Dr Deirdre Hughes OBE, Director, DMH Associates & Associate Fellow, University of Warwick IER

Following the ease of lockdown, many young people and adults are thinking about the opportunities that may or may not lie ahead in the coming year(s). For those displaced from the familiar routine of their everyday work, particularly those affected in hard hit sectors such as travel, hospitality, arts, entertainment or recreation, these are tough times. As furlough arrangements end in October, thousands of individuals will be thinking “Am I still needed and will I have an income to pay the bills?”

Seventeen-year-old women are most likely to have been put on furlough during the current crisis, according to HM Revenue and Customs. 58% of jobs undertaken by young men the same age have been affected. Spare a thought too for the thousands of young people in this year’s school leaver 2020 cohort. The forgotten generation – set adrift from careers education, information and advice in England’s schools during lockdown. The majority have been abandoned by a fragmented careers system in this country.

For those young people highly motivated with social capital (i.e. networks that are well developed, supported by family) searching for opportunities or going online to access virtual fairs or online employer conversations may seem relatively straightforward. But what will happen to those less fortunate - the majority of school and college leavers in the coming months? Parents will do their best - but we all know how difficult this is on top of work, home schooling, changes in qualifications and available career options. In stark contrast, those in vulnerable groups not in education, employment and training (NEETs), working class youth, care leavers and those with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) are getting left behind.

Last year, the Children’s Commissioner published research showing there are thousands of young people leaving school in regions without the most basic of qualifications. For example, in Yorkshire and the Humber, 11,000 young people left the education system at 19 without 5 GCSEs or technical equivalents, of these 30% were young people eligible for Free School Meals.

In June 2020, youth unemployment was rising. A total of 522,200 people aged 16-24 claimed unemployment related benefits. This was an increase of 280,400 claimants, or 116% from March 2020, when the lockdown began. The Careers and Enterprise Company ‘State of the Nation 2019’ report (Chart 3, p.17) from a total of 3,351 schools and colleges in England, less than 7% of schools are delivering career guidance (described by Gatsby as ‘personal guidance’ ) at the standard defined by the Gatsby Benchmarks.

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The Chancellor is to be congratulated in creating ‘a safety net’ through a series of important measures recently announced, including a £32m investment in the National Careers Service for adults 18+ and a doubling of DWP Work Coaches. The Opportunity Guarantee is welcomed but career guidance support services must be strengthened for young people in their local communities. A ‘careers experiment’ began 6 years ago with the fragmentation of national careers support services for adults and young people. It is now time to consider how to make careers guidance better for everyone i.e. more accessible, more inclusive and more effective.

The current careers offer in England for young people and adults

(1) For young people under 18, the arrangement is:

  • a Careers Leader network of teachers in schools and colleges (mostly term-time only) with the Careers and Enterprise Company (CEC) supplementing this with Career Hubs, virtual online visits to workplaces, via the Oak Academy platform, and new Career Choice resource packs;
  • a careers adviser (only if the school has chosen to invest in employing or buying in a trained and qualified careers adviser – approximately fewer than half of secondary schools);
  • a National Careers Service website and telephone helpline (which very few young people are aware of given the past emphasis on work mostly with adults);
  • a flurry of careers support planned around exam results time, led by the Department for Education, alongside activities from other commercial careers providers;
  • a local authority careers support service for those most vulnerable i.e. NEET, SEND, care leavers (greatly reduced due to austerity measures).

In April 2020, National Careers Service Area-Based contracts (predominantly work with adults) was updated to include additional work “to develop and disseminate careers advice and guidance content for parents/pupils to use at home. Pooling knowledge and resources to provide a consistent and comprehensive national offer”.

Until the end of October 2020, the National Careers Service will be “supporting students whose examinations have been cancelled - offering support, encouragement and inspiration to students who will be concerned about their future.” Overall. the Covid-19 funded service ‘priority groups’ have largely remained unchanged - despite an extra £32m secured from Treasury for September 2020 to March 2022 - and the tsunami of anticipated high unemployment levels and demand for careers support services.

The failing Payment By Results (PBR) arrangement is driving down the Area-Based contractors’ ability to recruit, retain and/or train careers staff to level 6 qualified or above. The policy is a false economy.

(2) For adults 18+, if you fit into the narrowly defined priority groups – 18-24 year old NEET; low skilled adults below level 2 qualifications; adults 12 months+ unemployed; single parents, adults with SEND or adults 50+ or at demonstrable risk of unemployment – then you will have access to careers advisers working to help adults assess and develop their skills and plan for the future e.g. interview skills, job application techniques, skills assessments, identifying transferable skills etc.

Lessons learned from outside of England

Compare this to other parts of the UK such as:

By comparison, last week Minister Keegan released a short video focused on ‘My Week in Work’ and ‘My Choices’.

No mention of England’s professionally trained and qualified careers advisers who have been diligently supporting young people throughout the pandemic.

Six years on, government must recognise this is a turning point. The Careers & Enterprise Company is exploring the impact and benefits of 'personal guidance' with DfE, i.e. one-to-one professional guidance interviews.

This is long overdue and is greeted with cautious optimism. The National Careers Service also has specialist expertise in this regard as well.

Moving forward – ideas for government and national bodies

  • Adopt hypothecated funding for schools (earmarking tax to be spent on a specific area of public expenditure) to enable them to procure the independent professional careers guidance for learners they are legally obliged to provide access to.
  • Raise the profile and visibility of the National Careers Service, in a similar way to the government-backed Pensions Service through a national TV, radio and social media campaign with links to schools and colleges.
  • Address the inequities of a top-down PBR system heavily weighted on moving people into jobs (80% of current funding), but which does not take account of the widely different labour markets in different parts of the country. This unfair model which does not apply to DWP Work Coaches.
  • Deliver a career guidance guarantee for young people and adults
  • Invest funds in building essential capacity in the career development sector through training and professional development moving those with level 4 qualifications to level 6 professional standards (the latter mostly commonly found in other parts of the UK and Europe).

Finally, an important step is for the Careers and Enterprise Company to invite the UK career development professional body (CDI) and Careers England - both with significant national and international careers expertise - to be on its Board, alongside the National Careers Service and DWP.

There needs to be a more joined up approach. A coming together could be a greater force for good in the coming year(s) making careers support better for everyone.

Dr Deirdre Hughes OBE, Director, DMH Associates & Associate Fellow, University of Warwick IER

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