The government recently announced its new strategy for careers guidance and it seems as though this vital but neglected area of the education landscape may be finally receiving the attention it deserves.

The plans unveiled by Skills Minister, Anne Milton call for a four pronged approach;  every school and college will be expected to have a high-quality careers programme.  There must be worthwhile work experience on offer to all learners.  Provision must be tailored to individual need and good sources of information need to be available about potential jobs and careers.

One of the great things about this vision is that it will be applicable to older learners as well as under eighteens.  The advent of the National Retraining Scheme, providing access to new skills in construction and digital arenas, is a signpost in the direction of a powerful ethos from earlier times, the idea that education is not about age but about need.  The position of FE is pivotal here.  The invaluable Association of Colleges annual Key Facts publication tells an interesting story.  It points out that 424,000 16-18 year olds are currently studying in state schools, as opposed to 712,000 who go to colleges.  Of the 2.2 million learners of all ages in colleges 1.4 million of them are adults.  The average FE college is working with around six hundred different companies providing training for their staff.

At Milton Keynes College our career guidance is already recognised for its quality being externally accredited with a kitemark for its robustness and independence.  Colleges have always viewed careers guidance differently from schools and it’s easy to see why.  Schools are judged on exam results and children going to university.  It’s hardly surprising on that basis that they concentrate on that traditional route and don’t have the resources to connect young people directly with the world of work.  What’s more, schools are far more likely to point pupils towards Higher Education because they haven’t had the time or need to know about alternatives like FE.  Here is where the new careers policy needs to be clever.

Schools need to be able to steer the right students towards university.  That will always be the case.  They need, as the government strategy dictates, to be able to help match them up with potential employers.  We in the college world would like to think we could help with that and we’d be delighted to do so.  However they also need to understand the opportunities and benefits available from taking the Further Education route.  This is where the greatest disconnect exists.  We see many young people who start A Level courses at school but then come to college having realised it is not the route for them.  Often they’re demoralised and disenchanted with education and we have to build them up again.  How many others don’t have the courage to stop what they’ve started and continue on a path to which they’re less suited? 

Careers guidance means helping people choose the path which will best suit them, not the well worn one with which their educators are most familiar.  If schools are to be expected to be able to do this they must also be judged on different criteria which include moves to forms of education and training other than university.  If this isn’t somehow incorporated into the changes they will certainly fail to make the careers guidance system what it needs to be and what our young people deserve.

Dr Julie Mills, Principal & Chief Executive, Milton Keynes College

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