Defending career guidance in the era of Boris Johnson

It has now been a week since the election. Anyone who has been reading this blog knows that it wasn’t exactly the outcome that I was hoping for. However, I’ve been trying to be sanguine about the whole thing and focus on the future rather than the past. I’ve also made an effort not to jump to quick and easy conclusions. Unlike, most of the people that I follow on Twitter I can’t claim to have figured out the perfect path forward for the left, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the environment, Brexit, the European Union, Scotland, the working class and the UK. I’m sure that I’ll get there, but perhaps a slightly longer period of ‘reflection’ might be useful before the recriminations, proclamations and accusations really get going.

But in this post I’m going to tentatively return to the fray and say something about how I think the new government will impact on career guidance.

I’ve recently written an assessment of the impact of the last ten years of Conservative government on career guidance. In short, my argument was that they initially made things much worse, but more recently have started to repair some of the damage that they have done. In general there is much to recommend the current policy, particularly with respect to young people. However, the funding is too limited, commitments are too short term, there is ongoing neglect of the adult system and fragmentation continues to abound.

The most likely scenario

My biggest predictions are as follows.

  • As the Conservative manifesto had no clear policy on career guidance the most likely thing to happen is that the current system will endure, at least for now.
  • The promised increase in school funding will alleviate some of the immediate crisis, but won’t make a big difference to the operation of schools in the long run (in other words there won’t be any, or much, new money for careers).
  • With a bit of luck the National Careers Service and UnionLearn will continue to sail under the radar, but they are unlikely to get any new funding.
  • Brexit is going to continue to take up all of the political and parliamentary time and so there is unlikely to be any serious attempt to deal with the fragmentation of the careers system (as this would have bigger implications for the structure of government).

The worse case

Obviously it is very easy to conjure up a worse case scenario where a crazy new Education Secretary is installed who takes the axe to education budgets or has a particular problem with careers. This, of course may happen, but it doesn’t seem to be the current direction of travel.

If Brexit goes badly, we enter recession and the discourse of ‘austerity’ is revived, of course we may see the mood music of the government change. In this case we will have to make some strong arguments to prevent careers ending up as a soft target for a government searching for scapegoats and fall guys in the wake of Brexaster.

But, I’m trying to be positive. Maybe Brexit will be the new beginning that we’ve all be hoping for.

The best (or at least a better) case scenario

Although the level of funding for careers is worse now than it was in 2009/2010, it is possible to argue that the political situation is better. We now have two institutions (the Careers & Enterprise Company and the National Careers Service) that were created and maintained by Conservative governments. As I’ve already argued, there is good reason to believe that the status quo will be maintained. But the status quo isn’t really good enough, so is there any chance that we can move things forwards?

Back in 1991, Tony Watts wrote an article (available in the Tony Watts Reader) reflecting on and summarising the arguments that they had been making during the era of Thatcherism. In this article he notes three key strands in the way right wing parties seek to handle career guidance.

  1. Guidance as social control. Guidance can be viewed as an instrument to engage people in decisions and behaviours that they otherwise would not have made. In recent years, this perspective has been given a new twist by the proponents of nudging, but essentially the argument is the same. Guidance can be a way to shape society in a particular direction, perhaps by encouraging people to engage in occupations where there are post-Brexit labour shortages, increasing people’s likelihood of starting their own businesses or studying STEM subjects.
  2. Guidance as a market maker. Modern Conservatism (as well as recent left and liberal projects like New Labour and Clinton’s Democrats) have venerated the market as the solution to most of societies problems. It is unclear whether Boris Johnson is as wedded to this market ideology as previous Conservative leaders, but assuming he is we are likely to see an increase in marketisation. Within the education system this will lead to growing numbers of courses and providers, weakening of quality regulation and, probably, the generation of endless new forms of data to inform decision making. Within the labour market we are likely to see labour regulation reduced and the growth of precarity. Within this career guidance can be seen by those on the right as a supporter of individual choice making. It is, as Tony Watts and Ronald Sultana wrote in another article in the Tony Watts Reader, Adam Smith’s famous ‘invisible hand of the market’ made flesh, as it supports individuals to make wise and informed decisions on the educational market and labour market and to invest their human capital effectively.
  3. A market in guidance. Finally and most worryingly the Conservatives may seek to increase the operation of market principles within the field of guidance itself. Most obviously this is about charging for services, but it can also be about the use of vouchers and other forms of quasi-market to make the operation of guidance take on more marketized forms.

There are considerable tensions between these three positions. Social control perspectives do not sit easily with highly marketised perspectives. Introducing a market in guidance has the potential to undermine the activity altogether. At the moment we don’t really understand what sort of Conservative and what sort of Prime Minister, Boris Johnson is, and so it is not clear which of these is going to be most important.

The way in which Brexit is played and plays out will be key. At the moment, as we have repeatedly heard, we send a lot of money to Brussels every year. Some of that money comes back in the form of European Social Funds and other forms of funding for social programmes. Some of this gets spent by LEPs and local government on guidance and related activities. There is an opportunity to make the argument that some of the new post-Brexit UK Shared Prosperity Fund could be used to reinvigorate career guidance to help the UK deal with post-Brexit challenges around skills and labour.

So, although the election is over, there are still a lot of struggles to be fought and a lot of politics to be done. If we get our arguments straight and engage with where the current government is coming from, there is hope that guidance provision in the UK could be maintained or even advanced over the next five years.

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