As Britain is currently in the middle of a general election I’m going to try and write a few posts focusing on the election. To start off I thought that it might be good to take a look at the overall legacy of the Conservatives on career guidance.
The Conservative Party has currently been in power in Britain since 2010. During this time it has been through five different governments: Cameron/Clegg (coalition with the Lib Dems, Cameron, May, May (minority) and now Johnson (minority). During this time we’ve also seen five education ministers and five skills ministers and at least three phases of careers policy.
Phase 1: When Gove brought the apocalypse. The first period of Conservative careers policy was pretty much disastrous for youth career guidance. I, and many others wrote about this at length at the time, but this article that I wrote for the 2015 election is probably a condensed version. In short Michael Gove spent his time at the Department for Education smashing up the Connexions service, the Education Business Partnerships and Aimhigher, reducing funding for careers and generally trying to undermine the field. This period resulted in a massive reduction of provision for young people and serious damage to the profession.
Sidebar on adult career guidance. None of the Conservative administrations have ever been interested in adult career guidance. Thankfully this has meant that they have largely left the National Careers Service alone. Experiments in co-location in job centres, performance related funding and different forms of targeting have eroded the idea of a national all-age universal careers service, but the erosion has been limited, due mainly to a lack of interest. The opportunity offered by adult careers provision has clearly been missed by all of the Conservative governments, but the core infrastructure has been (just about) preserved.
Phase 2: The birth of The Careers & Enterprise Company. From 2014 there was a gradual recognition that some kind of careers provision was important for young people. The creation of The Careers & Enterprise Company provided a vehicle through which this could be addressed. There was never any acknowledgement of the mistakes that had taken place through Gove’s attempt to raise careers to the ground, but money started to flow back into the field. In general Conservative policy in this area has been highly resistant to learning from history and very insistent on claiming that whatever is being tried is radical and new (even when it clearly isn’t). At first this new approach consisted of very limited amounts of funding and was highly focused on brokering employer engagement with schools (which is a good, if too limited aim). Gradually the CEC started to draw in more money and broaden its focus, ultimately adopting the Gatsby Benchmarks and beginning the process of defining something that looked like a national system.
Phase 3: The Careers Strategy. After years of being promised and then delayed, the government finally published its Careers Strategy in 2017. This document and the associated statutory guidance, funding and initiatives were all big steps forwards. The national system that was emerging was now enshrined in policy rather than merely being implied, but there were still problems. Things remain fragmented, patchy, voluntaristic and underfunded. The resources for the system are still inadequate for the ambition of the strategy. At the start of 2019 I wrote a post reflecting on the current state of provision. I stand by what I wrote at that point. Since then things have improved somewhat (careers leaders are starting to be embedded and Ofsted has got more interested in careers) but the fundamental issues of funding and lack of accountability remain. What is more the current strategy and funding are coming to the end of their lives and, so far, no one is talking about the future.
Sidebar on Brexit. Since 2016 Britain has been locked in a series of Brexit related crises. As I argued earlier this year, this has created a policy vacuum that has exacerbated many other problems. Career guidance has suffered from this. There is a clear need to continue the direction of travel that the Careers Strategy has started, but no political time or energy to do this. It seems likely that, even if Boris Johnson ‘gets Brexit done’, the consequences of this ‘doing’ will continue to dominate policy for a number of years yet. This is not likely to be helpful for a small policy area like career guidance.
So given all of this, how can we judge the Conservative legacy on career guidance? On the positive side we would have to conclude that their policy has got better and that they have learnt from some of their mistakes (even if they have never admitted doing so). On the negative side, you can’t really claim credit for starting to repair something that you have burnt down. Particularly when your repairs have continued to be so limited and inadequate to the needs of young people.
Perhaps worst of all successive Conservative governments have never really been able to articulate a rationale for career guidance. Most of the initiatives have been reactive and half-hearted. Some good things have got done, but there has never really been a sense that this is an important area or something that is worth devoting serious time and energy to.
So, I have to conclude that the provision of career support to young people has been a combination of neglect and short-term experiments under the Conservatives rather than an attempt to build a coherent system. Some positive signs since 2014 and particularly since the strategy in 2017 have been encouraging but not fully realised. We can only hope that the next government will inject far more energy and priority into this field than we have seen for the last nine years.