Carl Ward, Chair of the Foundation for Education Development, CEO of City Learning Trust

It has been nearly five years since the Government established the Careers & Enterprise Company (@CareerEnt). During that time, a lot has changed in the way we as a country prepare young people for the world of work.

You could almost divide that five years into two equally important chapters – the first four and a half years, and the last six months. So significant has the impact of the pandemic been that it sometimes feels like the last few months have changed everything.

But it’s important first to consider what has been achieved in the last few years. Not least because that work has built the foundation and partnerships through which we will meet the challenges of the time to come.

Take stock

Now is a good time to take stock of the past and think about future. School, colleges, and employers have made considerable progress from what was often a low base.

In 2017, the Government’s Careers Strategy called on every school in the country to work towards an ambitious new set of standards for careers education – the Gatsby Benchmarks – based on best practice from education systems from around the world.

Less than two years on, 4,600 schools and colleges (85%) are now using the Benchmarks to plan, evaluate and improve their careers support for young people. Schools in every area of the country are improving against every single one of the Benchmarks. And it’s some of the most disadvantaged parts of the country that are making the most progress.

This year, the CEC published figures showing that three million school and college pupils every year are benefitting from regular engagements with employers, helping them learn first-hand about the world of work. That’s an increase of half a million young people in just two years.

Thousands of business professionals are doing their bit and supporting young people, colleges and schools. And nearly ‘200 Cornerstone Employers’ have signed-up to provide strategic leadership and drive forward improvements in careers support for young people across the country.

Pause for thought

However, the impact of covid-19 must provide pause for thought. We’ll undoubtedly need to make changes to our priorities and our approach in light of the new normal.

A Teacher Tapp poll for The Careers & Enterprise Company in June revealed that 49 per cent of teachers fear a lack of jobs for young people and damage to their career prospects as result of covid pandemic. Nearly all - 98% - say their students have been anxious and uncertain about their future choices since lockdown.

The survey also revealed that teachers now recognise workplace skills have a higher value than academic qualifications in preparing school and college leavers for the post-Covid world of work. 74 per cent of teachers say employability skills are now the most important way to improve students career prospects, compared to 62 per cent who say it is good academic grades.

It is important to differentiate our short-term response from long-term vision. Our long-term goals and objectives must remain the same – a coherent and comprehensive strategic approach to careers education which empowers and enables young people as they prepare to enter adult life.

If we reflect on past economic shocks and downturns, there is a familiar pattern. Business pain, loss of confidence among employers and consumers, and rising youth unemployment coupled with lack of opportunities to gain a foothold on the employment ladder.

But the difference this time is that, when it comes to careers education and schools and colleges, we have the architecture in place to deliver the right response - to break down barriers and see and seek the best in each other.

A powerful partnership

For the first time in this country we have a powerful partnership between education and employers that is making a real difference in the lives of young people. Both schools and business leaders say the system brought in by the Careers Strategy is working and has the power to transform young people’s lives

It is a partnership that is a critical point of difference from what existed following previous economic shocks. It means we are better positioned to weather the storm and help our young people navigate the choppy waters ahead.

That closer relationship means that the education system and young people have a real time connection to changes in the jobs market. It empowers and enables young people to channel their aspiration towards those areas that are emerging strongest and growing the fastest.

What this means is we have the opportunity to reduce the impact of blunted aspiration; to mitigate the disillusionment and disappointment that inevitably comes from unfulfilled and unrealistic ambition. We can more closely match real people to real jobs in real time. We have a system that can act as a bridge over troubled water for our young people at a time when they will need it most.

This closer relationship is also important for employers, enabling those that are growing to access talent in a timely way, ensuring a more certain pathway for the right people in the right jobs at the right time.

No one underestimates the scale of the challenge that we face over the time to come. But over the last five years, schools, colleges and employers have built a model that has proven its value, and which offers us a blueprint for progress – a pathway towards a successful future for our young people in the most uncertain of times for them.

Carl Ward, Chair of the Foundation for Education Development, CEO of City Learning Trust

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