Deirdre Hughes OBE

In the aftermath of Covid-19, today's young people face an uncertain future. Climate change, migrating populations, conflict, pervasive inequalities and unemployment, threaten the wellbeing and long-term prosperity of millions of children around the world. Clark et al (2020, p.605) argue that “even in rich countries, many children go hungry or live in conditions of absolute poverty, especially those belonging to marginalised social groups - including indigenous populations and ethnic minorities.” In the UK, relative child poverty increased by 400,000 from the previous year (HoC, 2021a, p.11). There are growing concerns about this and the impact of the pandemic on the well-being of young people and families, despite many being disadvantaged before Covid-19.

Attendance and attainment matters

The DfE (2021, p.8) highlights” there is clear and unequivocal evidence that missed attendance in education is detrimental to children’s cognitive and academic development and their long-term productivity. The most robust studies suggest that time out of attending education leads to lost learning which can meaningfully affect the attainment and life chances of children if not addressed.” Meta-analysis of learning loss shows that every further day missed matters and will likely lead to further reduced attainment. Some young people are experiencing additional disadvantages for example, parents might have lost their job or there might be additional trauma within the home.

Next steps and choices

From this week onwards exam results will begin to unfold. Every day new evidence accumulates that young people face tough situations and choices when it comes to choosing a suitable course and/or career pathway. Professor Alan Smithers, a director at the Centre of Education and Employment Research (CEER) at the University of Buckingham, says: "The early signs are that it will be another bumper year for grades, justified as compensation for all the disruption suffered.” Universities are expanding entrance exams after Vice-Chancellors claimed A level grades achieved during the Covid pandemic are no longer objective. Over half of 17- to 19-year-olds who are receiving their exam results are not intending to start a traditional degree course in the autumn, have considered an apprenticeship, according to UCAS. Image you are a student and/or parent trying to make sense of options and opportunities in England’s green pastures. Where might you turn to for impartial and independent careers advice? Based on policies currently in place ‘Gatsby benchmark’ efforts in many schools and colleges will provide Careers Leaders and trained careers professionals to be ‘on hand’ to guide and support this years’ school leavers (until the next intake of students in September dominates their portfolio of new work commitments). Some Local Authorities/Combined Authorities will adopt valiant efforts to support young people despite austerity cuts. Let’s not forget the National Careers Service will be there to offer additional support – one of the best kept secrets, compared to high profile national careers service campaigns in the Celtic nations. In Northern Ireland, policy makers have guaranteed every school leaver a careers interview with a trained careers professional as a ‘safety net’ of support for young people in local communities.

Seeds of hope versus despair

There has to be seeds of hope for young people and their families. For those with social capital parents and friends will rally round to find work experience, work shadowing and/or job /training opportunities. But spare a thought for those young people in despair who have no obvious places or spaces that offer them trustworthy careers support. It is time to critically evaluate the careers support safety net in England. Through dramatic interventions to support jobs and businesses, this government has shown it has the power of the state to reshape education and the economy. For any government it would be reckless to ignore young people’s careers support needs. Policy Connect has recently produced a set of recommendations that includes: “The creation of an employer-led careers strategy advisory board, to provide long-term leadership and strategic direction on national careers strategy and government policies regarding careers, skills, education, training and employment. This should have a right of access to the Secretaries of State for Education and of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, in recognition of the potential contribution to business and the economy.” (p.9). If this one simple step was taken by government it would transform the current inequitable careers support system for young people.

There are different ways of costing this benefit. One prevented NEET at age 16-17 has been related to major lifetime benefits, accounting for £76k value to the Exchequer and £141k for society[1]. In the modern era, there has never been a more urgent time for this country’s young people to have access to highly visible careers support for all, not just the privileged few. A brief mention to those poorest in local towns and cities to visit Job Centre Plus is simply not good enough.

Dr Deirdre Hughes OBE, Former Chair of the National Careers Council, England and Director, DMH Associates

[1]Coles et al, 2010, in analysis for the Audit Commission; using the Bank of England inflation calculator to adjust for 2019.

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