10 criteria for success for the new careers company

Following the recent announcement by the Government about a new careers company I wrote a blog entitled A brand new careers company for England – hurrah!(?) Since then I’ve received a fair amount of correspondence and comments on the blog that have led me to believe that my hilarious use of irony was missed by some.

I want to make it clear that I am very glad that the Government has recognised that its policy on careers has been deeply flawed and has sought to address this. However, I don’t believe that the 20 million earmarked for this is sufficient. Nor do I believe that the decision to establish a new careers company makes any kind of sense at all. I can think of at least three better routes for channelling the money which would have been more effective (in order through the National Careers Service, the LEPs and through schools themselves). Nonetheless we are where we are and the spending of the 20 million is about to become an operational decision. Given this I think that it is important that we start to give some time to thinking about what this new careers company could actually achieve and how it should go about it.

As ever, we have to operate within the framework of a sub-optimal policy. But, as ever there is value in being pragmatic and trying to work out what we could reasonably achieve with this 20 million. To this end I’ve identified a series of 10 success criteria that those who are involved in running the new company might want to consider as it begins to take shape.

  1. Staying strategic. In England we lack a strategic body that is capable of speaking out for careers. While other home nations have strategic and unified bodies which are capable of participating in policy and connecting a wide range of stakeholders there is nothing equivalent in England. The new body could use its legitimacy to exercise considerable convening power, to speak out for the importance of careers and to work from the inside to influence the policy of the current and new governments.
  2. Understand the current state of practice. Another important aspect of a strategic approach is to understand the actual state of practice. There have been lots of reports that have helped with this (including the recent IER reportOfsted and various reports that we’ve done e.g. Advancing Ambitions and A Career Postcode Lottery) but, we don’t really know enough about which schools are delivering careers badly and why they aren’t prioritising it. It is important that the new company grapples with this early and comes up with strategies that are designed to address this.
  3. Minimising the amount of money that is lost to infrastructure costs. Although 20 million sounds like a lot, as Russell recently pointed out it won’t go very far to meeting the identified need. Add to this that 5 million of it has already been earmarked for an innovation fund (or is this additional to the 20 million?), we’ve only got 15 million to play with. If the new company spends too much time appointing branding strategists, opening local offices and so forth we could easily see that money flow down the plug ‘ole. My suggestion would be for the new company to work with the existing brands like the National Careers Service, the LEPs and the various third sector providers to deliver services rather than competing with them.
  4. Avoiding reinventing the wheel. Careers is not new. There are already lots of players in the field and a lot of services available. Before the leaders of the new company commission a new careers website (I know, I know, it will be Trip Advisor for careers, just like all the others!), generate new labour market information, or set up a new employers into schools programme, they should look carefully at what is there already. They should also look carefully as what has been there in the past and which seemed to work well. An important part of this is to listen to the profession and the existing providers. There is a lot of knowledge in the profession about how to do things well. Too often government seems to construct professionals as a vested interest who should be frozen out. Of course there are vested interests there, but the new company should get into the habit of listening first rather than ignoring the pre-existing knowledge.
  5. Building the capacity of schools. Careers initiatives seem to come and go at the moment. What endures regardless of the political climate is schools. So I think that those running the new company should seriously address the question “how can we get schools to engage with career more”. I think that the career education quality awards are an important part of this (as we argued in our recent research for the Sutton Trust). Another important part is about finding a way to engage teachers in careers work and to create an identifiable and respected “careers leader” within every school.
  6. Improving the evidence base. When the cuts came there was a lot of argument about the evidence base on which career education and guidance is based. Of course, Michael Gove repeatedly misused the available evidence . Nonetheless I would concede that there is work to do on clarifying the impacts that it is reasonable to expect from career education and guidance and how such impacts are best brought about. If a strong expectation for evaluation is placed alongside the initiatives that the company develops or funds it could contribute to our overall understanding of what works.
  7. Building an effective working relationship with the National Career Service. The new company has a remit that overlaps considerably with the National Careers Service. Managing this overlap presents a challenge for both organisations. In the long run it is important that the new company works synergistically with the National Careers Service , using the latter organisations local infrastructure to deliver on its aspirations for change.
  8. Keeping a lifelong perspective. It is important that the new company maintains a lifelong perspective on career development. Our recent review on the evidence base highlighted the importance of this lifelong perspective. The decision to divorce the new company from the National Careers Service runs the risk of entrenching the idea that careers is just something that you do at school rather than encouraging young people to commit to lifelong learning and lifelong career development.
  9. Making the argument for sustainability. At the moment this 20 million is essentially a one off pre-election bribe. If it is going to become more than that the new company will have to make the argument for some kind of sustainability. Given that I’ve said that 20 million isn’t enough, I think that this ultimately means that the company needs to be ready to go into the next spending round with clear arguments about what it has achieved and what more it could achieve with an extra 50 or 100 million. Of course thought should also be given as to how the private sector could be engaged in this, but ultimately state funding is likely to continue to be the main game in town. If this dries up the company will almost certainly wink out of existence.
  10. Remember that activity doesn’t equal impact. Nuff said?

The Government response to Ofsted

Following on from my last post about the Ofsted review I will try and summarise the Government’s response with the minimum of cynicism.

  • The Government will revise the statutory guidance to take account of some (but not all) of the criticisms.
  • The Government will shift the remit of the National Careers Service in two clear ways. (1) give it a stronger brokerage role with employers (2) give it a role with schools. While it is not explicitly stated in the response the suggestions is that this will have to be done by stretching existing resources. The response says

More needs to be done to maximise its effectiveness in helping young people and all those engaged in helping them decide on their career options. In recognition of this we have maintained the National Careers Service budget in the spending review for 2015, against a reduction in the overall BIS budget. Over the next few months we are re-contracting the whole service for October 2014. Through this we will reshape and reprioritise what is available for young people, schools and employers.

I read this as essentially saying the funding for the adult service should have been cut, so we’ll use that to pay for what we want it to do in schools. Personally I doubt that the NCS budget can be stretched much further without a review and reduction of what it provides for adults.

  • The NCS should keep on developping its website. Which it was doing anyway.
  • Ofsted should look at careers more closely in inspections.

There are lots of other responses to recommendations, but mostly they don’t say much. In short this looks like a small step forward for schools career support possibly bought at the cost of the existing adult service. However, it may be that the Government will announce some new funding for this activity tomorrow.

Hope springs eternal!



A difference that counts: the National Careers Service one year on

The National Careers Service has just published a summary of its activity called A difference that counts. It is short and punchy and worth a read.

There are not very many surprises in it for those who are familiar with the National Careers Service. However some issues of tone and emphasis that might be worth a mention are:

  • the paper flags the importance of pilot collaborations with Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs);
  • the targetting of the service towards various key groups is strongly emphasised – although their is also an articulation of the universal reach of the service;
  • there is a greater focus on young people than might be expected given the focus of service delivery so far. It is possible that this is part of a move of the NCS into the youth arena. The big question related to this is obviously whether there will be more funding to support this;
  • there is less discussion of the phone service that might be expected given the importance of this channel of delivery; and
  • there is a lot of discussion of the web channel and particular enthusiasm for social media as a delivery mechanism.

I’d be interested to hear if other people take the same messages out of the document that I do?

Heather Jackson and Tony Watts resign from the National Careers Council

I have just heard that Heather Jackson and Tony Watts have resigned from the National Careers Council.

Read their resignation statement

In short, they suggest that the report that is going to be produced by the National Careers Council contains recommendations that are detrimental to the careers sector. I haven’t seen the report and so it is difficult to comment. However, I do trust the judgement of both Heather and Tony.

I hope that those involved with the National Careers Council are able to produce a report which will support the development of the National Careers Service and ensure that Government is made aware that adequate funding needs to be available for career services for both adults and young people.

My speech to the Spectator’s Skilling Britain Conference

I’m going to speak at The Spectator’s Skilling Britain Conference today. This is what I plan to say.


If you ask policy makers what has gone wrong with skills policy in the past they will undoubtedly give you a variety of different and complex answers. They might say that the approach to skills development was too classroom based or that it wasn’t classroom based enough. They might say we need more qualifications or less qualifications that are harder, or easier.

In all of this they are wrong. The problem with the skills system has always been PEOPLE. People who make bad decisions, people who don’t spot opportunities, people who can’t keep up with the relentless twist and turns of government skills policy and who can’t remember what an NVQ or a level 6 qualification is. People like a 14 year old boy dropping out of chemistry because he doesn’t like the teacher or a 55 year old woman who doesn’t have the confidence retrain after being made redundant.


We’ll never build an effective skills policy until we do something about people and the decisions that they make.

What skills do these people need to be learning? Well clearly they need to be learning the skills that are required to do a job. But we know that work is always changing so they also need to be learning how to learn the skills that they need to do a job. In fact it is more complex that that because both work and learning are always changing and so they also need the skills to learn how to find out what work is needed and the skills to find out how they can access learning. They also need a the skills to make complex calculations about whether a particular course is worth the price it commands.

We can call this last bundle of skills career management skills and I think that they are central to the operation of an effective skills system. They are also essential to people to enable them to live happy, productive, fulfilled lives in which they make the most of their potential.

It is useful to recognise two different groups of people who we might support in different ways to build their careers.

First we have young people who have yet to enter the labour market. Whether they are in school, college or university it is essential that they get an opportunity to find out about the world of work, to experience it and to think about where they might enter it. It is also important that they think about how they manage their careers and respond to the changes that they will inevitably experience.

The current government has not done right by this group. It has closed down Connexions. It has saddled schools with a responsibility for career guidance that they did not ask for, are not ready for and arguably cannot perform with impartiality. They have also removed the statutory requirements for career education and work-related learning or work experience. This sends out the message that school is not connected to work and that work is not worth thinking about or preparing for.

It is important that we do better than this in the future.

The second group is those of us who have already left school, college and university. We might we working or unemployed, recently redundant or returning from a period of caring responsibilities. Our career building is ongoing and our need for career support is lifelong.

For this group the current government has done much better. It has created a National Careers Service, which has much potential. They need to invest in it, extend its reach and crucially TELL PEOPLE ABOUT IT, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.

So where do we go from here.

We need to ensure that the skills system attends to the choices and career building of individuals. The provision of a National Careers Service is therefore a crucial element of what is required. I would like to suggest three brief policy ideas that the current government could adopt to make it fit for purpose.

1)      Resource and support the NCS to work with schools and colleges and to provide them with the support and capacity needed to ensure that every person in education and training gets the career management skills that they need for their lifetime.

2)      Resource and support the NCS to work with all adults and not just those who are out of work. Central to this is building partnerships with employers, trade unions and community organisations to ensure that everyone has access to career support.

3)      Run a campaign encouraging people to think about and invest in their career development. Remind them that they have a lifetime to build a career and that it is never too late to improve their skills or realise their potential. A key part of this would be encouraging them to make use of the fantastic resource that the NCS offers.

If we are able to do these relatively modest things we will be on the way to creating a skills system that works. It will work better because we have actively built in the careers education, advice and lifelong guidance that is required for people to effectively navigate this skills system and to realise their potential.

why i’m concerned about the direction of the national careers service

Back in the early days of the new government I went to Belfast to the Institute of Career Guidance conference. The highlight was hearing the new minister John Hayes outline his vision for a new National Careers Service that brought together the best of Connexions and Next Step.

We all know how that ended up. Tony Watts has forensically analysed the policies of the current government if you want the whole story, and he and I have also written about the end of Connexions.

Careers work with young people in England has gone through a massive crisis. We don’t know where that is going to end, but at the moment the new reality of school based careers work is still bedding in. I see little reason for optimism, but we don’t really have much choice but to see how it goes.

In the campaigns and the lobbying around youth careers services the actual National Careers Service has received surprisingly little attention. I think that we were all just pleased that it was there and that funding for adults’ career support had been maintained. Of course I’ve grumbled that it isn’t radical enough, that the website isn’t as exciting as I hoped and so on, but it is basically my job to point out the flaws. When we compared the National Careers Service to the mess that was emerging with youth careers services there seemed reason to be complacent.

However, I’m starting to think that I may have taken my eye off the ball on this one. I also fear that is hasn’t just been me. The National Careers Service has been moving through a number of quiet but possibly significant changes over the last few months and I think that it is important that we start to attend to them.

Firstly the service has been co-located with Jobcentre Plus in many places. Secondly it has become a major destination for unemployed Jobcentre clients to be compulsorily referred to (as in YOU MUST GET CAREERS ADVICE OR WE’LL STOP YOUR DOLE!!!!). Thirdly it has had a pretty low profile and minimal advertising budget amongst the general population.

Taken together all of these factors have meant that we’ve ended up with a service that is overwhelmingly used by unemployed people as part of their interaction with the Jobcentre. I think that forcing people into a careers interview is a pretty pointless strategy and likely to end up with the National Careers Service being seen as something that people want to avoid rather than embrace. However, perhaps most worrying the positioning of careers work as something that is only useful to the unemployed is a disaster.

There is a strong rationale for universal career support. Of course this should cover people transitioning to the labour market and those who are outside of the labour market, but it also needs to support those who are inside learning and inside the labour market. Helping everyone to make wise choices about where best to apply their skills and how best to realise their potential is an argument that works for both individuals and society/ the economy. This was the sort of vision that John Hayes promised and it seems to be one that is now slipping away.

My question is essentially is this change a question of short term strategy (“we’ve got to do something about unemployment, let’s use the NCS”) or is it one of policy (“working people don’t deserve any help”) or alternatively is it just a case of the headless policy chicken running around without much thought to the consequences.

I’m not sure.

I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts about this – especially those who are working in the NCS.