Is it really so hard to work out why some young people are having their aspirations frustrated?

I have written a short piece on careers policy under the Coalition Government for the Celeb Youth UK website. For those of you who haven’t come across it before Celeb Youth UK is a research project investigating the relationship between young people, aspirations and celebrity.

Is it really so hard to work out why some young people are having their aspirations frustrated?
Over the life of this project, the CelebYouth team have challenged government rhetoric of low aspirations, arguing that this not only lacks any evidence base, it also neglects the broader structural context within which young people’s ideas about their future are formed and realised. In this post, guest blogger Tristram Hooley argues that the provision of career support can be pivotal in helping young people to realise their aspirations. He argues that many young people have high aspirations, but are unable to fully realise them because of lack of support. Tristram has recently published a research report which describes how resources, staffing and political support for career education and guidance have declined since the election of the Coalition Government. As he explains, this decline has resulted in a dramatic loss of support for most young people and deleterious consequences.
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The Youth Contract

The coalition government has experienced a number of challenges relating to youth. Most obviously high youth unemployment or levels of NEET have continued to be an issue. The riots in 2011 also provided a focal point for concerns about the level of social engagement of young people. Furthermore the coalition government have overseen a period in which there is considerable change within the the environment that young people pursue their lives, learning and work. Notable policy changes in this sense have included the Education Act 2011, the demise of Connexions (Hooley & Watts, 2011) and the Raising of the Participation Age.

Like previous governments the coalition is committed to addressing the issue of youth unemployment and disengagement. The Deputy Prime Minister has described this as “a ticking time bomb for the economy and our society as a whole” (Clegg, 2012) and has been instrumental in designing the Government’s response. The Youth Contract has been a central plank of this response and this post will seek to clarify what it is and how it is operating.

The Youth Contract was launched in April 2012 and is aimed at the 18-24 age group. It combines apprenticeships, voluntary work placements and co-ordination with the Work Programmes and JobCentre Plus. Further details are provided about the initiative on the DWP website at Although the Youth Contract is rooted in the DWP it is an initiative of the office of the Deputy Prime Minister and actually operates cross-departmentally including involvement from DFE and DBIS.

Many of the under-pinning ideas on which this cross-departmental collaboration is based were set out in Building Engagement, Building Futures (HM Government, 2011). This document sets out five key strategic priorities for the government:

  1. Raising educational attainment in school and beyond to ensure that young people have the skills they need to compete in a global economy;
  2. Helping local partners to provide effective and coordinated services that support all young people, including the most vulnerable, putting us on track to achieve full participation for 16-17 year olds by 2015;
  3. Encouraging and incentivising employers to inspire and recruit young people by offering more high quality Apprenticeships and work experience places;
  4. Ensuring that work pays and giving young people the personalised support they need to find it, through Universal Credit, the Work Programme and our Get Britain Working measures; and
  5. Putting in place a new Youth Contract worth almost £1 billion over the next three years to help get young people learning or earning before long term damage is done.

Although the Youth Contract is cited as a priority in its own right it in fact serves as a mechanism for coordinating government activities for young people in this area (especially in relation to (2) and (3) but also to some extent in relation to (1) and (4).)

The Youth Contract is therefore something of a ragged collection of policy initiatives which include differing levels of government funding and engagement. The key elements of the Youth Contract are:
• Wage subsidies for employers to incentivise taking on young people.
• Work experience placements (typically unpaid and lasting between 2-8 weeks)
• Sector based work academies (essentially a combination of work experience, training and a potential job).
• Employer subsidies to take on apprenticeships
• Support for the Apprenticeship model
• New funding for NEET support programmes

When set out in this way there is actually very little that looks new about the Youth Contract. The use of employer subsidies (Hamersma, 2008), work experience (Hollywood et al., 2012) and various kinds of intermediate labour markets (Ali, 2011) are well established approaches for tackling youth unemployment and in fact were key features of Labour Party policy in this area whilst the party was in government (Tonge, 1999). Nor is it possible to see Apprenticeships or NEET support programmes as offering a new intervention. Given that the Youth Contract is essentially just about rearranging the pieces of existing youth active labour market policy the important questions are as follows:

  • How does the scale of the Youth Contract compare with previous youth initiatives in this area?
  • Is there anything new in the organisation and integration of the pieces of the youth contract that makes it more likely to be effective?
  • How can the development of the Youth Contract we squared conceptually with the closure of Connexions when many of the new initiatives’ concerns seems so closely aligned with the aims of Connexions?

The media has received the Youth Contract with some scepticism. Most coverage has focused on the employer incentive elements of the Youth Contract although there is some coverage (often for comic effect) of some of the NEET engagement programmes e.g. the BBC’s exposé on the fact that “government is paying a company to wake teenagers up in an effort to get them back to work” (BBC, 2012). ITV’s recent coverage of the scheme has presented it as a failure, citing a survey from EEF which was unable to find a single employer that had engaged with the Youth Contract (Kussenburg, 2012). The concern about effectively engaging employers in this kind of scheme is also raised elsewhere including in thoughtful article in the Financial Times which cites Paul Gregg from the University of Bath arguing that the infrastructure that is in place to support youth transitions is insufficient (Groom and O’Connor, 2012).

The newness of the Youth Contract means that there is currently very little formal evaluation or academic commentary on the initiative. This fact is highlighted by Nicola Smith on the TUC’s Touchstone blog (Smith, 2012). Smith flags a document produced by DWP which sets out the data collected so far in relation to the interface between the Youth Contract and the Work Programme (DWP, 2012). This argues (with some careful caveats) that 17,000 young people on the Work Programme have entered work. Smith points out that these figures do not demonstrate that the programme is producing sustainable outcomes for young people. She also highlights the lack of data that is available around the level of employer engagement in the programme. A FOI request ( has also highlight this lack of data. Also writing for the TUC, Paul Bivand (2012) goes further in his Generation Lost report, concluding that even if the Youth Contract initiatives prove effective, their scale is inadequate to deal with the current level of youth unemployment.

From my perspective what I find most difficult to understand is how the government have been able to get away with launching the Youth Contract at the same time as effectively closing down the Connexions service. Connexions (or a combined youth and adult careers service) would have been an ideal agency to administer and drive Youth Contract type initiatives locally. For these to be effective the delivery agency needs to be strongly embedded in schools, in FE and work-based learning and also to have strong links with employers. It also needs to have a strong understanding of young people and how they engage with work and with government initiatives with varying degrees of compulsion. Without this kind of agency it seems that the Youth Contact is firstly in danger of re-inventing initiatives that were previously in place, and secondly in delivering them in a way that fails to engage one of the critical stakeholders. As eve
r this is not a plea that Connexions was perfect nor that it shouldn’t have been changed, but rather an observation that coalition government policy has been highly contradictory in this area.

There is lots more to say about the Youth Contract and it will be particularly interesting to see what future programme data begins to show. However, in the meantime I think that there are reasons to be sceptical about the Youth Contract in terms of its scale, its ability to engage employers and how far it has been designed in a way that builds on existing local support infrastructures.


Ali, T. (2011). The UK future jobs fund: Labour’s adoption of the job guarantee principle.

BBC (2012). Nick Clegg scheme will pay firm to wake jobless teens. 20 July 2012. Available from [Accessed 12th September 2012].

Bivand, P. (2012). Generation Lost: Youth unemployment and the youth labour market. London: TUC.

Clegg, N. (2012) Speech to the Groundwork Hub in south east London. Cited in Radical new approach to defuse “ticking time bomb” of NEETs. 21st February 2012. Available from [Accessed 12th September 2012].

DWP (2012) Ad hoc statistics on the volumes of young people entering employment from the Work Programme since the start of the Youth Contract. July 2012. Available from [Accessed 12th September 2012].

Groom, B and O’Connor, S. (2012) UK grapples with youth unemployment. August 13, 2012. Available from [Accessed 12th September 2012].

Hamersma, S. (2008). The effects of an employer subsidy on employment outcomes: A study of the work opportunity and welfare-to-work tax credits. J. Pol. Anal. Manage., 27 (3), 498-520.

HM Government (2011). Building Engagement, Building Futures: Our Strategy to Maximise the Participation of 16-24 Year Olds in Education, Training and Work. London: HM Government.

Hollywood, E., Egdell, V., & McQuaid, R. (2012). Addressing the issue of disadvantaged youth seeking work. Social Work and Society International Online Journal, 10 (1).

Hooley, T., & Watts, A.G. (2011). Careers Work with Young People: Collapse or Transition?. Derby: International Centre for Guidance Studies, University of Derby.

Kuenssberg, L (2012) Government’s Youth Contract failing to fire. 5th September 2012. Available from [Accessed 12th September 2012].

Smith, N. (2012). What has happened to the Government’s Youth Contract. 7th September 2012. Available from [Accessed 12th September 2012].

Tonge, J. (1999). New packaging, old deal? New Labour and employment policy innovation. Critical Social Policy, 19 (2), 217-232.

Raining aspirations and smoothing transitions

I’ve just read with interest a new report from The Work Foundation entitled Raising aspirations and smoothing transitions: The role of Careers Education and Careers Guidance in tackling youth unemployment. The publication argues that young people’s transitions from learning to work are becoming increasingly complex. It then goes on to argue that careers education and guidance can support young people to make transitions more effectively. The report then explores the current policy environment arguing that recent moves which reduce the amount and quality of careers work in schools are likely to have a detrimental effect on the chances of young people.

The report effectively draws together a lot of recent research and policy commentary in this area (including demonstrating the authors’ excellent taste by including a couple of my reports). Where the report offers some new thinking is on considering what can be learnt from the past and how this might shape future provision. While it might take a level of blind optimism to see the current situation for careers work as an “opportunity” rather than a crisis in reality those of us who care about careers work have little alternative. We have to look forwards and try and work out how best to work with the current environment. It is therefore useful to briefly review what Balaham and Crowley argue can be learnt from the past.

Key lessons

  • It is important to value diverse outcomes for young people rather than trying to force them into a one-size fits all model.
  • Career education and career guidance are most effective when they work together. Removing career education can leave guidance as a disconnected one off intervention.
  • Face to face provision is essential especially for those from a disadvantaged background.
  • (Online) resources need to be well designed and highly usable.
  • For the provision of career information to be effective it is essential that young people have the skills to be able to find and interrogate that information.
  • Collaboration and partnership are key to achieving effective delivery of careers work and to achieving successful progression for young people.

The report then goes on to make a series of useful policy recommendations.

Overall this report provides a useful summary of the current situation and frames this in an optimistic and forward looking fashion. Let’s hope that the government are listening.

Government consultation on career guidance in schools – make your voice heard

The government has just launched a Consultation on careers guidance for schools, sixth form colleges and further education institutions.

The consultation runs until Wednesday 1 August 2012 and so it offers a good opportunity to get your voice heard on this issue.

The purpose of this consultation is to gather views on whether the new duty should be extended down to pupils in year 8 and upwards to young people up to the age of 18 studying in schools, sixth form colleges and further education institutions. Subject to this consultation and to the parliamentary process, we are aiming to amend the age range by regulations from September 2013.

I’m in favour of the extension of this duty but I also used the consultation to express concern about the way in which the new duty has been implemented and suggest that the Department consider how it can use Ofsted and the National Careers Service to help schools to engage with their duty.

You may want to make different points, but it would be useful to get a decent response to this.

Connexions and The Ashai Shimbun

Yesterday I was interviewed by the Japanese newspaper The Ashai Shimbun. The journalist had found my name online (probably through the blog) and wanted someone to take him through the background to recent decisions around the Connexions service.

I did my best, and hope that The Ashai Shimbun’s readers will find the article interesting. Telling the story of Connexions to someone who had little background bagage about the service made me realise how bizarre what has happened has been. The idea that the government decided that in a moment of high youth unemployment it would rip out the infrastructure that supports young people’s engagement with learning and the labour market is just impossible to understand.

This is not to say that Connexions was perfect or even to argue that replacing it with something better (like, oh I don’t know, a genuinely all-age National Careers Service) wouldn’t have been a good idea. But removing the service and replacing it with nothing makes no sense at all. It is difficult not to feel that this was an entirely expedient decision which was taken simply to save money.However, the outcome of it has been to leave a gap in the career journeys of young people.

I suspect that this gap will have to be filled again eventually, but in the meantime a generation of young people are being left with a bewildering and rapidly changing set of learning and labour market options. As has been shown in recent weeks the work programme is not really succeeding in filling this gap.

Anyway, we lost that one. It is time to move on to build something new. But, as they say, if you want a functioning youth labour market, you wouldn’t want to be starting from here…

New Start: Paving the Way for Learning

iCeGS has produced a lot of research reports over the year. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t read all of them so I thought that it might be useful to go back and work through all of the publications to see what I could learn.

First up I thought that I’d have a look at

Barham, L., & Morgan, S. (1999). New Start: Paving the Way for Learning: An Interim Evaluation of Personal Adviser Pilot Projects . Suffolk: Department for Education and Employment.


One of the problems that I have in reading some of iCeGS early reports is that they pre-date my involvement in careers work. Because the careers world is so dynamic it is very difficult to access the policy and practice context if you weren’t around at the time. Our publications would prove pretty useful to anyone putting together a history of career guidance.

New Start describes an evaluation of a series of projects that used Personal Advisers to reengage disadvantaged young people in learning. The personal advisers operated in the context of “Learning Gateway” which I’m a bit vague about. The role seemed very similar to the Connexions Personal Adviser role but very much on the social work end of that role. From reading this, the research really seems to be examining early pilots that may have been part of the thinking that led to the creation of Connexions. One of the main forms of practice that is discussed is the development of Individual Development Plans.

The report finds that Personal Advisers were effective in helping young people to make progress, but that it was intensive work and that more thought needed to be given to the training of the Advisers and to how they integrated with the rest of the Careers Service.

As ever, there is much to be learnt from looking back… the problems just come round and round.


Time to lobby the UK government on careers

The UK Careers Sector Strategic Forum has issued a Briefing Note to highlight four key outstanding issues that must be addressed in the Education Bill to ensure young people get the help they need to make informed decisions about subject choices, careers choices, qualification choices, and routes and pathways into further and higher education and into the world of work.

The Forum calls for clarity on:

  • the nature of the careers services young people should receive;
  • how the quality of career guidance provision for young people is to be assured;
  • how breaches in the provision of schools’ new statutory duty will be dealt with;
  • extending the remit and funding of the National Careers Service to cover NEET young people.

I’ve attached a press release and briefing note about the current situation.