From education to employment

Giving Evidence: The Education Select Committee Careers’ Education Enquiry

Alice Barnard is Chief Executive of the Edge Foundation

On 6th September, the Education Select Committee – chaired by Robert Halfon MP – held the first of a number of sessions exploring careers education in schools. Joining three other industry experts, I welcomed the opportunity to share evidence on this pressing issue. The inquiry covered a range of topics from the Gatsby benchmarks to the impact of organisations like The Careers & Enterprise Company, apprenticeships, and the success of legislation mandating college and training provider access to secondary students.

As is often the case with inquiries, there was initially much focus on education budgets versus data-driven outcomes. And these factors are important. Indeed, Edge prides itself on using evidence-based approaches and assigning funding to projects that we believe will have the greatest impact. However, focusing too much on these issues also risks prioritising short-term cost-cutting measures over long-term thinking. My role on the panel was to encourage the committee to take a much broader look at how careers guidance in schools fits into the wider education system.

Assessment of the current landscape

We began by exploring the efficacy of some of the current measures used to promote careers in schools. From the enforceability of the Baker Clause to the accessibility of information about apprenticeships and further education, the panel generally agreed that there is room for improvement. Current interventions are often poorly implemented, badly policed or undermined by perverse financial incentives that prioritise funding over student outcomes. Yet, many of these initiatives also provide a useful framework to build upon. It was important to impress upon the committee that these measures should not be assessed or abandoned based on their faults alone.

The panel, for instance, was asked for our opinion on the Gatsby benchmarks. In my personal view, the two most valuable benchmarks are workplace experience and a career-linked curriculum, both of which connect education directly to the world of work. As I noted to the committee, these benchmarks are therefore those most likely to have a positive impact on student career outcomes. However, they are also the most challenging for schools to achieve. Providing truly integrated careers provision requires additional time, resources, funding and practical skills that schools often lack.

Taking a big picture view and schools-wide approach

Throughout the discussion, I noted a tendency to focus on careers guidance as if it was a standalone issue – a sticking plaster to be replaced. History has taught us to be wary of this mindset. Siloed thinking is rarely intentional but it is exactly what has driven us to the current status quo. Take the current education policy trend of focusing on ‘high value’ subjects that are perceived as more productive. This has seen squeezing in areas like art, drama and D&T. As well as targeting the EBacc or STEM subjects, part of preparing young people for the future must be to support subjects like these. They teach resilience, teamwork, problem-solving, and many other skills valuable to employers. Unfortunately, a single-minded focus on perceived ‘skills-critical’ subjects often overlooks this reality.

This is why I repeatedly pressed the committee on the importance of taking a big picture view, linking careers guidance to the multiple other issues that schools face. Until we adopt a school-wide approach, introduce careers guidance into primary schools, and encourage all teachers to see careers as part of their remit, we won’t see satisfactory results. This means integrating careers into teacher training, giving teachers comprehensive careers information to share with students, and providing access to externships to broaden their industry knowledge. Only equipped with these tools can schools effectively advise their students on the future.

Pilot schemes must drive policy forward

When asked how best to achieve this school-wide vision, my answer was simple: we must put our money where our mouth is. Creating a successful careers provision means bringing experts in to develop pilots, deciding how to evaluate these early on and then testing these approaches on the ground. Once pilot success has been measured, policymakers can adopt what works and abandon what doesn’t. But I was very clear with the committee: evidence-based policymaking is the only way forward.

Fortunately, Edge and our partners are paving the way here. From English teachers introducing students to careers in law to teacher externships and more, we have funded and piloted numerous careers schemes and tested their efficacy. To encourage an integrated approach to careers in schools, banging teachers over the head with the curriculum will no longer suffice.

Instead, we must empower them to help students explore careers in all aspects of the system. This means offering additional teacher support, creating time in the curriculum, getting buy-in from leadership teams, and reforming how Ofsted evaluates. Much of this is possible without huge amounts of spending, but it does require vision. And that’s why, most importantly of all, there needs to be a willingness from the government to take a brave step back and allow schools to do what they do best: teach.

By Alice Barnard, Chief Executive at the Edge Foundation.

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