Why evidence matters

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I’ve been arguing with a few people online about the issue of evidence and research. Given that government investment in careers is relatively low, and given that practitioners say that they are stretched in trying to provide the services that people need – is it a waste to spend money on research? As someone who has worked as a professional researcher focusing on career guidance and largely funded by government for over ten years, you would expect me to disagree. But, my commitment to evidence and my belief that government should be spending some time and money as a core part of careers funding is hopefully not just motivated by self-interest. In this post I’m going to try and explain why I think that it is important to continue to attend to the evidence.

To try and illustrate why let me tell you a story.

Fred and Burt are lost in a maze. Fred decides that enough is enough and starts running. He’s pretty sure that if he runs fast enough he can find the way out. But this isn’t what happens. Within an hour he is back where he started, out of breath and angry. Meanwhile Burt has pulled out some paper and started to draw a map. When he goes wrong he knows why and heads back to the junction where he took a wrong turn. Within an hour he has slowly but surely mapped enough of the maze to find his way out.

This may seem like a bit of a silly story, but the logic of it transfers to the education system (and to most other situations) pretty easily. Energy, activity and endless innovation are admirable, but only in as far as they lead you forwards. If you don’t notice what is going wrong and learn from the past you will end up making the same mistake over and over again.

Some people might argue that they already know what the right answer is when it comes to their practice and to career guidance. But, part of a commitment to evidence is recognising that you might be wrong and that the evidence provides you with a tool for re-examining your beliefs and allowing you to improve your practice. To take another silly example, you might be 100% sure that you left your car keys in your jacket pocket, but the evidence suggests that this isn’t the case. An intense period of research and experimentation (frantically turning out all of your cupboards and trouser pockets) enables you to find the keys (for some reason you’d put them in the knife and fork drawer). Evidenced based practice is not about saying how you think the world is or how you want the world to be, it is about finding out how it actually works.

This is the high minded reason for supporting evidence based practice. It is what has driven professions like medicine and teaching to treat evidence and research as increasingly central to their professional practice. It is this idea that has motivated a lot of my research throughout my career including writing things like the Evidence Base on Lifelong Guidance, contributing to the Gatsby research that led to the Benchmarks, and editing the What Works? series for The Careers & Enterprise Company.  Throughout this work I have genuinely tried to develop and present the evidence in ways that are capable of supporting policy development and evidence-based practice.

But, I can’t pretend that an interest in evidence is entirely high minded. Evidence is also political and a tool that we can use to defend career guidance when it is attacked. During the period that the government was closing down Connexions I was frequently asked for the evidence and frequently told that it wasn’t of a high enough quality. This is what I (like many others) have been working to remedy in all of the work that we’ve been doing on evidence in career guidance. By both developing the evidence base and utilising it in our practice we strengthen our hand, make a stronger claim for the importance of career guidance and most importantly make sure that we are doing the right things and that we know why they are the right things.

Because of this I passionately believe that evidence is essential, that all career guidance professionals should be engaged with evidence and that careers organisations should always resource the development of the evidence base and the evaluation of their own programmes as part of their core activities.

6 comments

  1. I wholeheartedly agree Tristram. A connected point is “what sort of evidence (or data) counts?”. Policy-makers and careers practitioners often have different views on this. We live in a world where quantitative data are given much more weight than qualitative data, simply because it is easier to measure. It can be hard to make the point that while it is interesting to see how many students attended a careers event, it does not tell us much about how useful this was for their career development. We need qualitative data to explain and interpret the numbers.

    • Hi Helen and Tristram,

      The key point is how best to balance the investment of taxpayer funds in research undertaken by a privately-owned company, funded by government, versus investment in the delivery of career guidance to young people (and adults) by trained and qualified career development professionals. No one disputes the need for evidence – it is about prioritisation and mindful (informed) spending…see: Staufenburg, J. (2018). Careers and Enterprise Company blasted over £200k conference spend. Schoolsweek, 21 November 2018 – https://schoolsweek.co.uk/careers-and-enterprise-company-blasted-over-200k-conference-spend/
      Expenditure needs to be closely monitored – there is such a need on the ground for services fro young people (and adults).

      The marketised careers experiment in England has failed many young people and denied them access to independent and impartial career guidance, particularly those most in need. Scotland, N.Ireland and Wales have sensibly chosen not to follow this approach. Generally career development professionals are interested in, and in some cases, produce evidence-based research, for example, see: NICEC, International, national careers conferences etc.

  2. Tristram,

    Mary who is Burt’s friend was also in the maze but she escaped from the maze after only 5 minutes because she already had a map.

    Moral of this is “Why repeat the research that has already been done and is already in academic and professional journals at the expense of on the ground careers service delivery to young people (and adults) by trained and qualified career development professionals?”

    The research evidence provided in the Gatsby pilots showed direct funding of at least £9k to schools and colleges contributed to success in the North East region. Why ignore this?
    See also: The National Careers Council (2012 -2014) Recommendation 2

    “The Government should provide schools and colleges with free and/or subsidised access to independent and impartial career development professionals’ expertise. This would help in the transition phase to support schools and colleges to meet their new statutory duties. Such support would achieve immediate improvements in careers education and guidance, particularly for young people. It would help schools and colleges make better use of labour market intelligence/information (LMI), teacher support, improved education and employer
    links and work with parents/carers. It would also help them to put in place an effective careers strategy and implementation plan and provide better coherence across local areas.”

    On Wednesday the Education Select Committee – Quote from TES – https://www.tes.com/news/careers-and-enterprise-company-under-fire-mps

    “MPs also questioned the amount of money the organisation spent on its own research, amid claims that it had funded programmes that did not follow the research findings. Mr Halfon quoted a CEC research report that said mentoring relationships that last fewer than six months showed few effects, and that “some researchers argue that short mentoring relationships can actually be harmful”. He then listed providers funded by CEC that offer programmes lasting less than six months, and asked: “What’s the point of spending a lot of money on research reports and then not following through your own conclusions?” Ms Harris said that some programmes took a “broader way of working in mentoring” and the CEC looked at what they had achieved historically.”

    Evidence is most effective when it addresses a specific problem or gap in knowledge. The reality for many young people in England, particularly those most vulnerable, is they have been left in a maze with very little guidance and support.

  3. I think that there are very few settled questions in career guidance research. I think that there is a lot of value in bringing together what is known and in making it available to the profession in ways that they can act on. There are certainly major issues about the scale of government investment in careers work (I think that it needs to be increased), but the point of research is that it, at least potentially, allows us to spend the money that we have more effectively.

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