Is careers guidance in England still working?

(Photo: courtesy Creative Commons)

(Photo: courtesy Creative Commons)

It once consisted of little more than a brief chat with the head or health and social care tutor in the final year of secondary school. During this, you would be told whether you should apply for university or, for the less academically able, not to waste your time and find a trade. Perhaps some work experience was even arranged, usually a week sitting in your Dad’s office where his secretary made a fuss and you made tea and did the photocopying.
Thankfully most readers won’t recognize this description, because of how much career guidance has changed for the better over the decades. Now degree-qualified professionals with years of training, careers advisers are government funded to work with both adults and young people.
Recently however, career guidance in England experienced dramatic changes. Like most of the public sector, the economic downturn meant cuts to budgets and therefore, the services available. Unlike other Government cuts to essential services such as policing, nursing or teaching, (career guidance is also a statutory right), this received little or no media attention.
“It’s careers guidance and I think the most important part is the guidance,” says Shaunagh Gwynn a London careers adviser with 26 years experience. “Lots of people have ideas of what they want to do but aren’t sure how to achieve it. When they seek help from non-professionals, say friends and family, the approach is: ‘I think you should do this’. When they come to careers guidance practitioners, it’s guidance – more a discussion: ‘You’re thinking about doing this, how do you think you’ll achieve it?’ It’s a conversation, taking them through how they achieve that goal. As part of career guidance quality standards, practitioners follow certain principles and work to those.”
Ms Gwynn is south London district manager for the National Careers Service (NCS), the publicly funded service for adults and young people (aged 13 and over). This appears to cover everyone but as will become clear this is not the case. Launched in April 2012, the NCS is only one of many major changes the Coalition’s pushed through since coming to power.
This worries David Milton, the Institute of Career Guidance (ICG) President, the UK’s largest professional body for the sector: “I’m particularly concerned about changes in England… in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland you still have a central government dimension to the provision of careers guidance. The significant thing that happened in England is the central duty to provide free guidance was transferred to schools, so the change is more dramatic.”
One senior manager with 18 years careers guidance experience working with youngsters in schools and sixth forms is scathing about the changes. Preferring to remain anonymous, M says: “This Government gave schools the power to employ their own careers advisers. That means they don’t have to come to a local authority (LA) careers service like us, what was the old Connexions careers service, or a private company… as a result you have more competition in the market but much less regulation. I would say [young people’s] careers guidance in the last two years, since the massive public sector cuts, is virtually non-existent throughout England.
“LAs have a duty to provide a [careers guidance] service to the most vulnerable. That’s wide open to interpretation and each LA is interpreting that in different ways. Some just employ special needs advisers to look after youngsters with special educational needs…it doesn’t mean their NEETs (not in employment education training) are being looked after, nor anyone else either.”
Because of the new duty placed on schools to provide career guidance, the Education Select Committee undertook an inquiry into careers guidance for young people in 2012 due out late January 2013. The duty on schools only started in September so the Select Committee deciding to instigate the inquiry before that duty was underway, suggests even Government concerns about what could happen.
Now responsible for adult advisers, for 13 years Ms Gwynn worked with young people. She is also critical of NCS guidance provision for them: “The only thing they can do at the moment is webchat, look it up on the Internet… Adults have the opportunity to have that face-to-face conversation. I know young people are very much into the Internet but there’s nothing like a face-to-face interview.”
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, however. In 2010, Conservative MP John Hayes, when Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, delivered an inspirational speech about developing an all-age careers service at that year’s ICG Conference.
“That was what we hoped for and it seemed to be Government intention,” says Mr Milton. “The NCS is only a partial service so what we’d like to see is an extension of this so it caters not just for adult support but also takes in 18 to 16 year olds and young people in schools. Obviously that means changing policy and funding regimes.”
With the young people’s guidance on offer now different from one LA to the next, M agrees: ” Every Year 11 has the right, regardless where they are, to a fully qualified careers adviser, not just someone…who isn’t properly qualified or part of the ICG. I also think there needs to be a real focus on NEET… there needs to be an all-age career service like they have in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales so the transition is seamless and we can cater for everybody.”
With youth unemployment still at record levels and the recession set to continue for the foreseeable future, it seems better career service provision is now needed more than ever. Although cuts to these services saves money, are the risks of creating a lost generation and the problems this would bring, simply false economy?

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