From education to employment

Careers Guidance in need of a Strategy

Patrick Watson, Managing Director, Montrose Public Affairs Consultants

This month four organisations in the careers guidance space have come together to create a new alliance: The Career Management Quality Alliance (CMQA).

Frustrated by government toing and froing on careers policy, and the turnover of Ministers responsible for careers they are keen to expedite the long-delayed Careers Strategy.

Most accept that for too long careers information and guidance has been too patchy and inconsistent across the piece and the new Careers and Enterprise company, is not delivering the transformative change in the guidance landscape that is urgently required not just for young people but for our economy and skills base.

The Careers and Enterprise Company (CEC) set up with taxpayers’ money, by Nicky Morgan, nearly three years ago, aims to provide greater coherence, across piece, acting as an enabler and facilitator, knocking heads together. Its impact though on improving access for young people to good professional guidance has been less than obvious.

So, what is the Careers and Enterprise Company up to?

Well it’s a good question!

1. Self-funded?

The first point to make about the CEC is that it was supposed to be self-funded. That was the intention when it was established. But this is clearly not the case. The taxpayer is still footing its bills. It now looks and behaves like a new quango. Government has pleaded poverty when it comes to Careers Guidance. No ring-fenced money was available for schools to support guidance, all money on careers had to come from (autonomous)school budgets. In short there was no magic money tree for Careers.

So, within this austere context its somewhat bemusing to witness the gradual expansion of the CEC which has no problem in accessing new funds and with no deadline set for it to be self-sustaining. Austere times, indeed!

2. ‘Gatsby’ benchmarks

Secondly, almost all its work is about promoting enterprise, and creating links and engagement between employers and schools, while championing good work experience too. Good though this may be, it hardly amounts to careers education or guidance.

Ministers have been highly supportive of the so-called eight ‘Gatsby’ benchmarks which are supposed to inform good careers guidance across the piece. However, confusingly, the CEC just champions, randomly as it happens, two or three of these eight, mutually supporting benchmarks.

In effect it is prioritising some, to the exclusion of others. They will claim there is nothing random about their approach, it’s based on evidence. Maybe, but all the other benchmarks are evidence based too.

3. Measure of success

It also seems to misunderstand the difference between inputs and outputs. Its fine at measuring the former, not so good at measuring the latter. Indeed, Ministers championed the success of the CEC within its first year of operation but had no benchmarks against which to measure its success. Counting the number of transactions or interactions conducted by any organisation tells you nothing about the impact it is having or the value its adding.

There is a broader danger here too. And that is that the new Careers Strategy will be all about providing a justification for the existence and continuing role of the CEC, rather than getting back to first principles to mend a broken system that fails far too many young people.

What the CEC is involved with, and experimenting with, may be part of the solution, but it can only be part of it, if it continues to ignore the other benchmarks and does nothing to ensure that there is easier access to independent professional careers advice and guidance in schools and colleges.

While there is some excellent work going on in schools and among providers to provide high quality guidance, far too many young people don’t have access to this.

On this the CEC seems to have adopted a Trappist’s silence.

Three major design flaws

In a new paper Dr Deirdre Hughes and guidance expert detects three major design flaws in the CECs approach:

  1. Firstly, the Careers and Enterprise Company is a ‘market player’ competing with other national and local careers providers and relies primarily (though not exclusively) on enterprise and mentoring volunteers from business, supported by government funds.
  2. Secondly, whilst it has fully adopted a set of universally agreed benchmarks for ‘good careers guidance’ – welcomed by those working in the careers sector – and supported a new tool for schools’ self-assessment against the benchmarks – it has so far failed to make any serious attempt to achieve a stable careers programme in schools (benchmark 1); embrace or acknowledge the need for better use of labour market intelligence /information (LMI) (benchmark 2). This is clearly illustrated in its first published research report ‘Moments of Choice’ (CEC, 2016d). The company remains silent on linking curriculum learning with careers (benchmark 4) and young people’s access to personal guidance (benchmark 8).
  3. And thirdly, it has chosen to prioritise use of scarce public funds to aid further experimentation rather than directly supporting impartial and independent careers guidance for young people to be made available in all schools in England’.

Hughes concludes that all schools and colleges require leadership and practical support if they are to develop effective careers work. And if, as she calls it, the English careers experiment (CEC) continues in its present form, greater fairness, transparency and accountability are required between private and public sector arrangements.

Clearly there are resources and expertise in the system to make it much better and to ensure that those most in need have easy access to high quality professional guidance at critical waystations in their lives.

We can’t just keep calm and carry on, trusting in the CEC to transform the careers landscape.

We need a joined up inclusive approach informed by all the Gatsby benchmarks.

So, what’s stopping this from happening? 

Patrick Watson, Managing Director, Montrose Public Affairs Consultants: Education, Skills, Training and Guidance Specialists.

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