was betrayed by Mr Gove, who removed the funding for the young person’s careers service, leaving Hayes effectively with only the Next Step budget of DBIS with which to establish his National Careers Service. Eventually he was also to lose his Skills Minister job – such a waste. {John Hayes actually helped us to implement one of the CPTF’s recommendations I know so well – creating the Quality in Careers Standard as national validation for the surviving 12 CEIAG Quality Awards – which could be a crucial part of the solution going forward, as a potential power for good if recommended to all schools or made a requirement by HMG.}

Mr Gove had more plans effectively to demolish the young person’s careers service. His Education Act 2011 placed the statutory duty to ‘secure access to independent careers guidance’ on schools themselves, bringing about the closure of Connexions as a national service locally delivered. Ignoring international evidence which far from supported his new policy, and blaming Connexions (as Milburn had done) for being ‘patchy’, Mr Gove replaced the decision of 152 Local Authorities of what should be provided with the decision now of every School (circa 4000 Head Teachers/Governing Bodies). Making matters worse, he placed the duty on them with no funding at all, and precious few guidelines on what was expected. It’s small wonder that the Ofsted Thematic Survey of 2013 reported on such poor levels of accessible provision in three-quarters of schools.

The Coalition Government’s response to Ofsted, and to a highly critical House of Commons Education Select Committee 2013 report on this policy, was to fashion in the spring of 2014 an ‘inspiration agenda’ – effectively telling schools that it’s not professional careers advisers and careers educators they need, but employers to come into schools and inspire young people to choose careers they speak about. No-one is saying that engaging employers in CEG is anything other than a good thing; but as a part of – i.e. as well as, not instead of – professional CEG provision.

I do wish we could look back, and learn from, what we did in the mid-1990s – when there was a robustly quality-assured and contract-managed universal careers service in every part of England; and when that careers service had dedicated funds to help schools to enhance the quality of their CEG.

So there we have it. As we approach the May 2015 General Election, my hope is that the positive lessons from 1994-98 might be revisited, and a 2015 version of that ‘nigh on golden age’ could be created in the context of the current statutory framework – including establishing enhanced accountability within a framework of required quality assurance measures. That way, I believe we could move on from this failing current policy, and instead build world-class careers provision to enable and empower all young people to gain the skills, knowledge and confidence to become ‘rainbow builders’[2] taking control of their learning and work career pathways bringing them personal, and the nation, increased economic success.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one……”

Endnotes

[1] The 1973 Employment & Training Act placed a statutory duty upon all Local Education Authorities for the first time to provide a careers service for young people. That Act was amended in 1993 by the Trade Union Reform & Employment Rights Act when the Secretary of State took the duty away from LEAs and placed it upon himself. This led to the ‘privatisation’ and contracting out of the service; and was quickly followed by the Education Act of 1997 placing a duty upon schools to provide a careers education programme. The Learning & Skills Act of 2000 and the Education & Skills Act of 2008 also affected the careers service duty and the creation of Connexions. Importantly Sections 8-10 of the 1973 Act remain in force; the Secretary of State discharges his duty currently through the requirements placed by him upon schools under the Education Act 2011. That 2011 Act also removed the statutory duty for schools to have a careers education programme in place. This personal paper reviews how these Acts have been implemented, and sets out why and when I think we came close to a ‘golden age’.

[2] I use the concept of ‘rainbow builders’ regularly in my professional speaking (courtesy of Dr. Barrie Hopson’s ‘Build Your Own Rainbow’ career management manual). Please see www.boundarypartnership.co.uk

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4 comments

  1. Thanks for the blog Paul.

    Working along the lines that ‘I don’t know what God is but I know what it isn’t.’

    I don’t know for sure that 94-8 was the golden age

    (for career guidance maybe, wouldn’t Labour’s Diploma Years be the golden age for careers education though with all those schools working collectively on their IAG delivery plans???)

    but I know for sure that 2010 -present isn’t the golden age!

    Cheers
    Mark

  2. I would go with mid to late 90’s after we ‘privatised’ in 1996. Being paid £29.50 (think that was the amount) by government per action plan written was a bit stupid, but I remember it as a time when careers companies were considering services in schools, making up new ways of working and lots of opportunities – and working in genuine partnerships with schools and colleges, who valued both the profession and the careers company. I saw very little careers education throughout the connexions era (despite being a careers education manager supporting it’s development and quality awards!) but late 90s we were doing lots as advisers and most schools had a programme in place.

  3. Thanks for that summary Paul. I agree with what you say. It was a time when the combination of secure funding for careers guidance, growing funding for careers education (I was involved in the year 9/10 initiative and developments in LMI understanding), increased understanding of schools of the importance of CEG with the Better Practice series and growth of quality standards that all contributed. There were also the EBPs providing good education industry links and even teacher placement services remaining after TVEI had run out.

    If only current ministerial advisers and their ministers would look at this and learn, as you rightly say.

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