Towards the end of 2018 it felt like a lot of people were getting a bit frustrated with the speed of progress on career guidance in England. The State of the Nation report tells us that things are improving, but that there is a long way to go and that at present the progress isn’t particularly quick. Partially as a result of this, and partially in response to long standing concerns and grievances, some people started sharpening their knives on the current careers policy settlement. Robert Halfon gave an important and highly critical speech setting out what he though was wrong and many in the careers sector piled in behind him. Things are not good enough they argued, there is a need for change, let’s pull down the current system and get it right this time.
I’m in total agreement that the current state of provision in careers is not good enough. I also agree that things need to change. Where I break with some of the critics of the current order is that I believe that within the current system there are the seeds of a genuinely great career guidance system.
I wanted to spend this blog post reviewing where we are and considering what is good and bad about the current system, before going on to propose some ways forwards. But first two caveats. (1) I’m just going to talk about the career guidance system that exists in the secondary education system. I have written numerous times that I believe we need a cradle to grave, lifelong career guidance system. At the moment, this isn’t on the cards and so I’m going to park this part of the discussion until another blog post. (2) I know that no one is really making policy about something like career guidance until after Brexit is resolved – but let’s just pretend for now that it is possible that we will get a government again at some point.
The case for the defence
I think that there is a lot to be positive about in the current situation.
- The Gatsby Benchmarks. In the Gatsby Benchmarks we have a clear statement of what good career guidance should look like. It is broadly evidence based and commands a wide level of support from all stakeholders including key politicians in the field. I don’t think that we have ever had this level of clarity and agreement about what we are trying to achieve before.
- A clear statutory framework and (fairly) strong policy support. The Careers Strategy backs up the Gatsby Benchmarks and provides all stakeholders with a clear sense of what we are trying to achieve and what needs to be done next. Its critics would argue that it lacks sufficient accountability, and I’ve got some sympathy for this, but, it is a big step forwards and contains a statement of intent from government backed up with some funding and statutory authority.
- Career leaders. The development of the idea of careers leadership is essential to the school-based system that we have moved to. We now have a requirement for schools and colleges to identify a leader for their careers programme, clarity about what this person should be doing and funding and resources to support the training and development of this new group.
- The Careers & Enterprise Company. The Company provides an infrastructure around which the current careers policy can be implemented. While it has come in for a lot of criticism, if you break down what it does it is difficult to argue with the idea that these are useful components of an effective careers system. We clearly need some national leadership, local co-ordination, funding for careers activities and ability to conduct research and develop new resources. The Careers & Enterprise Company isn’t perfect, but I think that we definitely need some kind of national organisation driving careers work across England.
- Quality assurance. I’ve recently been looking at the quality assurance systems that exist for career guidance in other countries and have concluded that we actually have a pretty robust system in England. When you put together scrutiny of the policy by the select committee, monitoring of progress through State of Nation, Ofsted’s growing interest in careers, the Quality in Careers Standard, the matrix Standard, the QCD and the CDI register and other activities on professionalisation you have a fairly well developed set of tools to ensure that career guidance in England is done well and that we know where it falls short of that standard.
- A strong history of careers work. Finally, I think that an ongoing strength of the English system is that we build on deep foundations. This means that the field has a strong professional association, a plethora of experts and consultants and a strong historical memory that means good ideas don’t get easily forgotten.
Taken together this gives us a strong system in England which I think that we should be very careful about taking apart. But, others disagree, so let’s move on to the alternate perspective.
The case for the prosecution
Despite the strengths outlined above a lot of people are not happy and they have got some good reasons for feeling that the system is not as good as it should be. The main elements of this argument are as follows.
- Provision continues to be patchy. While the level of accountability has been somewhat strengthened in recent statutory guidance it is still fairly easy for schools and colleges to get away with largely ignoring what they are supposed to do. This means that you can see a very wide range of provision across the country and some young people are still not getting what they are supposed to. State of the Nation shows that it is getting better, but progress is pretty slow.
- The policy is too focused on employer engagement and neglects other aspects of careers work. Many people are worried about the idea that careers work has been redefined as a form of voluntarist activity undertaken by employers and that the professional component has been devalued. I think that this was true in the days of the ‘inspiration agenda’ and to some extent in the early days of The Career & Enterprise Company, but it is much less true now. While employer engagement is rightly seen as an important aspect of careers work, these days it is always located within the Gatsby framework. What is more the process of employer engagement requires considerable resourcing and professional skill if relationships are going to be effectively brokered and learning unpacked. This is skilled professional careers work and it is important that we see it as such.
- There is no space in the curriculum for careers education. This is a real problem which I agree is holding back the development of our system. There is a desperate need to find some clear and nationally specified time for career education. I would like to see at least one careers lesson taking place every week throughout school, but we are a long way away from that. Solving this will require us to elevate the status of careers education within the education system more generally as well as just increasing the funding and regulation of careers work.
- Careers leadership is very fragile. The fact that careers leaders are not paid for their role and don’t have any necessary formal position within the structures of schools raises concerns about both the efficacy and the sustainability of the initiative. We are only at the beginning of careers leadership, but over the next few years there will be a need to strengthen the position of the careers leaders if we really want them to achieve what we have tasked them with.
- Personal guidance is patchy, variable in quality and often very limited. One of the attractions of the Gatsby Benchmarks is that it finds an important place for careers advice (called personal guidance in the report) but locates it within a rich and multi-faceted careers education environment. However, this only works if schools and colleges contract or hire careers advisors. At the moment this is only happening at a sufficient level in around half of schools (according to State of the Nation). Various people have also argued that even where the Gatsby minimum is being met there are questions to be asked about the professionalism of those who are delivering it and whether there is enough capacity to offer career guidance where young people need to access it beyond the minimum level set out by Gatsby.
- Money doesn’t go direct to schools and colleges. An important critique is that the money is not going to the right people. On one level this is bound up with criticisms of The Careers & Enterprise Company as a national body and with the belief, articulated by people like Robert Halfon that all public money should be spent at the frontline. This isn’t a position that I agree with. I think that thinking nationally has a lot of advantages in terms of efficiencies and the ability to take a strategic perspective. Pushing money to the lowest level, particularly when there isn’t really very much of it, often results in responsibilising the staff on the front line (“well we gave you the money”) without really offering them enough money to do anything meaningful. There are also lots of issues about how such money could be devolved down e.g. through virtual accounts like The Careers & Enterprise Company are currently doing, through earmarked funding or as part of the general school budget. The challenge is that the less the funding is controlled the more likely it will be to be lost into general school expenditure. This is not to say that I wouldn’t like to see school funding increased (I think that there is a desperate need for this) or that I would object to more dedicated careers funding being devolved to schools. But, I don’t think that the answer is to abandon the idea of national institutions entirely in favour of hyper-localisation. Nor do I think that any public service can run with money only being spent on ‘frontline service’, back line support is critical to making what happens on the frontline viable and effective.
- Not enough money. Ultimately a lot of these questions boil down to the fact that there just isn’t enough money in the system. The current funding allocation is something like 10% of the money that was available during the Connexions period. This is why I think that people arguing about research spending (which I’ve tried to defend in an earlier post), the salaries of Careers & Enterprise staff or the cost of events are really missing the point. Even if everyone in Careers & Enterprise were to take a vow of poverty, the scale of funding would still be wrong by an order of magnitude. Addressing this issue has got to be critical.
- Fragmentation of agendas. The lack of funding is seriously compounded by the fact that resources are scattered. Public money for careers related activity flows variously through the Careers & Enterprise Company, National Careers Service, National Citizenship Service, higher education outreach activities, Jobcentre Plus, local authorities, LEPs and a vast array of project funding of various kinds. Often split between different political fiefdoms there is a desperate need to pull all of this together and create a strategy that recognises the breadth of careers activity and careers funding and finds a way to organise and spend it strategically.
Taken together all of these issues are what are sparking frustration. So what do we do about it?
Now that we’ve reviewed the cases for and against the current system we need to find a way forwards. My proposal is that we view the current system as an unfinished revolution and that we push for policy makers to make it real.
In this vision the case for the defence can be viewed as the foundations of the system that we are trying to build. So the narrative goes…
We now have the basis of a world class career guidance system. We know what we are doing (Gatsby), where we are (State of the Nation), we have a strong policy framework (The Careers Strategy) and an established national institution (The Careers & Enterprise Company) which is driving implementation and supporting all of the stakeholders in the sector to move forwards.
The system remains fragmented and drastically underfunded. If progress is going to be speeded up there is a need for a cross-government review to root out duplication and draw the pieces together into a single working system. This needs to be accompanied by new or redirected funding which allows us to actually realise the vision of Gatsby. Key to this has got to be the continuing professionalisation of careers leadership and ensuring that personal guidance is appropriately recognised and funded.
I believe that this kind of radical evolution of the current system offers the best way to achieve the aspiration that everyone in this space shares for young people to have access to high quality career guidance. The alternative involves dismantling the current institutions and either rebuilding something new or trusting that high levels of devolution will deliver a national system. I think that both of these ideas are flawed and that vast amounts of resources, expertise and other forms of more subtle capital are always squandered when policies are ripped up and we all start again. On the other hand, policies typically improve, like a fine wine, as they mature. Practitioners learn to work with them, to bend them where they need bending and argue for reforms and developments. I believe that this offers the best way forwards for career guidance in the present moment.
I said that I wasn’t going to talk about Brexit, but I can’t avoid it altogether. My guess is that once the direction of Brexit starts to solidify we are going to have an intense period of renegotiation of the fundamentals of our politics. We will probably have a new government and this will bring both risks and opportunities. Within the careers field we have to argue for change, but we also have to preserve what is working and try and stop the cycle that we’ve all lived through of every new government reinventing careers work from scratch.
I hope that this post will help to stimulate debate about what we should keep and what we should throw away. And I hope that we will be able to look back in ten years on this period as the end of the beginning of the careers system rather than as the beginning of the end.