When I was 16 and faced with whether to continue on to do A Levels followed by university or take a more vocational path, there really wasn't a choice. It was assumed that university was the only viable option after A Levels and indeed there wasn't even any discussion about whether those A Levels were right in the first place.
I don't regret my time at university and am grateful for the opportunities it gave me but I also strongly believe that it's not the only route to success. This is especially clear today when getting a university education at any institution costs up to £27,000 – a terrifying figure when the rates of employment among graduates are the lowest they've been for decades.
All of this is why I was pleased to read the guidance published by the Department for Education (DfE) last week that deals with careers advice and inspiration in schools. Careers advice in schools has always been very patchy with a tendency to stray little from the well trodden A Levels to university path that most teachers travel down. If more options are given, then this is thanks to individual teachers rather than any system-wide understanding of all the available pathways. The Government's decision to stop mandatory work experience for 14-16 year olds severed the links between education and employment further, making it even harder for young people to receive credible and up-to-date advice about their employment options.
When we speak to young people they often tell us of their disillusionment with school careers advice and their disappointment about the lack of access to employers, who they value most as sources of information about the world of work. Of the 3,000 young people we spoke to for our Ways into Work research, only 22% of 14-16 year olds received any careers advice from their teachers. This increased to 62% of 16-18 year olds yet worryingly only 12% of those actually found the advice useful.
The DfE's guidance states that 'Schools have a critical role to play in preparing young people for the next stage of their education or training and beyond' and goes on to talk about the need to work closely with employers. This message is crucial as we consistently find that it's contact with employers that inspires young people the most and indeed is the most successful in preparing new recruits for the workplace. We found that although only a quarter of 16-18 year olds had visited an employer, it was by far the most useful source of careers advice. Similarly, that interaction with the world of work gives young people an edge when job seeking as when we surveyed employers about their views of work experience, over three quarters of them told us that young people with work experience are much more employable than those with none.
I was also pleased to see repeated references in the guidance to mentoring. Having a positive adult role model who can give advice about work and support in finding a job is invaluable for young people – particularly where this support doesn't exist at home. Our TechBac© programme for 14-19 year olds, launching this September, has a built in mentoring scheme so that everyone enrolling on the TechBac© will have access to a mentor working in their chosen industry.
However, there is one bit of the guidance I disagree with. No one would argue with the importance of maths and English to help you get on in life. What I do take issue with is the focus on GCSEs as the only measure of success. Whether you have gained literacy and numeracy skills, and how well you can apply these skills in your job, or indeed day-to-day living, is much more important and valued by employers than achieving a grade A-C at GCSE. While GCSEs work for a lot of learners, I would like to see the Government recognising a vocational alternative to maths and English GCSE for those young people who would benefit from a more practical style of learning, similar to the core maths alternative to A Levels.
What we need now is for schools to take this guidance and really make it happen. It's easy to continue business as usual unless there is enforcement but I hope that educators will seize the guidance and start to build those links with employers and employment organisations. When so many of our young people are still struggling to find work, we owe it to them to make sure they are aware of and understand the many different pathways that can bring them career success.
Kirstie Donnelly is UK managing director of City & Guilds Group, the awarding body