Following the recent announcement by the Government about a new careers company I wrote a blog entitled A brand new careers company for England – hurrah!(?) Since then I’ve received a fair amount of correspondence and comments on the blog that have led me to believe that my hilarious use of irony was missed by some.
I want to make it clear that I am very glad that the Government has recognised that its policy on careers has been deeply flawed and has sought to address this. However, I don’t believe that the 20 million earmarked for this is sufficient. Nor do I believe that the decision to establish a new careers company makes any kind of sense at all. I can think of at least three better routes for channelling the money which would have been more effective (in order through the National Careers Service, the LEPs and through schools themselves). Nonetheless we are where we are and the spending of the 20 million is about to become an operational decision. Given this I think that it is important that we start to give some time to thinking about what this new careers company could actually achieve and how it should go about it.
As ever, we have to operate within the framework of a sub-optimal policy. But, as ever there is value in being pragmatic and trying to work out what we could reasonably achieve with this 20 million. To this end I’ve identified a series of 10 success criteria that those who are involved in running the new company might want to consider as it begins to take shape.
- Staying strategic. In England we lack a strategic body that is capable of speaking out for careers. While other home nations have strategic and unified bodies which are capable of participating in policy and connecting a wide range of stakeholders there is nothing equivalent in England. The new body could use its legitimacy to exercise considerable convening power, to speak out for the importance of careers and to work from the inside to influence the policy of the current and new governments.
- Understand the current state of practice. Another important aspect of a strategic approach is to understand the actual state of practice. There have been lots of reports that have helped with this (including the recent IER report, Ofsted and various reports that we’ve done e.g. Advancing Ambitions and A Career Postcode Lottery) but, we don’t really know enough about which schools are delivering careers badly and why they aren’t prioritising it. It is important that the new company grapples with this early and comes up with strategies that are designed to address this.
- Minimising the amount of money that is lost to infrastructure costs. Although 20 million sounds like a lot, as Russell recently pointed out it won’t go very far to meeting the identified need. Add to this that 5 million of it has already been earmarked for an innovation fund (or is this additional to the 20 million?), we’ve only got 15 million to play with. If the new company spends too much time appointing branding strategists, opening local offices and so forth we could easily see that money flow down the plug ‘ole. My suggestion would be for the new company to work with the existing brands like the National Careers Service, the LEPs and the various third sector providers to deliver services rather than competing with them.
- Avoiding reinventing the wheel. Careers is not new. There are already lots of players in the field and a lot of services available. Before the leaders of the new company commission a new careers website (I know, I know, it will be Trip Advisor for careers, just like all the others!), generate new labour market information, or set up a new employers into schools programme, they should look carefully at what is there already. They should also look carefully as what has been there in the past and which seemed to work well. An important part of this is to listen to the profession and the existing providers. There is a lot of knowledge in the profession about how to do things well. Too often government seems to construct professionals as a vested interest who should be frozen out. Of course there are vested interests there, but the new company should get into the habit of listening first rather than ignoring the pre-existing knowledge.
- Building the capacity of schools. Careers initiatives seem to come and go at the moment. What endures regardless of the political climate is schools. So I think that those running the new company should seriously address the question “how can we get schools to engage with career more”. I think that the career education quality awards are an important part of this (as we argued in our recent research for the Sutton Trust). Another important part is about finding a way to engage teachers in careers work and to create an identifiable and respected “careers leader” within every school.
- Improving the evidence base. When the cuts came there was a lot of argument about the evidence base on which career education and guidance is based. Of course, Michael Gove repeatedly misused the available evidence . Nonetheless I would concede that there is work to do on clarifying the impacts that it is reasonable to expect from career education and guidance and how such impacts are best brought about. If a strong expectation for evaluation is placed alongside the initiatives that the company develops or funds it could contribute to our overall understanding of what works.
- Building an effective working relationship with the National Career Service. The new company has a remit that overlaps considerably with the National Careers Service. Managing this overlap presents a challenge for both organisations. In the long run it is important that the new company works synergistically with the National Careers Service , using the latter organisations local infrastructure to deliver on its aspirations for change.
- Keeping a lifelong perspective. It is important that the new company maintains a lifelong perspective on career development. Our recent review on the evidence base highlighted the importance of this lifelong perspective. The decision to divorce the new company from the National Careers Service runs the risk of entrenching the idea that careers is just something that you do at school rather than encouraging young people to commit to lifelong learning and lifelong career development.
- Making the argument for sustainability. At the moment this 20 million is essentially a one off pre-election bribe. If it is going to become more than that the new company will have to make the argument for some kind of sustainability. Given that I’ve said that 20 million isn’t enough, I think that this ultimately means that the company needs to be ready to go into the next spending round with clear arguments about what it has achieved and what more it could achieve with an extra 50 or 100 million. Of course thought should also be given as to how the private sector could be engaged in this, but ultimately state funding is likely to continue to be the main game in town. If this dries up the company will almost certainly wink out of existence.
- Remember that activity doesn’t equal impact. Nuff said?